When Caterpillar closed a plant in Southern Ontario last week and threw 450 people out of work, some commentators treated it like a national catastrophe. Caterpillar, which is notorious for its hardball labour tactics, plans to relocate the jobs in Indiana, where people are willing to work for half of what the unionized workers in Ontario got.
I felt awful for the workers. Who wouldn’t? But Ontario has to compete with the entire world. And even if those jobs don’t move away, many are being swept away by new technology. The mighty engine of Confederation has turned into its rust belt. But nobody in the rest of Canada is feeling particularly sorry for us. We squandered the fat years on a vast expansion of our government and threw away our money on foolish green energy schemes. Now we face a gloomy decade of tax increases, deteriorating health care and deep cuts to everything. Did I mention that the average detached house in Toronto costs $606,000?
No wonder Ontarians are so depressed. No wonder so many of my friends’ kids are moving away to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. These are the same places their parents were eager to escape 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, Toronto was the place to be if you wanted to make something of yourself. Today, it’s the West.
The country’s economic, demographic and political power are all shifting. Western power has already begun to change our national values. Stephen Harper’s majority was no fluke. He was elected by a new coalition of westerners and voters in the suburbs of Toronto. These people prefer CTV to the CBC. They think Ottawa and government should matter less, and they seldom think about Quebec at all. This is an epochal shift. Quebec’s threats and aspirations dominated (and paralyzed) national affairs for the better part of a generation. Today, people no longer ask what it will take to keep Quebec happy. Instead, they ask why Quebec is getting billions in equalization payments so it can subsidize $7-a-day daycare.
Quebec is hurtling toward the bottom of the country in income and standard of living. Alberta and Saskatchewan are at the other end. Natural resources play a part in that, but so do values. Quebeckers work fewer hours and make less money than other Canadians, but pay far higher taxes. The oil sands are extremely unpopular in Quebec. And even though Quebec has bountiful resources of its own, Quebeckers don’t want to develop them. They’d rather impose carbon taxes and oppose pipelines.
Like it or not, Canada’s stupendous natural resources are our future. They are the envy of the world, and will ensure our prosperity for many years to come. Most Canadians already get this, and the western shift means their voices will become increasingly important. The question is not whether we should develop these resources, but how wisely and how well.
Environmental romantics who think resource extraction is inherently immoral might want to take a look at Newfoundland. A few years ago, it was dying. It had the lowest education levels and incomes in the country, and young people were leaving by the thousands. Oil has transformed Newfoundland into a modern, vibrant economy where people’s kids have a future. The same thing happened in Saskatchewan. Oil has turned Norway into the most prosperous and socially equal country on the planet. Its environment is remarkably unspoiled. And its oil industry has created high-skilled, high-tech jobs and cutting-edge technologies that are in demand around the world.
Like the Newfoundlanders who used to fish for cod, the people who used to make $32 an hour at Caterpillar are out of luck. But their kids have better prospects. Unlike manufacturing jobs, natural resources can’t be relocated to Indiana or China. Some of the kids from Canada’s rust belt will get degrees in metallurgy or engineering and move to Edmonton or Saskatoon (or St. John’s). They will discover that people in those places are a lot more optimistic than people around here. If I were a few years younger, I might move there myself.
Census 2011 interactives: Explore the numbers