A couple of weeks ago, Danielle Smith, leader of Albert's conservative Wildrose Alliance, delivered an eloquent, impassioned speech in Montreal - completely in English ("I would speak to you in French if I could") - in praise of the entrepreneurial, enterprising Quebec that used to exist. Among other things, she chided Quebec for its voluntary descent into economic dependence - on the very federal government it has long purported to repudiate.
"Before this [descent]began, Quebec was a perfectly viable, self-sustaining province and, by the standards of the time, a fairly productive and prosperous one," Ms. Smith said. "Today, it is one of the most publicly indebted jurisdictions in the world, and the least productive of Canada's larger provinces." (She observed in passing that the same policy assumptions that reduced Quebec to dependency have been even harder on the Atlantic provinces - a region now "a ghost of its earlier self, one where those who stay cling to subsidized legacy industries, the luckiest people work for the government, and the resolute move to Ontario or Alberta.")
This was not Canada's intended destiny, Ms. Smith said. "All the way back to the very beginnings of Canada … we were a radically free-enterprise and small-government nation - more so even than the Americans. 'Better British liberty,' our ancestors proudly declared, 'than American equality.'
"Good heavens, where did that spirit of liberty disappear to? What we now tout as traditional Canadian values and virtues - unearned entitlements, paying people not to work, paying provinces not to succeed (and not to secede) - all these were unthinkable to the stalwart people who founded and built Canada. Today's celebration of the easy ride … [is]the complete antithesis of [Canadian values and virtues]"
Ms. Smith recalled Quebec's heroic achievements. "When your forebears bridged the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City to Lévis a hundred years ago, it was the longest cantilever bridge ever built. Nobody had done it before. We were great visionaries, we Canadians, and great doers. … We took risks - in fact, 75 men died building that bridge … but we kept going, and we succeeded.
"Creating a prosperous civilization out of a vast, raw wilderness was no job for sissies and naysayers. It was a challenge of heroic scale, and we proved equal to it. Should we fail now as a federation, we can't blame history. Morally, materially and constitutionally, our predecessors built remarkably well. …
"No, if Canada dies, the failure will lie in politics. It will be because politicians killed it. If Canada fractures into its component pieces or simply dwindles into global irrelevance, the fault will lie entirely with our political class. Not just with petty-minded politicians, but also our timid and conformist political intellectuals."
Ms. Smith traced Quebec's descent into dependence to "the ministries of Pearson, Lesage and Trudeau" in the 1960s - from which arose the "doomsday question" that has since dominated Canadian politics: "What will it take to appease Quebec?" Partly, she said, it has taken "the megabillion-dollar cost of much of this endless sloshing of funds."
She also addressed what she calls the Canadian hypocrisy that surrounds Alberta's oil and gas industries - which, she noted, now provides governments with taxes and royalties ("from concept to consumer") of more than $50-billion a year - and sustains more than 800,000 jobs. The notion that governments subsidize these industries, she said, is absurd. These industries subsidize governments.
The biggest single cost borne by Alberta, she said, is the difference between what Ottawa takes out of the province in taxes and what it sends back as federal spending: $20-billion a year. For this contribution to equalization payments, she said, "we get nothing, not even gratitude."
Ms. Smith leads a small political party in Alberta (holding only four seats) but one that could herald big change. When she spoke in Montreal, she addressed a small political organization (the Quebec Freedom Network) - but one that could perhaps herald big change, too - as the apparent decline of the extortionist Bloc Québécois (according to the polls) could itself imply. When Ms. Smith finished speaking, her audience of 450 gave her a prolonged standing ovation.
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