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Quebec Nationalism, Western Alienation, and National Reconciliation

Paper by David Kilgour, M.P., Edmonton Southeast
Occasional Paper Series
Centre for the Study of Canada
State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York
(Occasional Paper Number 7, March 1996)

Almost three in ten Canadians told a pollster in mid-December, 1995 that they think their country will not exist as it is in the year 2000; fully 54 percent of Quebecers indicated to another survey done at about the same time that they’ll vote in favour of sovereignty in a new referendum. It thus seems timely to consider whether the often differing perspectives of Westerners and Quebecers can offer useful directions for all of us who want to maintain Canada as a single great nation.

Western Canadians hold strongly that our region is vital to the overall nature of Canada. More than any other part of the country, we believe ours has fostered the democratization of our national and provincial institutions and a pluralistic society. If there is a growing intensity of regional identification among Prairie and B.C. Canadians, it is in large measure because many believe our parts of Canada have received too little respect over the decades from successive national governments.

Geography always played a major role in the ongoing problems of the region with distant Ottawa. The quip that if other nations have too much history our own has too much geography was probably always most applicable to the West. About eight million Western and Northern Canadians live in an area of 2.6 million square miles; this sparse population and huge spaces have shaped the collective psyche of our region, including our sense of human fallibility.

Approximately 2-1/2 millions newcomers from many corners of the world reached Western Canada near the beginning of this century, who were attracted by the promise of a better life in the "Last Best West". As years passed, and after often bitter experiences of adaptation, prejudice and discrimination, a genuinely international community developed - a unique model of ethno-cultural cooperation. By the time of the 1986 national census, the demographic mixes of the four Western provinces were significantly different from that of Canada as a whole. In all three prairie provinces, more than six in ten residents claimed a single country of origin other than Britain or France.

Western Discontent

Major themes of Canadian political history for over a century have been French Canadian/Quebec survival; the dominance of Ontario; and the subordination of the West. Westerners’ experience centred around protest and repeated indications that Canada’s system of government was tilted, like Italy’s tower in Pisa, in favour of the two central provinces. The alternative vision of Western Canadians collided with official Ottawa on numerous economic, political and cultural issues. High tariffs from 1878 until recently in some items, discriminatory freight rates that encouraged manufacturing in Central Canada and commodity extraction in the West, an almost imperial treatment by Ottawa of provincial natural resources and crown land in the three prairie provinces from pioneer days until 1930 and beyond - are only a few of many disputes that became features of the regional political culture.

The conviction persisted through the years that federal policies and Ottawa bureaucrats have transferred opportunities, jobs, and people from their natural location in the West to Central Canada. A strong consensus remains that the national decision-making system, regardless of the political party in power, often subordinates Western/Northern Canadians. To illustrate the point, a Yukon politician described a typical mining development there, "The ore goes to Tokyo, the profits to Toronto, the taxes to Ottawa, the jobs to Vancouver and we’re left with a hole in the ground which, if the federal government gave permission, we could use as a garbage dump." This sense of continuing political inequality is central to any definition of Western discontent.

As the University of Calgary political scientist, Roger Gibbins, points out, Pierre Trudeau in one of his last speeches as prime minister during 1984 unintentionally touched the essence of Western disaffection: "No Canada can exist without the support of this province... Quebec is strong. Quebec can decide who will govern this country, but more importantly how this country will be governed." Much of the frustration among Western Canadians derives from the reality that no-one could credibly say the same about our region, even though it now holds approximately a million more people than Quebec. A former Quebec resident herself told me several years ago: "I used to think we lacked national political clout in Quebec until I moved to Winnipeg." One consequence has been the forging of four very different provinces into a more cohesive regional whole than previously, although, to be sure, there remain major attitudinal differences on some public issues between the more populous/richer provinces of B.C./Alberta and Saskatchewan/Manitoba.

Ongoing Friction Points

What dismays Westerners is the polite indifference met from national governments over the generations. We hold that Ottawa and prime ministers should represent all Canadians equally without fear or favour, playing no regional favourites. When, for example, Brian Mulroney’s government in 1986 gave the CF-18 maintenance contract to Canadair of Montreal despite the lower and technically-superior bid from a competing Winnipeg firm, it convinced many across the West that we were again facing a systemic problem. One reason why the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was supported by many Westerners in the election of 1988 was the hope that its enactment would reduce Ottawa’s ability to discriminate against our region economically.

Instances of a double standard are legion. A crown corporation at the time, Air Canada moved from Winnipeg to Montreal first its head office and later its maintenance base. Among the 80 or so largest federal Crown agencies as of a few years ago, only four had their head office in Alberta and B.C.: Petro-Canada, the Western Diversification Department, the National Energy Board and the Vancouver Port Corporation. Manitoba and Saskatchewan fared even worse. In terms of federal procurement and research spending, both by departments and crown agencies, the four Western provinces still come off poorly relative to population and capability.

Data on federal spending/taxation by province released by the respected Alberta economist, Robert Mansell, in August of 1990 vexed many in the two most westerly provinces. Between 1961 - 1988, Albertans contributed $145 billion (expressed in 1990 dollars) more to Ottawa’s revenues than they received in federal spending and transfers. British Columbians were the only other net "contributors" to Confederation during the same period. Ontarians, who might have been expected to have contributed generously to "have-less" provinces during these mostly boom years for Ontario, received $24 billion more in Ottawa spending than they paid in taxes.

(Click on chart to see larger version)

Tracking Alienation

One of the first formal samplings of the Western mood indicated during 1969 that 55-60 percent of Albertans felt the Trudeau government was neglecting the West. By late 1981, an Environics poll found that about eight in ten Westerners agreed that "the West usually gets ignored in national politics because the political parties depend upon Quebec and Ontario for most of their votes." Even a few months after the 1988 election (in which the Conservatives won another majority government), Environics noted that the percentage of Westerners who agreed with its statement about the West usually being ignored had risen to 85 percent. Profound discontent with the region’s representation in most national institutions continues in many minds across the West today.

During 1992, for example, fully half the Western respondents to a survey said their four provinces "have sufficient resources and industry to survive without the rest of Canada". Even more ominously, four in ten of the sample concluded the West "gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own" - the highest level since the question was first asked during 1979.

The character and intensity of this disaffection has changed over the years. Gordon Gibson of Vancouver wrote in his 1994 book, Plan B: The Future of the Rest of Canada: "The character today is one of distrust of the system. We went from ‘The West wants in’, through the Triple-E (elected, equal, effective) Senate experience, which could be sloganized as ‘The West demands change’, to the feeling of today (at least in B.C. and Alberta), which is, ‘We don’t and won’t trust you’."

Westerners have to date shown little impetus towards regional independence. Only one separatist MLA was ever elected in the West - in Alberta in the early 1980s - and he was defeated in the next general election. In ten opinion surveys by the Canada West Foundation between 1979 and 1980, support for separatism averaged only 6.6 percent across the region. A fairly recent comment by the influential Vancouver radio talk show host, Rafe Mair, suggests things might be changing. As quoted by Gordon Gibson, Mair told one federal cabinet minister, "B.C. has a confidence it has never had before. We feel we’ve been badly used by the federation. And if Quebec goes, we do too.". "This is just one man’s opinion," comments Gibson, "but it is being said more and more. And if this is to be the B.C. attitude, the implications are huge, for B.C. can afford to have that attitude."

The Parliament elected in Oct ’93 was expected by many to become a regional cockpit where two major political forces, Quebec nationalism and Western alienation, would each clamour daily for public attention. Many across the country have since asked whether we can successfully reinvent our fragile relationships with each other in a rapidly refederating world and all remain Canadians. The evidence thus far is unclear.

What Does the New West Expect?

Many Westerners think we have still not achieved political/economic equality with our compatriots in Ontario and Quebec. We wish neither to dominate nor to be subordinated as a region and ask nothing that we do not also seek for our fellow citizens in every part of the country, including Atlantic Canada. We seek fairness for all Canadians; above all, we want a country where everyone is politically equal.

This implies changes in Ottawa on both the attitudinal and institutional fronts. The best way to rebuild national unity is to use the present situation, which might be compared to a coronary thrombosis occurring on Oct 30, 1995, as an opportunity. A new political will must be found to open up our system of government sufficiently so that every Canadian, regardless of place of residence, can finally feel like a full partner in their own country.

We criticize the American system of government for various reasons, but at least your federal government does not disenfranchise citizens, as ours often seems to, depending on how far they live from your national capital. Most residents of, say, Washington state feel they are culturally, economically and politically equal in your national government’s eyes to residents of, say, Connecticut. In Australia, the constitution itself bars national government from showing preference for any of the states. In a 1989 Gallup Poll on the other hand, only four percent of Canadians generally thought all regions of the country had benefited equally from Confederation. Only nine percent thought Western Canada had gained the most.

Many Westerners want real citizen participation in any future constitution-making process. The closed-door negotiations of 11 first ministers at Meech Lake and similar top-down procedures used to develop the Charlottetown accord were heartily disapproved of by most across the West. Since Oct. 30, 1995 few Westerners seem prepared to leave the future of Canada to Central Canadians only. As an editorial in the Vancouver Sun before the Quebec vote put it, "No-one on the federalist side has bothered to venture West along the Trans-Canada to share thoughts or hear views about the continuing debate. Which prompts us to ask, does the Canada they’re fighting for - the one that we know includes Quebec - also include the West?"

Consider the words of an Albertan who replied to some information I sent to him about the Charlottetown proposals: "We in the West are going to demand a full referendum on everything; whatever is going to be done will have to be done democratically this time.... No more of this sneaking around on end runs through the back door." Many others probably share this view. A 1994 conference, "Re-Invent Parliament", sponsored by the Canada West Foundation and the political science department at the University of Lethbridge set forth an agenda for change in Canada’s institutions of government. In their recommendations, participants stressed the need for referenda, recall and citizens’ initiatives, allowing citizens to become directly involved in the decision-making process.

Howard Cody, a Maine political scientist, in a 1991 paper, "The Prairie Provinces and the Future of Canadian Federalism", offered an interesting Canadianist perspective, based on interviewing 18 MPs from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and representing four different political parties. On changing the division of powers, Cody saw the need for some form of asymmetry, compromising federal authority and flexibility with the principle of provincial equality. It’s of interest here, however, that in the much-discussed Maclean’s/CBC survey of late 1995 almost one in two Canadians prefer a decentralization option which would give "all provinces much more power". Only one in twenty favoured giving Quebec special powers. Asymmetrical federalism beyond our present model appears to be unacceptable to most Canadians today.

Quebec Referendum

The question, "What does Quebec really want?", was answered on October 30 by a 49.4 percent "Oui" vote. About six in ten francophone Quebecers appear to have voted to secede from Canada. The No side won a reprieve by a whisker perhaps only because thousands of Canadians from every province went to Montreal three days before the vote to show they wanted Quebecers to remain in our national family.

Two weeks after the referendum, an influential journalist in Montreal’s daily La Presse, Lysiane Gagnon, reminded readers that the province has clout far beyond its population and economic strength. For example, Quebecers constitute only a quarter of the Canadian population, yet the prime minister has been a Quebecer for 25 of the past 27 years. Gagnon noted the "disproportionate number of Quebecois and francophones occupying positions of influence in the federal administration." Many British Columbians, who now number about four million in population, noticed the composition of the special cabinet unity committee formed after the referendum to draft Ottawa’s post-referendum strategy: it included three ministers from Quebec (including the chair), four from Ontario, one from Newfoundland, one from the Prairies, and no one from B.C.

A number of post-referendum polls indicate a real desire for change is shared by most Canadians. Almost eight in ten Quebecers and two in three among Canadians generally according to an Angus Reid poll want to see major reforms to the way the Canadian federation works, although that seems to be where the national consensus ends. According to the Maclean’s/CBC survey:

q Three quarters of Canadians outside Quebec think Canada is a pact among ten equal provinces vs. 45 percent of Quebecers who think it a pact between two founding groups;

q Almost eight in ten adults outside Quebec appear to oppose a Quebec veto on future constitutional changes affecting federal/provincial powers vs. 68 percent of Quebecers who favour it;

q A little more than half of the population outside Quebec oppose enshrining in our constitution that Quebec is a distinct society vs. 75 percent of Quebecers who support it.

In short, the narrowness of the No victory evoked consensus across the land that there is a need for real change, but there is not yet much agreement on specifics. In the West, the result was viewed mostly as a wake-up call. The day after, the Western premiers agreed that the referendum ought to be a catalyst. A number of statements made since the referendum by individual Western premiers suggest they would welcome changes that would make the federation work more harmoniously.

Distinct Society

Many Westerners continue to oppose the concept of a distinct society because they fear it might prove in practice to entrench special status for one province. For this group, the term is much more than "two little words". Lysiane Gagnon caught this when she wrote in mid-December 1995: " ... the Chrétien government is alienating the whole country in order to ‘give’ Quebec something it doesn’t want. A massive transfer of powers is the only thing the Parti Quebecois will settle for." Many Westerners appear to favour a large-scale decentralization as well, partly because for historical reasons many trust their provincial governments more than their national one to look after their interests (Medicare appears to be a clear exception).

A week before the Quebec referendum, an article by Barbara Yaffe in the Vancouver Sun caught the mood then across B.C. and possibly Prairie Canada as well by summarizing the results of opinion polls carried out since 1977 by three respected national organizations. The findings, she concluded, "suggest that people in B.C. are probably among the more unsympathetic and impatient Canadians in the ongoing debate about Quebec’s future in Canada." In 1991, 52 percent of B.C. residents believed the West had suffered economically as a result of being part of Canada; despite this, many British Columbians along with other Westerners share a positive Canadian identity. In 1991, seven in ten British Columbians identified first with Canada when asked if their primary allegiance was to Canada or their province or local community. Only 32 percent of Quebecers chose Canada first. While 40 percent of Quebecers said they were "very proud" to be Canadian in 1991, more than seven in ten British Columbians so indicated. In fact, B.C. had the highest percentage of "very proud" respondents of any region of the country.

Surveys done during 1991/1992 indicated Westerners were then the least receptive to the notion of distinct society status for Quebec. One question asked, "Would you prefer to keep Quebec in Canada by giving it the powers it requests or should the federal government turn down these requests and risk Quebec separating?" Nearly eight in ten Western respondents said they were prepared to take the risk, compared to seven in ten Ontarians and only 63 percent among Atlantic Canadians. Yaffe concluded: "Based on the polls, it would seem that many in the West have had enough of the sovereignty debate. They appear to cherish and wish to maintain Canada - a Canada that includes Quebec. But not at all costs."

An Angus Reid survey conducted only days after the Oct 30 referendum concluded Canadians outside Quebec were more willing than ever to negotiate with Quebec, but British Columbians were less prepared to compromise. Fully one-third of British Columbians were prepared to see Quebec leave rather than make"concessions"; 55 percent of Albertans (vs. 42 percent in eight other largely English-speaking provinces) said they have become more "hard-line" towards Quebec over the past year. While nearly half - 48 percent - were prepared to see "concessions" made to keep Quebec in Canada (vs. 61 percent elsewhere), almost as many Albertans - 42 percent - said they’d rather see Quebec leave than compromise. The Angus Reid survey done at the end of 1995, moreover, indicated that a ‘get-tough-with-Quebec’ stance had the support of slightly more than half the residents of B.C./Alberta.

Unity Package

Almost a month after the Quebec referendum, the Chretien government tabled in the House of Commons measures to fulfil promises the prime minister made to Quebecers during the dying days of the campaign. The three initiatives included the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society within Canada; passing a law in Parliament saying that Ottawa will approve no constitutional change opposed by Quebec, Ontario, the Atlantic or the West; and the withdrawal of the federal government from job training, apprenticeship, and co-op education programs.

The reaction of Roger Gibbins, a well-known and moderate Prairie voice, indicated at least one Westerner’s disapproval: "For the first time in my life, if there was some sort of Western separatist movement, I’d be interested in looking at it. This is little short of a constitutional coup d’etat by the Prime Minister." Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament who has since become the new Premier of Quebec, called the unity package "ridiculous", even less than what Quebecers rejected in the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown accord. Quebecers’ seemed to clash again most strongly with Westerners.

Gibbins added to the growing Prairie - or at least Alberta - firestorm: "The Prime Minister’s package meets Quebec’s aspirations for a constitutional veto and distinct society, and then enables Quebec to use its veto to slam the door on any further constitutional change. The package thus signals the final end for any Western Canadian aspirations for institutional change." The professor was presumably referring here to expected opposition from Quebec (and Ontario) to significant reforms to the Senate. Gibbins also found the distinct society for Quebec proposal offensive, partly because the language of the motion passed in the Commons said: "The House encourages all components of the legislative and executive branches of government to take note of this recognition and be guided in their conduct accordingly". "To understand how offensive this position is," wrote Gibbins, "try to imagine a directive within the American constitution that would explicitly encourage all branches of the American government to give special attention to Texas". Many Quebecers, including Daniel Johnson and the provincial Liberal party, say that unless the distinct society concept is entrenched in the Constitution it has no real weight. At least some Bloc Quebecois M.P.s appear to hold the same view.

Western opposition to the regional veto concept can be grouped around several points. First, it tends to divide Canadians at a time when unity above all is needed. Canada will in practice be the only nation on earth whose national Parliament has prescribed that there are at least four classes of nationals for purposes of the regional veto (1st - Ontario/Quebec/B.C.; 2nd - Alberta; 3rd - the other six provinces; 4th - Yukon and Northwest Territories). The differing status implied by the measure is even more painful in Western Canada than elsewhere because a disproportionate number of our residents, including ones of origin in Asia, France, Ukraine, Germany, and our large aboriginal communities, have experienced what can occur when governments single out some communities as less than equal to others.

A Possible Reconciliation?

Canada, like America, is seen by untold millions across the world as a "shining city on a hill". Can we not find it in our hearts to forgive each other for past wrongs? What hope remains for any multilingual country over the longer term if a reformed Canadian Union cannot endure into the 21st century? Are we really going to fragment our northern paradise? Is our renowned national ability to compromise gone?

"The fates guide those who go willingly; those who do not, they drag", wrote Seneca in the first century. This observation seems particularly applicable to Canadians when the need to establish a new national vision is shrieking at all of us.

The new direction must self-evidently include initiatives acceptable to all parts of Canada as one of the world’s remaining countries of continental size. If so, is a new process not also desirable given our constitutional difficulties since 1971 and earlier? Why not try something rather novel - a constitutional convention of, say, 100 representative Canadians of good will chosen through virtually any process that would seem fair to most Canadians? The danger of national dissolution would encourage them to develop a package acceptable to Canadians in every province and territory. There might be a small number of elected individuals from three levels of government, but most would be there to represent our people generally. No participant would be controlled by anyone during the discussions. Only the goal of proposing a new Constitution capable of winning general approval must prevail. Participants would know that if they failed to make necessary compromises Canada itself might well fail.

Every governance issue would be on the table during full-time deliberations of 2, 3 or 4 months. If, for example, the participants concluded that ending the monarch’s already limited role would bring our national family closer together, they should say so. Similarly, if they recommend some form of sovereignty association for Quebec and self-administration for aboriginals as domestic nations within Canada, all Canadians would pronounce on their proposals afterwards in a national referendum.

Major obstacles face such a hitherto essentially unCanadian process, but numerous other countries in crises have used them successfully to reinvent themselves in whole or in part (E.g.s: West Germany - 1948; Switzerland - 1948; India - 1947; Spain - 1988; Malaysia - 1963; Belgium - 1993). During 1986 in the Philippines, a new constitution proposed by a 50-person commission comprised of respected citizens appointed by the much-loved President Corazon Aquino was approved afterwards overwhelmingly by the Filipino people in a plebiscite. Do Canadians now have any real alternative but to adopt a process which recognizes that ultimately our governments belong to the people as a whole? I’m encouraged that one young Quebecer who voted "Oui" in the referendum is much attracted to this concept.

What has been called the democratic revolt of Canadians a majority of which defeated the Charlottetown accord in the national referendum of October 2, 1992 is not likely to be bottled up much longer. Building on it now might just save Canada as one of the world’s most envied nation states. We could use it to modernize our system of government for the new century. Could we not also use it to become, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his 1861 message to Congress, "a democracy - a government of the people, by the same people."?


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