Paul Martin needs to find some new ideas for placating the West
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, November 8, 2003

Pierre Trudeau famously declared that someone else would have to save the West. Paul Martin clearly aspires to the job so, early in September, the Canada West Foundation helpfully offered some suggestions: less party discipline, fairer distribution of Commons seats, annual first ministers’ conferences, more provincial say in federal decisions and programs, more westerners in the federal bureaucracy, monitoring of the regional benefits of federal spending, provincial input into appointment of senators, etc. Lampooned by Calgary Sun columnist Link Byfield as “the golden oldies,” he reminded readers these “tunes were already vintage when 50 Reformers showed up out of the blue in Ottawa in 1993.”

Better late than never, some would say, and, to be fair, a 10- to 20-year lapse between a political idea’s conception and its execution isn’t unusual. But Byfield has a point. There haven’t been any new ideas since 1992, when Preston Manning published The New Canada. Even then, the full impact of events in the 20th century’s final quarter — patriation of the Constitution and free trade, for instance — could hardly be calculated and, certainly, none that came to characterize the turn of the century, such as Sept. 11, 2001, could be anticipated.

A cursory look reveals some of their import.

Agonizing about Quebec’s role in Confederation was one painful consequence of the Constitution’s patriation in 1982. Similarly agonizing could be the question over the future of Crown lands, comprising 90 per cent of British Columbia, since the Supreme Court’s landmark Delgamuukw decision, which placed native oral traditions on an equal footing with other kinds of historical evidence. “It must be obvious,” wrote B.C. journalist Trevor Lautens in 1998, “that aboriginal ownership of all British Columbia has now been ratified.” By around 2025, he speculated, “Vancouver, Victoria and British Columbia will no longer bear those names, for the same reason that Rhodesia has been renamed Zimbabwe. The shameful colonial past must be, as totally as possible, expunged. It’s started.”

Aboriginal issues also confound Saskatchewan and Manitoba — two provinces with overall declining populations, even as the aboriginal population and corresponding social problems increase.

If Delgamuukw speaks disturbingly to western fears about judicial activism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, through a spate of rights-based litigation that undermines traditional values such as the family and the merit principle, could create an east-west/rural-urban fault-line or provoke an outright backlash.

Then there’s free trade, which fundamentally altered the economic dynamics of the West. Tellingly, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein signed a Protocol of Co-operation. In sealing the deal, and with trade problems, cost-cutting, investment promotion and influencing federal policies on their collective mind, they journeyed last month to California, Texas and Washington to do what the federal government no longer seems capable of doing, namely promoting and protecting their interests. Two decades ago, Trudeau’s national energy program raised the political consciousness of a new generation of westerners, who later mobilized to oppose the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. But the implications of even these seminal events pale in comparison with those created by the Charter, or the arcane worlds of international trade, climatology, technology, shifting demographics and the apocalyptic events of Sept. 11.

Canada’s existence is a function of will and design. Whether repelling American expansionism or retaining Quebec, little about her history is haphazard. The challenge to Canada’s next prime minister is the same that exercised others. Should this country exist and, if so, how can that be assured? The grand architect, Sir John A. Macdonald, crafted a National Plan which subsequent prime ministers, through the creation of cultural and social institutions, consolidated. Pierre Trudeau’s Charter and Brian Mulroney’s free trade re-engineered it. Preston Manning offered useful prescriptions for renovating it while Paul Martin, on the basis of his speeches to date, seems bent on restorative work. This goal, if not inspiring, is certainly worthy. The question is whether it is adequate to save the West, much less meet the challenges of the 21st century. As the answer becomes apparent, Paul Martin can do worse than play the golden oldies. At least it will buy some time.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.