The West’s fierce insistence on resource control has divided many Canadians who don’t understand the depth of this regional attachment. In a coolly rational universe, there would be federal carbon taxes – and Ottawa might push bitumen oil pipelines across provincial boundaries under rigorous environmental oversight. But the confrontations between the West and the Rest of Canada, which have twined through the decades since Confederation, bedevil the present. As the premiers continue to discuss a national energy strategy, federal politicians should lie low. Ottawa can’t take the lead on such issues without threatening national unity.
This saga of lost time began when Ottawa acquired the vast expanse of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 for 300,000 British pounds. When Métis Louis Riel resisted this takeover of his Red River homeland without guarantees of provincial status and control over the lands and resources, Sir John A. Macdonald compromised. He created the province of Manitoba – but he retained resource control to provide homesteads for settlers and a path for the railway. In 1905, Sir Wilfrid Laurier also kept resource control when he created Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The discrimination rankled: Every other province had entered Confederation with resource control. Whenever the Prairie premiers demanded control, Ottawa resisted. Worse, the premiers in the Rest of Canada argued that their taxpayers had bought the West – so they owned the West’s lands and resources. If westerners obtained control over those lands and resources, the Rest of Canada wanted higher subsidies – at the very least.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it is. Scroll through the debates of the past: Westerners marshalled the same arguments about resource rights and sometimes the very words their successors do today. The lessons are obvious.
- Since Louis Riel first pushed for resource control as the key to his community’s destiny, the notion has been deeply embedded in the West’s identity and pride. When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair attacked the West this spring for fostering Dutch disease – that is, driving up the value of the Canadian dollar with resource sales and destroying Central Canada’s manufacturers – he offered a simplistic diagnosis. More important, he did not understand that resources are central to the notion of western community.
- This debate was never simply between Ottawa and the West: It was between Ottawa and the Rest of Canada, which claimed a stake in those resources. That tension persists to this day. When B.C. Premier Christy Clark demanded a share of Alberta’s resource revenues to permit the construction of a pipeline from the oil sands to the Pacific coast, she inadvertently aroused old animosities. She later said she wasn’t asking for a share of resource royalties.
- Although a national carbon tax would probably be the most effective way of curbing greenhouse gases, it would be imprudent to impose one without provincial consensus. During the 2008 federal election, the Liberals’ Stéphane Dion called for a federal carbon tax; he lost. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has accused the federal government of “hiding under its chair” while the provinces discuss carbon emissions. But any unilateral federal initiatives would be a dangerous replay of the decades when Ottawa effectively governed the West as a colony and pocketed the resource revenues.
- The Constitution allows Parliament to take control of local works that are for “the general Advantage of Canada.” Parliament hasn’t used this power for decades – despite suggestions that it could push Newfoundland and Labrador’s hydro lines across Quebec. Imagine what would happen if Parliament assumed jurisdiction over a pipeline from the oil sands across B.C.? What would be unthinkable in Quebec would be even more controversial in the West – even if the pipeline worked to Alberta’s short-term benefit. Old memories never die.
In the end, after painstakingly slow steps to satisfy each region, Mackenzie King transferred resource control to the three Prairie provinces in 1930. Federal-provincial squabbles over resources persist because jurisdictions overlap. There’s no simple solution. But Canadians who know the past can dodge blunders in the present – and grope their way to compromise.
Mary Janigan is the author of Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark.
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