The 2011 population census tells us that Canada is rapidly and profoundly changing, leaving us with a choice: to carry on with the politics of the past, or to match change with change.
Statistics Canada shows the West surging in population from Saskatchewan to British Columbia. It shows Quebec and Atlantic Canada still gaining ground, but much more slowly, with Ontario now below the national average in growth.
Past political assumptions simply don’t fit this reality. Both Westerners and Easterners will have to think differently about their roles within this new Canada, if the country is to remain both dynamic and united.
Many Westerners have a very different picture of the country from those in the East. For them, so-called national policies drained wealth from the Prairies and B.C. to feed central Canadian industries and fatten Bay Street banks, argues Roger Gibbins, head of the Canada West Foundation.
But we are in a new world, where the big province of Ontario is no longer a rich province, and where the Prairies and B.C. are the new meccas of growth.
“It’s harder to exercise collective leadership across four provinces than it was for Ontario premiers in the past,” he observes. “The fiscal challenge to the country is acute. I don’t know how we make things work.… I don’t know how you keep the place together.”
Andre Pratte is worried about what the shift in power means for Quebec. The editor-in-chief of La Presse sees his province pursuing a separate destiny unaware of its steadily weakening voice within the federation.
In 1951, Quebec’s share of the national population was only four percentage points behind Ontario’s (29 per cent versus 33 per cent). Today, the gap is 15 percentage points (24 per cent versus 38 per cent). Quebec is, as well, seven percentage points behind the four Western provinces combined.
“I’m not sure most Quebeckers really grasp the importance of the massive changes in population, wealth and political power,” he said in an interview. “Most Quebeckers are not very much interested in what goes on in the rest of the country.”
Mr. Pratte does not so much fear a rise in separatism if and when Quebeckers do become aware as he does a future in which “the country changes so much that it produces mutual indifference.” Separation, in that case, would simply confirm, rather than create, a fatal breach.
Historically, Ontario’s premier mediated between Quebec and the other provinces, bound by ties of proximity and shared history. And the province that represents nearly four in 10 Canadians willingly shared its economic bounty with poorer provinces both east and west to help cement national bonds and to advance its industrial and financial interests.
But as the heartland province grapples with the prospect of lower growth, higher unemployment, fewer immigrants and relative economic decline, it increasingly lacks the means or will to act as nation-builder.
Yet as Mr. Gibbins points out, those who believe the West is incapable of filling Ontario’s shoes ignore leaders who have advanced or who are advancing the national interest: Gordon Campbell, who reached beyond British Columbia’s mountains to involve all of Canada in the Vancouver Olympics; Gary Doer, who was Canada’s most popular premier when he governed Manitoba; Brad Wall, who may be assuming the same role in Saskatchewan.
And Alison Redford, who wants to expand Alberta’s energy wealth into a national energy strategy, and who travelled to Ontario and Quebec soon after she became premier to enlist the support of her central Canadian counterparts.
Mel Cappe, who headed the federal public service as Clerk of the Privy Council from 1999 to 2002, believes all provinces will ultimately recognize that sectional interests depend on the national good, that trade with the Pacific is advanced through trade with Europe.
And he looks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to transcend his own partisan base of suburban Ontario and the West – which, by the way, coincide with the fastest-growing parts of the country – to embrace a pan-national vision of shared opportunity.
“The provinces can only take it so far,” he maintains. “At some point, someone has to embrace the national interest.” That’s what prime ministers are for.
Canada has gone through great demographic and political shifts before: the opening of the West; Toronto supplanting Montreal as first city; the Quiet Revolution. Always in the past, leaders in Ottawa and the provincial capitals stepped forward to harness the shifts in political energy.
The task for this generation of leaders is to be their equal.