Next Government Cannot Ignore the West
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 14, 2005

In the coming final days of May, a great deal of history and politics will converge in the western Canadian landscape. Centennial celebrations in Alberta and Saskatchewan are well under way and will soon highlight a visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Then there’s the impending federal election. Perspective and insight are therefore in order, both of which are supplied in abundance by an essay in the May edition of the Literary Review of Canada. With timely if unsettling observations about relations between Alberta and the rest of Canada, “The Rich Kid – Where does Alberta fit in the Canadian family now?” argues the western Canadian strategy of national inclusion, “the West wants in,” is in tatters.

From the beginning, says the usually staid author and Canada West Foundation CEO Roger Gibbons, Alberta was an outsider. In 1905 when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces, the basic architecture of the Canadian federal state already existed. This included a French-English partnership, a rudimentary party system and an economy in which the western Canadian hinterland fed a distant commercial heartland. With waves of immigrants from Europe and the U.S. uncomfortable with stuffy central Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan became the “awkward in-law at the Canadian family table”.

Family relations declined as new political parties, from the Progressive Party to Social Credit, deepened rather than bridged the gap between Alberta and central Canada. Only when oil prices soared in the 1970s did Ottawa begin to take Alberta seriously. While the phrase “the West wants in” was coined at the Reform Party founding convention in 1986, the creed also drove the governments of Peter Lougheed.

So why didn’t it work? Why do levels of discontent today rival those of the more distant past? The first reason, Gibbons says, is because western inclusion was never a high priority for a national leadership drawn almost exclusively from Quebec. With Quebec wanting out, the national attention and the national treasury were directed there. “As long as Albertans wanted in, rather than out, they could be ignored.”

Failure to reform the Senate is another factor as is globalization and continental free trade. Having a seat at the national table means much less when the federal government is economically irrelevant.

Where does this leave Alberta and its troubled relationship with the rest of Canada? With little support for independence or even the Alberta “firewall” Agenda, leading by example may be the only alternative, Gibbons suggests.

But even this approach is clouded by interference from a federal government pursuing unrealistic international commitments on climate change or mismanaging the Canadian-U.S. file. More problematic still, leading by example is not easy when the federal government claims pre-eminence across expanding policy domains, including urban affairs, day care, and health care.

Most worrying is how the country will respond to Alberta’s growing wealth. So far, he writes, “the national tax system, the equalization formula and federal programming … have been moderately successful in bringing both individual and regional disparities within tolerable limits…. Given that it will be impossible to bring others up to Alberta’s level, many Canadians will ask if it is appropriate to bring Alberta down to the national average.” Given its predisposition for redistributing rather than producing wealth, the federal government’s policy response to this question will, more than anything else, determine its future relationship with Alberta.

For a federal government of whatever political stripe now committed to spend, spend, and spend even more, Gibbons’ warning is ominous enough. With these kinds of habits, it will increasingly depend on the largesse of its richest provinces. But his essay concludes on an even more ominous note.

As lines on maps have less relevance for political identity and public policy, he writes, “Alberta’s place in Canada may be rendered less important, if not moot, by technological and generational transformations that are remaking the political landscape... the question may be the continuing relevance of Alberta as a political space, and for that matter the continued relevance of Canada as a political space.” There are, he says, forces at work larger than either past grievances or current surpluses in moulding the future relationship between Alberta and Canada.

As Canadians brace for a choice between a jaded Liberal party and an untested Conservative party deeply rooted in western Canada, Gibbons’ essay points to an astonishing, indeed overwhelming, burden of responsibility, imagination and resolve for Canada’s next federal government.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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