Donald Savoie is the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton
In the fall of 2015, I wrote in The Globe and Mail that, on occasions, history does repeat itself. Justin Trudeau had just won a majority mandate and his Liberal Party MPs won seats in all 10 provinces and the North. His father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had won a strikingly similar mandate 50 years earlier – a majority with strong representations in all regions, including the North. Pierre won four seats in Alberta in 1968; Justin also claimed four in 2015.
Here I am again, in the fall of 2019, doing the same. Like Mr. Trudeau père in 1972, Mr. Trudeau fils only won a minority mandate in 2019 and, like his father, did not win a single seat in Alberta. The father, however, still won the popular vote in 1972; the son lost it this year.
Even the issues that dominated the 1972 election campaign reappeared. Four years of Trudeaumania had run its course, as had the younger Mr. Trudeau’s sunny ways by 2019. Canada’s regional challenges – a deeply felt sentiment in Western and rural Canada that federal-government policy and decision-making processes failed to accommodate their economic circumstances when shaping national policies – dogged both governments.
Pierre famously asked Western farmers: “Why should I sell your wheat?” Justin essentially asked the same question of workers in the oil and gas industry in Western Canada. Neither of the Trudeaus would have asked Ontarians why they should sell their automobiles or ask Quebeckers why they should sell their airplanes. When it comes to national unity, it was and remains a case of deux poids, deux mesures.
Pierre thought he had the answer to Western regional alienation in 1972. He asked Otto Lang, a cabinet minister elected out of Saskatchewan, to lead the charge in 1973 to deal with growing Western alienation and put together a highly publicized Western Economic Opportunities Conference to bring together the federal government and the region’s premiers.
He also appointed senators to speak on behalf of regions not represented on the government side of the House of Commons. It may be much more difficult for his son to do so, given that he made Liberal senators independents.
However, both Canada’s political institutions and Ottawa’s machinery of government were left intact, and as a result, so was the root cause of regional alienation. When Pierre saw the need to patriate our Constitution, he included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in bringing it home.
He did not see any need to deal with the deep-seated frustrations of Western and Atlantic Canadians over the workings of national political institutions or how the interests of the two outer Canadas could be given a proper hearing in Ottawa.
If anything, the regional perspective has lost standing in Ottawa since the 1960s. The federal cabinet has been turned into little more than a focus group for the prime minister, and the federal bureaucracy has become even more Ottawa-centric in recent years.
Justin also did away with regional ministers, which gave Western and Atlantic Canada at least a semblance of a voice in Ottawa. The lack of capacity to appreciate regional circumstances in shaping national policies explains why the national energy program was born in the early 1980s and why many national economic development programs have little traction outside of central Canada.
Things are different today. Justin will not be able to address the problem with a conference. The stakes are much higher.
Western Canada is not what it was in 1972. It is both economically and politically stronger and will be looking for substantial, not cosmetic, change.
Atlantic Canada remains economically weak but is now much less tolerant of the notion that national-unity concerns are only about Quebec. I suspect that if another Quebec referendum were held, very few Atlantic Canadians would converge on the streets of Montreal, asking Quebec to say no to separation, as many did in 1995.
If Canada’s political institutions are to be frozen in time, surely Ottawa’s machinery of government is not. Justin should do what his father never did – turn Ottawa’s machinery of government on its head by giving voice to the regions.
This requires fundamentally restructuring how the public service generates policy advice and how policy decisions are struck in Ottawa. He should also now do what he promised in 2015 – pursue electoral reform so that 2019 was the last election run under the first-past-the-post system.
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