Skip to main content

Brad Wall thinks people in the rest of Canada are having a hard time understanding the anger building in the Prairies. He wants to explain it in terms that they can understand.

“Some of our fellow citizens seem surprised and even critical of Westerners who are expressing frustration,” the former Saskatchewan premier said on Twitter. “Imagine if an industry key to central Canada lost 100,000 jobs with more under threat – and federal policies actually made it worse.”

I guess Mr. Wall – along with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and other outspoken Prairie leaders – were too busy feeling indignant to notice. It already happened.

Open this photo in gallery:

Then-Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speaks with members of the media at the Legislative Building in Regina on March 22, 2017.The Canadian Press

In 2006, Ontario had more than 1 million manufacturing jobs. By the middle of 2009, it had about 750,000. Those jobs never came back; employment in the sector has hovered around that level ever since. One-quarter of the province’s long-standing economic lifeblood looks to be permanently gone.

And, yes, one could argue that government policy consciously allowed it to leave. The North American free-trade agreement, and the country’s embracing of global trade liberalization generally, opened the door to the migration of manufacturing jobs away from relatively high-cost Canada to lower-cost markets such as Mexico and China. The hardships of the Great Recession cemented that migration. Whether you support the benefits of free trade, it has been an undeniable consequence.

This happened at a time when Alberta, because of sustained strong oil prices, escaped the recession with barely a scratch and flat-out boomed thereafter. Its economy grew by more than 30 per cent from 2009 to 2014, its employment by 13 per cent, its per capita provincial government-program spending by more than 20 per cent.

And that’s not the only tale of a region’s main industry being gutted – sometimes abetted, if not outright triggered, by government policy – while the country’s Western oil and gas regions basked in prosperity.

In 1992, Ottawa imposed a moratorium on cod fishing off the Atlantic coast, citing the near-extinction of several species due to overfishing. That ban, which continues to this day, effectively permanently shut down Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod fishery, the mainstay of the provincial economy for nearly 500 years. Overnight, the moratorium wiped out more than 35,000 jobs – roughly 15 per cent of the province’s labour force – most of them in hundreds of small fishing communities where there was essentially no other industry.

In the six years after the imposition of the cod moratorium, the Newfoundland and Labrador economy grew by a total of 2.8 per cent; it was in recession in two of those years. In the same period, Alberta’s booming economy grew nearly 30 per cent; it added 200,000 jobs.

In 1995, British Columbia (that other part of Western Canada that Alberta and Saskatchewan seem to have forgotten about in all their alienation talk) had more than 100,000 people directly employed by its forest-products industry, the historic bedrock of the provincial economy. Two decades later, employment had shrunk to half that. Towns all over the tree-rich province, from Port Alberni to Chetwynd, endured the devastation of mill closings. This long, painful downturn came during that same 20 years that employment in Alberta’s oil-and-gas-extraction industry more than doubled, to 110,000.

Perhaps the people in all these other parts of Canada don’t understand the hostility that some of the loudest voices coming from the Prairies are directing at the rest of the country – the angry accusations of ungratefulness, greed and betrayal. Maybe they are perplexed by the paranoia that has some Albertans accusing the federal government of actively seeking to destroy Canada’s richest province and the Prime Minister of harbouring a hatred inherited from his father that has put “Ruin Alberta” at the top of his secret to-do list. Maybe they can’t comprehend how so many people can talk openly about dismantling 152 years of common nationhood over a pipeline.

Those things you can try to explain. I’m really struggling with them, and I grew up in Alberta during Pierre Trudeau’s despised National Energy Program.

But don’t tell the rest of Canada that it doesn’t understand the pain of seeing an industry that was its economic bedrock crumble beneath it. Don’t try to explain to people in places like Oshawa, Ont., where the auto assembly plant is closing, or Shawinigan, Que., where the paper mill was shuttered, or Bonavista, N.L., where the cod disappeared and took a quarter of the town with it, what it’s like to have your livelihood threatened by the unstoppable march of change. They know.

You didn’t invent hardship. Your preaching is a slap in the face to all your fellow Canadians who suffered while you thrived. It’s that slap that they’re really having trouble understanding.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe