Canada’s history, geography and geology have ensured that the country’s natural resources – minerals, fisheries, forests, oil and gas – will always be central to its economic and political power. As a decentralized confederation, it is the provinces rather than the national government that have primary jurisdiction over these resources to exploit and manage more or less as they see fit.
The booming oil and gas sector in western Canada has transformed this region into the country’s economic powerhouse, fuelling economic growth and underwriting provincial budgets. This has resulted in a growing imbalance with central and eastern Canada, where the economy has lagged and provincial governments are struggling with growing deficits. All indicators now point to the economic and political centre of the country having shifted westward, due almost entirely to the wealth flowing from under the ground.
But do Canadians as a whole buy into the notion that the economic benefits of natural resource wealth should flow solely to the provinces in which these resources are found?
Most in fact do not, based on a recent Focus Canada national public opinion survey conducted by the non-profit Environics Institute for Survey Research. The survey (conducted by telephone in November-December 2012 with a representative sample of 1,500 Canadians) reveals that a majority (67 per cent) of Canadians believe the benefits of natural-resource wealth (in the form of royalties) should be shared nationally and benefit all Canadians. Fewer than three in ten (28 per cent) take the opposite view and maintain these resources belong to the province where they are found and that this is where the royalties should also be spent or invested.
As one might expect, views on this question are shaped in part by the resource base where people live, but more notably the national perspective is also the majority opinion in every province but one. The view of natural resources as a “national treasure” is most widespread in Ontario (81 per cent) and Manitoba (72 per cent), but there are also decisive majorities in British Columbia (67 per cent), Atlantic Canada (62 per cent), Quebec (58 per cent) and Saskatchewan (52 per cent). Only in Alberta did this reflect a minority opinion (where 41 per cent favour “national treasure,” versus 53 per cent who say the resources belong solely to the province).
Also revealing is majority agreement across the political spectrum (as measured by support for federal political parties) that natural resources are a national wealth to be shared (with the notable exception of Bloc Québécois supporters who favour provincial control by a 53 per cent to 44 per cent margin).
This survey tells us that the Canadian public may not be as provincial in viewpoint as one might expect given what appears in the media and comes out of the mouths of their elected leaders. Despite little talk these days about a national story, most Canadians (if not all) still maintain a national perspective that transcends their regional identity and interests.
This is confirmed by other findings from the survey showing that most continue to feel strong pride in being Canadian, identify more with the country than their province, and believe they share values in common with others across the country. As well, the survey also shows the public is now less sensitive than in past decades about other regions being unfairly favoured by the federal government.
And finally, the data also suggest Canadians do not view the question of natural-resource royalties as a winner-take-all contest, but something that in principle can benefit both their own province and others. It should be expected that provincial politicians will always focus on what’s best for their constituents, but we can hope they too will keep a broader national purpose in mind.
Keith Neuman is Executive Director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research