2019, Volume 4, Issue 2 - Fall 2019

This fall will be more about Canadian unity than electing government

By Derek Lothian

I’m a huge fan of political fiction. When the first season of House of Cards debuted on Netflix, I remember binging all 13 episodes back-to-back over the course of a single night. All the President’s Men, meanwhile, remains — in my not-so-humble opinion — one of the top five movies ever made. And Selina Meyer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character in Veep, is probably the best original television persona of the past decade. Don’t @ me.

You can therefore appreciate my giddiness when I stumbled across an article a few weeks back from Philippe Fournier entitled, Imagining a federal election without Alberta or Quebec. Some folks drive in from the lake on the August long weekend to restock on beer; I do so to pick up the latest issues of Maclean’s and The Economist. It’s a mystery why I don’t get invited to more parties.

I do, though, have friends — honest — several of whom live in the Ottawa bubble, where I spent six years of my professional life. One of the questions I field from them often is whether the feeling of ‘western alienation’ is real, or whether it is a work of fiction contrived by the Jason Kenneys and Scott Moes of the world with an axe to grind against this particular Prime Minister. My response, illustrated quite eloquently in the Fournier piece, is always the same: It is real and it is palpable. Dismissing it as passing fodder or personality differences amongst leaders is not only disingenuous, it’s dangerous.

Fournier cites a recent poll from Abacus Data, which found that 71 per cent of residents in Alberta and Saskatchewan believe being part of Canada has been good for their respective provinces. Sure, that’s a sizeable majority, yet it is also five per cent less than Quebec (76 per cent) — which, I remind you, came within a single percentage point of leaving Canada altogether in the 1995 referendum. In fact, the same poll suggested that a quarter of Albertans would actually vote to secede today — roughly the same as their Quebecois counterparts. Next door in Saskatchewan, an unrelated Environics survey conducted in May echoed that sentiment, with 53 per cent of respondents agreeing with the statement, ‘Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.’

Don’t kid yourself: We are close — if we’re not there already — to becoming embroiled in a crisis surrounding Canadian unity.

It would be easy to point to the political winds or policies of the day as the culprit (carbon tax, anyone?). Overlooking some of the more deep-rooted structures, however, would fall somewhere between ignorance and naivety.

Take interprovincial trade as an example. The vision of ‘one Canada, one market’ was the very promise of confederation that our country was built upon. Despite replacing the antiquated Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) with the Canadian Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) two years ago, a litany of barriers remain in the form of province-by-province exemptions, opt-out measures, and unharmonized regulations, costing our economy up to $130 billion each year. If we still can’t trade freely with each other as provinces 150-plus years later, how we can expect better treatment from other countries?

And then there’s the great equalization debate.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t fully understand how the equalization formula works. I’m not sure many do. It’s clunky, complex, and — if I didn’t know any better — purposefully confusing. The broad strokes, though, are this: The federal government transfers nearly $19 billion annually to provinces it deems less prosperous (‘have not provinces’) to ensure the delivery of a similar standard of public programs and services offered in ‘have provinces.’ Quebec alone receives more than three-fifths of the total sum. On the flip side, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Newfoundland — all of which have had to come to terms with a slower resource development sector and, as a result, stymied tax revenues— have fielded a grand total of zilch over the past five years.

I don’t think anyone should be shocked that, when the average Joe in Western Canada sees those stats and then looks east to Quebec gleefully trumpeting a $2.5 billion surplus, all the while funnelling billions more into programs like universal subsidized childcare starting at roughly $8 per day (did I miss the memo where that was also available in Saskatchewan?), frustration is a natural reaction.

Of course, western provinces leave themselves amply open to rebuttal criticism. Alberta, for instance, continues to shrug off a provincial sales tax. It’s hard to garner sympathy on an empty piggy bank when the government refuses to collect revenue in the same manner as every other province. But that’s a column for another day.

If Fournier’s exercise in political what-ifism demonstrated anything of substantive value, it’s that the pressures of the upcoming federal election are unlikely to mend any wounds. The Conservatives need the west and the Liberals need Quebec to form the next government. And, although there is a far better chance of Liberal support eroding in French Canada than Conservative votes slipping in Alberta or Saskatchewan, either party campaigning on measures to dramatically alter the status quo is likely setting themselves up for electoral catastrophe.

So, where do we go from here? Are we simply too different, too polarized to reach meaningful consensus anymore? Is it time to be more like Fournier and start hypothesizing what it would mean to throw in the towel on confederation?

Or, maybe we use this election to reset. Perhaps we demand our candidates exchange tribalism and political theatre for bold ideas and honest compromise.

Canada is at a crossroads. We are competing ferociously with the rest of the world; and the only way we will succeed is if we truly find common ground and work fast, shoulder-to-shoulder, on the defining issues of our time — economic, social, and environmental. We need to start with the foundational systems that have given root to imbalance. And we need to put aside the illusion there is more that divides us than unites us.

That’s the thing about fiction: If you’re not careful, it has a way of creeping into reality. As was true in 1867, we are stronger together. This fall, as you prepare to head to the ballot box, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Derek Lothian is the former, founding editor of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine. He currently serves as a business association CEO and on several public and not-for-profit boards. He is also an advisor to private manufacturing enterprises across Canada.