William Macdonald is a corporate lawyer-turned-consultant with a long history of public service and social engagement.
This is the first of two articles. Part one covers the changes in regional and national political outlook in Canada since the 1960s – in Alberta and Quebec in particular. Part two will outline a new grand national bargain based on net-zero carbon emissions that Canada will need to thrive over the next two decades.
No one thing is ever everything. Oil, Canadian unity, climate change: These and other urgent issues all matter. So, a way to accommodate them all must be found.
And to move ahead as a country, regional discord must be addressed. For much of their history, Alberta and Quebec, in particular, have felt alienated from the rest of Canada and from each other.
But now may be the best time ever to get Alberta and Quebec to back an east-west energy corridor and a net-zero, low-carbon national energy strategy as part of a grand bargain that includes all regions, peoples and the private sector.
History is always instructive. I was asked to speak against federal tax reform in Edmonton in 1970. I drew attention to the shared Alberta-Quebec approach at that time against power centralization in Ottawa. I was seated next to the finance minister of the last Alberta Social Credit government. After I finished speaking, he expressed special interest in this, but said Alberta politics were against anything positive on Quebec.
My sense in late 2020 is that this is no longer the case, and negative-to-Quebec politics need not get in the way of a good national deal for both Alberta and Quebec. Canada’s biggest economic challenges today are national and external: COVID-19, pipelines across the country and to export markets, inadequate private sector investment and a destabilizing world.
Canada’s transformational economic achievements have happened when all regions and the private sector worked well together over extended periods of time. Confederation got under way at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. It was completed 22 years later, in 1886, when the first transcontinental train on the new national railway arrived in Vancouver.
The creation of a coast-to-coast Canada was the response to life-threatening danger from our U.S. neighbour, which was embroiled in the Civil War and its aftershocks. Canada today faces external dangers comparable with those at its founding in 1867: a go-it-alone United States now in political turmoil, a world buffeted by centrifugal populist forces within countries and between them, and multiple geopolitical stresses – especially from the U.S. and China.
Alberta and Quebec are similar in often being very much unto themselves. Quebec feels strongly about itself for reasons of language, ethnicity and history. Alberta feels distinct – and often alienated – for socio-cultural reasons, and has long complained about the rest of the country taking financial advantage of it. That disaffection extends back further than the discovery of the Leduc oil field in 1947, to the Great Depression-spawned Social Credit Alberta government and the party’s fiercely partisan federal MPs.
Alberta’s political anger against today’s Ottawa may not be balanced or entirely fair, but it is very real. It needs to be heard. Canada must avoid not taking Alberta seriously enough. Leaving the province and the oil industry out of the Throne Speech in September was not good national unity politics. Anger can be a good goad for action, but it is seldom a good guide.
Again, Quebec provides lessons. The province and the country got through what became Quebec’s 45-year post-1960 Quiet Revolution and identity crisis by a rare ability to learn from mistakes and to get and stay ahead of emerging curves. We learned from the 1917 conscription crisis and the challenges to national unity in the Second World War. The eventual successes against separatism were due, in large part, to the early foresight and combined efforts of prime minister Lester Pearson and Ontario and Quebec premiers John Robarts and Daniel Johnson in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, for much of the following four decades, Canada was forced by the separatist challenges in Quebec to focus more on itself than on the outside world. We need a renewed vision for the whole country and its place in the word.
All Canadians will need to grasp what then Quebec premier Robert Bourassa said after the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, when he emerged from a rising tide of separatism within the Quebec Liberal party at its post-Meech Lake party conference. Mr. Bourassa uttered the best single line ever spoken about Canada – a line that still applies: For its citizens, Canada is “one of the world’s rare and privileged countries in terms of peace, justice, liberty and standard of living.”
Canada has had great leaders out of Quebec. Unfortunately, it has had only one great postwar leader out of the West: Peter Lougheed, premier of Alberta in the 1970s and early 80s, who never became prime minister. It is fair to say, however, that no Canadian political leader saw better what the country needed for national unity than Mr. Lougheed.
Apart from Mr. Lougheed, the vision of Western Canadian leaders has often been too narrowly regional. Alberta and Saskatchewan voters tend to see a Central Canada that consistently fails to get Western Canada right. The significant post-1945 Canadian prime ministers from the West – John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper – were never able to include how the West saw Canada into a larger, lasting national vision they could sell to the whole country.
It is also Alberta’s political misfortune that the province has remained so oil dependent. This has made it politically harder for its premiers to force more realism about climate change on oil companies. And it has likely led many Albertans not to take seriously enough the messages from financial markets and political activists around oil and gas.
Alberta needs more honest fiscal self-assessment as well. A recent Fraser Institute report finds Alberta’s current high deficit is the result of excessive government spending – the province spends 18.5 per cent more per capita than B.C.
Even so, Canada’s greatest challenge now is to get a new national grand bargain in the face of multiple external adversities – COVID-19, international forces that are increasingly hostile to Canada and its resource industries, a financially overextended and deeply politically divided U.S. and a disruptive China placing excessive demands on the global economic and political system.
We have entered a huge moment for Canada and the world. Today’s grand bargain moment is like Sir John A. Macdonald’s coast-to-coast country moment. It will likely take about the same two decades to realize a new national vision.
Canadians themselves are ready – they are pragmatic and they want a united country that is serious about climate change. In the 2019 election, two-thirds of Canadians voted for parties that supported oil pipelines and two-thirds for parties that supported a carbon tax. An east-west low-carbon energy corridor fits in with both those priorities – good for Alberta and its oil; good for Quebec and its clean and abundant low-cost electricity; and good, although not perfect, for lower national carbon emissions.
Now is the time to get this new grand bargain under way. The challenge for Ottawa, the provinces, the Indigenous community and the business community is to find mutually supportive ways forward. This existential national challenge will require all hands on deck with a widely shared vision, ideas and projects. I’ll outline more of the grand bargain in part two.
Fortunately, the federal and provincial politics have never looked better for getting it done.
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