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Stephen Harper greets supporters during a campaign rally in Guelph, April 4, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Stephen Harper greets supporters during a campaign rally in Guelph, April 4, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Impossible to please, Ontario ends up with nothing Add to ...

Around the country they go, trying to curry the favour of one province after another. For Newfoundland and Labrador, Stephen Harper promises a loan guarantee for a hydroelectric project. For Quebec, Michael Ignatieff vows to help build a new hockey arena. For other provinces with seats up for grabs in this spring's federal election, good things are surely on the way.

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There is, however, one notable exception. With more battleground ridings than any other province, Ontario is the path to a majority government for Mr. Harper's Conservatives and out of the political wilderness for Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals. But during elections, as between them, federal politicians know that there's no point in trying to appeal to Ontarians' sense of unanimity - because they don't have one.

Such is the plight of Premier Dalton McGuinty, who on Monday gamely called for federal leaders to extend to his province the same generosity that was shown for Newfoundland and Labrador's Lower Churchill Falls energy development.

"When Prime Minister Harper pledges specific aid to another part of Canada for a specific multibillion [dollar]project, 40 per cent of that money is coming from Ontarians," Mr. McGuinty said. "When it comes to support from the federal government for energy projects, Ontario is looking for equal treatment."

More accurately, Mr. McGuinty should have said that he's looking for equal treatment. Collectively, Ontarians don't much care one way or another - whether it's about their under-representation in the House of Commons, or lesser access to employment insurance benefits, or the relative lack of support for their infrastructure projects.

The common explanation for that indifference is a lack of regional identity. Voters in the country's largest province, by this account, see themselves as Canadians first and as Ontarians a distant second - a far cry not just from Quebeckers, but also from many Albertans, British Columbians or Newfoundlanders.

Mr. McGuinty has spent a fair chunk of his nearly eight years in office trying to create more of a provincial identity, and accompanying sense of grievance, including with a "fairness" campaign launched in his first term. But his province's diversity, more than any noble commitment to national unity, has stood in his way.

That diversity is not just cultural, which is the obvious difference between Ontario and Quebec, but also economic. Alberta and Newfoundland have oil. Saskatchewan, on top of agriculture, has a booming resource sector. British Columbia, to a lesser extent, has forestry. The closest that Ontario comes is manufacturing, but that's so varied that it only marginally ties people together.

The reality is that, even if federal leaders wanted to cater to the entire province at once, it's not clear what they'd be able to offer.

To keep Mr. McGuinty happy, federal parties could promise to finally help Ontario get on with building a new nuclear reactor - but that's hardly got populist appeal, particularly in light of recent events in Japan. The Premier would also like to see the province finally get its due number of seats in Parliament, but the promise of more politicians is hardly a huge vote-getter.

Promises with broader appeal would create so many headaches elsewhere that the parties have good reason to avoid them during the campaign. Voters in the Greater Toronto Area would surely like to see a major investment in easing traffic congestion, but it would be impossible to offer it there without also extending it to the likes of Vancouver and Calgary - pushing the costs into the tens of billions. EI reform, meanwhile, would play well in smaller Ontario cities - but probably not well enough to make up for the strife it would cause in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Much more palatable, particularly from the perspective of Mr. Harper's Conservatives, is to micro-target their messages to key ridings. That means small-scale, feel-good infrastructure announcements, and heavy wooing of specific ethnic minorities. But it will very rarely involve anything that will bring together people from either side of the GTA, let alone from across the province.

The leaders will be speaking to a small number of Ontarians as much as anyone in the country. They just won't speak to the province all at once, or offer much that could make it stronger as a whole.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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