Skip to main content

Former Ontario Premier William Davis smoking his pipe at news conference in Toronto, August 3, 1983.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

Something happened to Canada's largest province well before this June 12th election was even called.

Ontario lost its swagger.

One former provincial cabinet minister likens the mood to what Keith Spicer found more than 20 years ago when his Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future took the pulse of the nation and found it very weak indeed.

But this is no case – as was clearly the situation in Ontario back in 1990 – of taking such delight in kicking David Peterson's Liberals out of office that no one considered that Bob Rae's NDP government would thereby win a majority by default. Remember Mr. Rae's line to the CBC when it was apparent he had won? "I'm having difficulty getting used to it."

So, too, did those who kicked him into office, a sentiment repeated after they voted Mr. Rae out in 1995 and replaced him with the ideologically opposite Mike Harris. That may well explain why there seems such reticence among Ontario voters to act in any direction.

Any Canadian election will produce cynics who say "none of the above," but this one seems on the verge of turning that call into a majority. A reporter moving about the province quickly discovers that even the committed are profoundly disappointed: Liberals sheepish about the scandals; Progressive Conservatives embarrassed by their own math; NDPers baffled by their lack of presence.

There is an anger out there and it reaches beyond soaring hydro rates. There is a genuine fear of putting someone in just to get someone out.

"From what I can tell," says Sean Conway, once a powerful minister in the Peterson cabinets, now a part-time lecturer at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, "many Ontarians are worried about their economic prospects. And these people want to take out their frustration on the traditional political class. The Rob Ford phenomenon is clearly an expression of 'politics not as usual.' The current mood reminds me of what Keith Spicer found in the early nineties – a lot of Canadians really annoyed with the so-called elites."

In Ontario, however, even the elites feel short-changed when it comes to the current state of Confederation. Used to having considerable clout with federal governments, whether Red Tory or Blue Liberal, Ontario power brokers aren't quite certain how much of Ottawa's ear they can claim. All they know for sure is it isn't the same. National thought and action used to spring from places like Montreal's Outremont, Ottawa's Rockcliffe Park and, significantly, Toronto's Rosedale and Annex – not southern Alberta.

That disconnect with Ottawa mirrors the gap spreading between the provincial capital and the province that lies beyond sight of the CN Tower. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen recently, David Reevely looked at the various issues the three leaders appeared consumed with – Ontario Place development, GO trains, subway extension, traffic snarls – and concluded it appears to the rest of Ontario as if they are all running for mayor, not premier.

Once considered "the linchpin of Confederation," Canada's biggest province has become one of its smallest psychologically. From the days when premier Bill Davis seemed to be the voice of reason around federal-provincial tables, Ontario today seems a province in search of reason. And, of course, that federal-provincial table was hauled out to the curb some years ago by the federal government.

"Back in the Davis era and before," says Claire Hoy, who wrote from Queen's Park for decades for the Sun chain of newspapers, "both the Ontario and Quebec premiers enjoyed a status just slightly below that of the prime minister at the federal-provincial meetings, but then Ontario premiers didn't go to them whining, cap-in-hand, and constantly carping about getting a raw deal. Now, I suspect, if the Ontario premier showed up at a federal-provincial meeting, he or she would need a name tag."

Ontario was formerly the ultimate "have" province, with a sense of happily propping up so many lesser provinces, and with so much luxury and goodwill that Mr. Peterson, for example, could toss Senate seats upon that dimly remembered federal-provincial conference table as if they were excess poker chips that might help solve a constitutional stalemate.

The one-time "engine" of the Canadian economy remains financially critical, but the revving of the national engine comes far more from the West than the East.

"Ontario has had one of the most successful economies in the developed world," says Mr. Conway, "but recent recessions have done real damage to key elements of our economic base. Manufacturing has been hurt in Ontario as it was in American jurisdictions like Michigan and Ohio. Communities like London, Chatham, Orillia, Smiths Falls have been hard hit by plant closures and the loss of good-paying jobs and benefits."

Grace Skogstad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, says Ontario's once-powerful role in the Confederation began to change about 20 years ago. Ottawa placed a limit on how much it would transfer to the provinces for increases in spending under the Canada Assistance Plan, a move that the Supreme Court approved.

Since that point, Prof. Skogstad believes, there has been a growing sense that Ontario "is not doing as well economically as it should in the Confederation when it comes to federal transfers, including equalization payments."

"The federal equalizations program," Mr. Conway says, "is firmly rooted in an earlier Canada when Ontario's manufacturing sector produced very considerable wealth that could be redistributed by the national government without too much damage to Ontario. Not so any more."

Prof. Skogstad says cultural matters such as the regular collapse of the Maple Leafs and the daily tribulations of Rob Ford do not affect Ontario's "swagger" as much as they "give our fellow Canadians reason to swagger a bit more themselves."

"The real problem now is that we have no province that is the 'linchpin of Confederation,'" Prof. Skogstad says. "While non-Ontarians often had the impression that Confederation worked disproportionately in favour of Ontario – and after 1960, Quebec – it cannot be good for the federation that we have no province that wants to stand up for national policies that are explicitly designed to hold us all together."

Whether Ontario can regain its old swagger is, of course, a moot point. There is certainly no evidence to be found in this listless provincial election that is simply not engaging the populace.

Ontario is not, however, incapable of acting decisively on its own behalf. "While things in this part of Canada often seem placid and peaceable," Mr. Conway says, "Ontario is quite capable of showing its teeth."

But not this election. And certainly not to smile at anything.