Mary Janigan is the author of Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark: The West Versus the Rest Since Confederation.
If British Columbia politicians knew their history, perhaps they would not be so cavalier about thwarting their neighbour’s economic prospects with rash regulatory roadblocks. From the early decades of the 20th century, the province was always one of the main spoilers in the Prairie provinces’ quest to gain control over their resources. British Columbia always insisted that its concerns had to come first. Those clashes were rarely amiable and usually about resource wealth – the lands, minerals, oil and natural gas, forests and water power of the rich Prairie west. The disputes have left an historical legacy of mistrust and resentment that still runs deep in the western soul. And it was dangerous to awaken them.
The roots of this rivalry lie in a largely forgotten tale of competing dreams that played out across the Prairies for 60 years. In 1870, the fledgling Canadian federation completed the deal to acquire the vast terrain of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Co. for £300,000. When the Métis inhabitants clustered around the Red River settlement protested, fearing for their lands and their way of life, Sir John A. Macdonald reluctantly carved the Province of Manitoba out of his acquisition, confirming existing land titles and promising lands for the “families of the half-breed residents.”
But resources were always the pivotal issue. In the Manitoba Act of 1870, the federal government retained resource control. This was an anomaly. The four original provinces that had joined together to create Canada in 1867 had retained that responsibility. Manitoba was different. The Prime Minister wanted to cut out a path for a railway that would guarantee commercial prospects from the Atlantic to the Pacific – and induce British Columbia to join Canada. He sought access to the region’s rich mineral wealth. And he wanted control over the lands so that federal officials could stake out lots for immigrant farmers. When British Columbia joined Canada in 1871 and Prince Edward Island followed in 1873, they retained their resource control. But when Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905, it once again refused to include resource control among the new provinces’ rights, just as it did to Manitoba. Interior Minister Clifford Sifton reasoned that the prosperity of Canada depended on sustained immigration and immigrants might stay away if a new government took control of the lands. Anyway, Sifton asserted, “the Dominion owns these lands.”
The inequality rankled. Virtually from the start, Manitoba protested its plight, asking for ever-increasing amounts of money in compensation for its loss of resource revenues. It secured subsidies in lieu of resources. But its lobbying efforts would only have an impact when it joined forces with its Prairie partners. Meanwhile, it became clear British Columbia was a powerful competing force. In October, 1906, the three Prairie provinces joined their peers for an Interprovincial Conference on Parliament Hill. Predictably, all Premiers wanted more money. Manitoba complained about Ottawa’s misuse of its swamplands. Alberta and Saskatchewan were publicly silent on the issue of resource control – partly becauswe they were struggling to organize their governments.
But there was discord anyway. B.C. Premier Richard McBride was young, ambitious, mercurial and seemingly incapable of forming alliances. He resentfully compared his subsidies with those of Manitoba. Even though Saskatchewan and Alberta had only existed for 14 months, the Conservative Premier disdainfully insisted that his subsidies were “far too little” in relation to theirs. He irritated everyone. Laurier decided to transfer an additional $100,000 a year for 10 years to British Columbia – because of its vast territory, mountainous landscape and sparse population. McBride remained unsatisfied. British Columbia’s aggressive stance was a sign of the trouble ahead.
The B.C. Premier remained irrepressible. He peppered the new Prime Minister, Robert Borden, with more than a dozen demands, soon after Borden’s Conservatives won the Sept. 21, 1911, election. His pivotal issue, which would drive the Prairie premiers to distraction, was the railway lands. In the 19th century, the British Columbia government had transferred lands to Ottawa so that the federal government could link the Pacific coast with Central Canada by rail. Those railway lands spanned a corridor across the province, spilling out for 20 miles (32 kilometres) on each side of the proposed route. They also covered 3.5 million acres within the Peace River region. British Columbia wanted the return of any unused lands and full control over any resources within those lands. The province had been complaining about Ottawa’s disposal of those lands since Canadian Pacific’s transcontinental railway reached the coast in 1885. Now, McBride wanted action.
On his home turf, Borden was a clumsy politician, beset amid a world that abounded with supplicants. He satisfied his Conservative partisans. In January, 1912, he agreed to McBride’s demand for a three-person commission on subsidies. He expanded the boundaries and the subsidies of Manitoba, which Conservative Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin governed. But he flatly rejected pleas from the Liberal premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan for resource control. They fumed impotently.
Then, the Prime Minister made his mistake. When the premiers gathered for an Interprovincial Conference in Ottawa in October, 1913, he agreed to meet with the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan to discuss resource control. He invited Manitoba Premier Roblin, assuming that he would be his ally. But Borden set so many arduous conditions on any resource transfer – including an end to subsidies in lieu of resources and the continued guarantee of virtually free homesteads – that he deeply offended the Manitoba Premier, who was an ardent proponent of provincial equality. Within two months, the three premiers had formed an alliance. They consolidated their demands into a one-page proposal for resource control, continued subsidies in lieu of resources already used and complete control over lands earmarked for homesteading. The Prime Minister sent their demands to the Maritime premiers, who predictably objected. It was a bad precedent. The Prime Minister moved on in a world careening toward war.
And then came the Dominion-Provincial Conference of November, 1918, that turned British Columbia into the spoiler of Prairie dreams – and strained civility among all provinces. Anticipating the end of the First World War, the Prime Minister had invited the premiers to Ottawa to discuss soldier settlement, the “general problem” of land settlement and the transfer of resource control to the Prairie provinces. All nine premiers accepted his invitation of Oct. 26, 1918. But, two days later, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George asked the Canadian Prime Minister to travel to England to discuss peace abroad. Borden accepted with alacrity. As the premiers headed to Ottawa, the Prime Minister arrived safely across the Atlantic.
The world war was over. The war in Ottawa was just commencing.
Interior Minister Arthur Meighen immediately proclaimed Ottawa would transfer resource control to the Prairie provinces with key conditions. He included a new stipulation that Ottawa would continue its subsidies in lieu of resources if the other provinces agreed. The room erupted. The three Maritime premiers demanded that Ottawa settle their special claims at the same time as it dealt with the west. More dissent followed.
On the third day of the conference, the new Premier of British Columbia, John Oliver, tabled his stance. The Premier had a folksy exterior and a spine of steel. Meighen had refused to put his demand for the return of the railway lands on the conference agenda, but his province’s claims were “of an even stronger character“ than those of the Prairie provinces. Ottawa had to address them when it tackled the demands of the Prairie provinces.
It was the last straw. On the final day of the talks, the three Prairie premiers presented a ferocious letter. They would never allow this situation to happen again. They would not permit other premiers to link their issues with resource control. That would “virtually establish an admission on our part that the other provinces have a right to share” in the west’s resources. No other province had seen its resources used ”by the Dominion for the general benefit of Canada.” They demanded constitutional equality. And they told the other provinces to get lost.
The impasse continued for almost a decade. In 1927, Prime Minister Mackenzie King solved the immediate problem by bribing everyone. He returned the railway lands to British Columbia, transferred resource control to the Prairie provinces, confirmed increased subsidies for the Maritimes and eventually asked the Supreme Court to determine what level of government had control over the water power on navigable rivers at the request of Ontario and Quebec. Most provinces were (relatively) happy – although the formal transfer of resource control in 1930 occurred as the Great Depression hit. (The federal government has the constitutional right to approve the transport of energy resources across provincial boundaries.)
The fights over resource control have become integral to Western Canadian identity. When the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau froze the domestic price of oil in 1973 and when it brought in the National Energy Program in 1980, it tapped the same reserves of anger within westerners.
British Columbia may have different issues with its neighbour today – this time the battle is over Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline extension − but it is once again impeding Alberta’s efforts to control its own resources and get them to market. B.C.’s stance raises serious constitutional issues. But there is more at stake: It is eerie to see how little British Columbia politicians know their history. They should understand the intensity of what they have provoked in their Albertan colleagues.