Daniel Béland is the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
The threat of political fragmentation is increasing in Canada – and instead of exacerbating divisions, federal politicians can bridge regional divides and offset tensions.
As a survey released last week by the Environics Institute showed, perceived regional divisions across the country are increasing. At the same time, this national poll suggests that many Canadians think that the federal government is less relevant to their lives.
This divide is evident in the recent SNC-Lavalin controversy involving former attorney-general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Before her explosive testimony, while people in Quebec focused primarily on how to save SNC-Lavalin jobs and keep its headquarters in Montreal, many observers in other provinces saw this story as an example of how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau favours Quebec at the expense of other parts of the country.
The language divide in our country cannot be ignored, and the fact that French-language media in Quebec covered the story quite differently from media outlets located in other parts of the country mattered. Language and economic interests converged to create regional perception gaps over the most central political controversy of the Justin Trudeau era.
Other key issues are perceived very differently across the country – in ways that aggravate regional conflict. For instance, a fall 2018 Abacus poll suggested that while 43 per cent of Ontarians and 47 per cent of Quebeckers perceived climate change as a “very big” problem, only 22 per cent of Albertans felt the same way. Once again, differences in perceived economic interests played a direct role, as climate change is associated with oil production, which is much more important to the economy of Alberta than to the economies of Ontario and Quebec.
Perceptions grounded in regional economic interests can be hard to reconcile, which creates a major challenge for federal politicians struggling to design policy proposals that will garner enough support across the entire country. This struggle is especially tricky because everyday interactions among individuals reinforce these perceptions. Such interactions make people believe their views are widely shared, a situation that social media reinforces by creating online communities of like-minded people who seldom engage with individuals who hold opposing views. These social and virtual realities are likely to increase the risk of political fragmentation in Canada and around the world, as evidenced by the rise of far-right populism in Europe and the advent of the Trump presidency in the United States.
In Canada, we must find better ways to counter the regional fragmentation of politics and to seek shared solutions to the economic, social and environmental challenges we face as a country. Blaming people from other regions of the country for our woes is counterproductive, so we must get a better sense of why people think the way they do as it relates to their regional identities, perceived interests and everyday experiences.
Instead of exacerbating existing divisions, federal politicians in this country can bridge regional divides. As opposed to federal countries such as Belgium who only have regional parties left, Canada has strong federal parties that seek to bring people together from all regions of the country. Federal politicians representing countrywide parties have an obligation to offset the re-emergence of strong regional resentment in this country. This is especially the case now, with the rise of regionalist and populist sentiments across Canada.
The danger with the constant struggles over issues such as carbon pricing and pipeline building is that regional alienation and finger pointing can grow out of control. This is not what our country needs and both federal politicians and ordinary citizens can foster new political conversations to bring people together from coast to coast to coast. This endeavour can only take the form of inter-regional dialogues in which voters and politicians can address differences and find common ground through compromise.
In contrast to what happened in the not so distant past, Indigenous peoples should have strong voices in these dialogues. Building bridges across regional divides to offset the fragmentation of our politics is the way forward, something we should keep in mind as the next federal elections are approaching.