The East should realize that the West isn't what it used to be
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, August 16, 2003

Paul Martin recently mused about establishing a roving PMO in the West. However he or any other political leader chooses to address western Canadian issues, they should first read The West by Manitoba historian Gerald Friesen. It will disabuse them of outdated ideas and crystallize some important challenges the West and Canadian federalism now face.

Friesen has no axes to grind or ideologies to push. His central thesis is that the West simply isn't what it used to be. "The old two-region vision of western Canada -- the Prairies and the Coast -- has been superseded by a single economic and social experience," he writes.

"Now we have one West, extending from the Lake of the Woods to Vancouver Island ... (It) should also be seen in terms of a new trans-Canada reality," he says, "the centrality of the province in our public life ... (which) responds to similar global pressures and circumstances ... "

In other words, one West, four provinces, not the Prairies and the coast. How did it happen?

Friesen shows how until 1940, the Prairies comprised a distinctive region based on wheat and populated by Europeans. As fabled Canadian journalist Bruce Hutchison described it, though, "Crossing the Rockies, you are in a new country, as if you had crossed a national frontier ..."

In other words, topography, the weather, an ethnic mix of British, Asians and Orientals, and an economy based on forestry, fishing and mining made British Columbia another distinctive region.

In addition, it had relatively stable income and employment levels while the Prairie economy, subject to environmental disaster, fluctuated wildly.

The new welfare state, farm stabilization programs that included the Crow's Nest Pass Agreement and the Canadian Wheat Board, and the resource boom that began with the Leduc oil strike in 1947 reduced those fluctuations.

But it was technological advances, rapid urbanization and, finally, free trade that put the resource economies of the four provinces on the same playing field and established an axis of similarity between them.

In the ten years after the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1988, western merchandise exports nearly doubled. Wheat exports, for instance, went from 17 million metric tonnes to 28 million but, at one-third of all exports, it was oil and gas that represented the lion's share. Forest products comprised one-quarter, farm products one-eighth, and minerals, fertilizers and chemicals one-tenth. Though the western economy remains rural and resource based, Friesen argues that free trade "emancipated the flow of staple goods, particularly petroleum and natural gas, from national policy influence."

Equally significant were the new directions in trade. During the first half of the century, Western Europe and the rest of Canada were the main markets for wheat and lumber products.

Today, 40 per cent of exports go to the United States, 23 per cent to Ontario, 16 per cent to Asia, nine per cent to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces and seven per cent to Europe.

Friesen rounds out this economic picture with examples of how each of the western provinces is, with varying degrees of success, diversifying.

He also writes about the social and political diversity of the four provinces and includes important data about the numerical strength of aboriginals (one in eight in Manitoba and Saskatchewan; one in fifteen in Alberta and British Columbia) and how the West's major cities include high proportions of visible minorities, particularly Vancouver with 30 per cent.

The upshot, he suggests, is strained relations, with fewer people knowing eastern Canada. And that's before the issue of Quebec arises.

For the reader, this suggests a radically different future for the West, one that is disconnected from eastern Canada, not only economically but psychologically.

"We have to refurbish our pictures of the vast regions of Canada if we are to understand how they relate to one another and to our own experience," Friesen concludes.

"The image of the downtrodden West always being discriminated against by central Canada is less relevant today, though it would only take ... another political decision like the CF-18 contract to revive it."

But it is Friesen's insistence that the implications of a regionalized North American economy be carefully considered that strikes the clearest note. "The decline of federal economic power over the West and increase of north-south trade activity have altered the old balance of forces in Confederation. Both introduce new circumstances into the calculations of Canada's political leaders."

Are any of them listening?

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.