Western resources are the stormy petrel of Canadian federalism. Resource policy in the West dominates today’s headlines. Should the Northern Gateway Pipeline, for example, be built through British Columbia to ship bitumen from the oil sands to China? And if so, what are the gains and losses for Alberta, British Columbia, Canada and aboriginal self-governments? Resources – who has them, who controls them and who benefits from them – is the subject of Mary Janigan’s entertaining and informative book.
Janigan documents that today’s resource debates started at the origin of Confederation itself and that for 60 years – unlike the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario – Ottawa used the West’s land and resources as another form of national currency.
As with every colony that finally achieves freedom, western premiers are determined that never again will their resources be bartered away without their agreement. Memories of colonialism linger long – ask Quebeckers – and Janigan is certainly correct when she says, “Today, the edgy world of Riel and Haultain and the Gang of Three has not vanished. Their legacy lives in the residual memory.”
To bring this point home, Janigan focuses on that most unlikely of page-turners, the federal-provincial conference of Nov. 19-22, 1918, where the “Gang of Three” – premiers T.C. Norris of Manitoba, William Martin of Saskatchewan and Charles Stewart of Alberta – pushed the government of Robert Borden to relinquish federal control of resources. Not only was the federal government unyielding, but the representatives of the six other provinces declared that if Ottawa shifted land and resources to the West, “a proportionate allowance” should be granted to them. As Janigan concludes, “No matter what the Gang of Three proclaimed, the rest of Canada had a financial stake in any transfer.”
Janigan’s technique of focusing on this crucial 1918 conference is effective: She outlines the events that preceded it (Louis Riel’s 1870 demands for provincial control of resources, which were rebuffed by Sir John A. Macdonald) and the events that followed it, such as the eventual success of the western provinces in persuading Mackenzie King in 1930 finally to grant the prairies the same rights over resources their sister provinces had always enjoyed.
Mary Janigan knows politics and how they play out in federal-provincial relations. A well-regarded journalist and a former Globe and Mail editorial writer, she has covered many federal-provincial conferences. Such conferences telescope Canada’s contending national and regional ambitions. By using the almost totally forgotten conference of November, 1918, as an organizing centre, Janigan highlights the factors of personality, interest and context that drive every historical event. Thus, T.C. Norris is described as a professional auctioneer whose persuasive “sales patter had little effect on his fellow premiers.”
Janigan’s eye for detail extends to context as well as personality. She describes the atmosphere that influences the memos and speeches she cites. In the Northwest of the 1880s, for example, guests of hotels had to get up at 6 a.m. because the sheets on their beds doubled as table cloths for breakfast. When Mackenzie King began to consider seriously the West’s demands, Canadians were buying more cars and radios per capita than any other nation except the United States, so, “in 1927 even the parsimonious King observed that he had enough cash to make serious deals with the provinces.”
The deed was finally done when Britain approved the Constitutional Act in 1930. King “had done what had once seemed impossible.” King gets full credit from historians for his handling of Quebec and the conscription crisis in 1944: Janigan argues that he deserves equal credit for finally making the West a full partner in Confederation.
Western premiers like Peter Lougheed defended these hard-won rights tenaciously. In the concluding chapter, Janigan uses the bumper-sticker slogan “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark,” to illustrate the ferocity of the modern debate.
Her description of “the West versus the Rest” also has implications for another region in Canada much in the news. In Canada’s North, Yukon finally achieved devolution in 2003 (although not control over offshore resources), the Northwest Territories is about to do so, and this summer the federal government finally appointed a negotiator to discuss devolution with Nunavut. The North today, like the West in 1930, wants control over its land and resources. Janigan’s book is a blueprint for how this last vestige of Canadian colonialism can be ended.
Thomas S. Axworthy is a Senior Fellow with the Munk School of Global Affairs and Massey College, University of Toronto.