Watch Alberta’s Election to Learn the Future
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 20, 2004

Two national themes will converge in the Alberta that emerges following Monday’s provincial election: Canada-U.S. relations and Canadian federalism. At some point in a future not as distant as many believe, the resolution to one may well be found in the resolution to the other.

Not that this will happen the minute Ralph Klein re-enters the premier’s office. Having said this will be his last term, Klein is expected to announce his retirement after Alberta’s 2005 centennial celebrations.

As the curtain rises on the final act of the Klein Revolution, then, unfinished business will be the first order of business including a reformed healthcare system and, with ten senatorial candidates on the ballot in Monday’s election, a renewed effort at Senate reform. Most important, Klein’s imminent departure sets the stage for a leadership race in which the two best possibilities to replace him also personify key issues in Canada’s future.

Both Ted Morton and Jim Dinning would make credible leadership candidates. As Alberta treasurer in the 1990s, Dinning helped eliminate Alberta’s deficit even as then minister of finance Paul Martin introduced the Canada Health and Social Transfer to eliminate the federal deficit. As a vice president of Transalta, he helped move the utilities giant into the green era. And last month, he was named to the Canada-U.S.-Mexico task force formed to create a NAFTA-plus trading bloc able to compete with the European Union and other emerging trading blocs.

Ted Morton, meanwhile, is working Alberta’s grass roots and contesting Foothills-Rocky View as the Progressive Conservative candidate. A professor of political science and part of the Calgary School that’s influenced Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, Morton made his name specializing in the Charter and constitutional law and by becoming one of Alberta’s first senators-in-waiting. A proponent of the firewall proposals that would give Alberta more control over its affairs and an opponent of ‘judicial activism’, Morton will as a member of the Alberta legislature strengthen the ranks of those opposed to federal ‘intrusiveness’.

Dinning and Morton are on parallel but compatible paths that could reshape the continent into what commentators as ideologically disparate as former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and Canada’s former ambassador to the U.S. Alan Gottlieb have approvingly called a ‘North American Community’. So far, it’s an issue between the Canadian, Mexican and American governments investigating areas of co-operation in security, customs, energy, immigration and law-enforcement. But with Paul Martin’s government labouring under charges of being too centralising or too asymmetrical and with no consensus to support either, how long before a province gets in on the act?

While federal coffers filled to overflowing intrude on provincial jurisdiction in areas such as healthcare, cities and childcare, we can expect provincial, not to mention municipal, governments to increase their demands. First it was Quebec, soon it could be Alberta. Thanks to the cushioning effects of new continental arrangements, either could, eventually, like the Czechs and the Slovaks, ‘separate’ with barely a whimper.

Renovating Canada’s institutions and fiscal arrangements would help. In this respect, Quebec premier Jean Charest spoke recently of how the Council of the Federation is doing work originally intended for the Senate. But would he sponsor a constitutional amendment reforming the Senate to a House of the Provinces model that maintains responsible government and devolves selection processes to individual provinces?

Finding concrete ways for the federal government to relate to Canadian citizens instead of through their provincial governments would also help. While the Charter was intended for this purpose, it may – given Canada’s own red/blue faultlines - prove more divisive than unifying. More recently, the premiers’ pharmacare proposals could, fiscally speaking, have achieved this. Even a strong national defence system could do the trick but instead Canadians have the sponsorship scandal, the gun registry and a prime minister beating around international bushes for credibility.

Canada must realign itself as a nation that evolves federally for the benefit of the individual and devolves provincially for the benefit of its geographic group. Such arrangements, along with appropriate taxing powers, would allow each level of government to relate to its citizenry in areas of its own jurisdiction. Otherwise, the pull towards a European Union model for North America, replete with independent region states, appears inevitable.

Even if it is not inevitable, it is certainly lurking in the wings, ready to take centre stage with Jim Dinning and Ted Morton in starring roles, when Ralph Klein makes his exit.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century