A friend wrote to me in some despair a few weeks ago. “More than any time in my lifetime,” he wrote, “I feel like Canada doesn’t really exist.”
Obviously he did not mean this literally. He meant the idea of Canada: the sense of ourselves as being part of a national community, committed to shared ideals, obedient to common laws, concerned for each other’s welfare and willing, where needed, to make sacrifices for one another – the basic understandings without which democratic government is impossible.
The immediate cause of his despair was the government of Saskatchewan’s decision to void certain guarantees of human rights under the Canadian Constitution via the notwithstanding clause – the eighth attempt to use the override in the past five years – and even more the lack of opposition it aroused, notably in Ottawa.
But it was the larger significance of this he had in mind: the disintegration of a national consciousness it implied. If the Trudeau government chooses to ignore the accelerating evisceration of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms at the hands of the provinces, it is only taking its lead from public opinion. Simply put, we can no longer be bothered to rouse ourselves at injustices in other provinces – Quebec’s Bill 21 is a particularly disturbing example – because increasingly we do not feel that we and they are part of the same community. I’d say “nation” but people stopped using that term to describe Canada long ago.
That was last month. Since then there have been a number of further signs of national disintegration and – its handmaiden – provincial lawlessness. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was the most explicit in this regard, invoking the Trudeau government’s decision to exempt heating oil from the carbon tax as justification for instructing the province’s energy utility not to collect the tax on natural gas, the dominant source of heat among his constituents.
To do so, he acknowledged, would be “illegal” – indeed, executives at SaskEnergy would face fines or even jail time if they complied – but very much in keeping with the emerging orthodoxy in this country that governments are not obliged to follow any law they find inconvenient.
That was the justification, you’ll recall, for Quebec’s Bill 96, which purported to empower the government not only to evade the Charter (it’s almost routine now) but to unilaterally amend the Constitution, and to regulate in areas of federal jurisdiction besides. It was likewise the defining principle of the Alberta sovereignty act, under which the government of Alberta asserts the right to disregard any federal law it chooses, and (no doubt Mr. Moe was taking notes) to instruct provincial agencies to do the same.
But open defiance of the law is not the only means by which these provinces have chosen to thumb their noses at their fellow citizens. The Legault government’s latest gift to federalism is to impose what amounts to a 100-per-cent tariff on students from other provinces – more precisely, on English-speaking students from other provinces – doubling the tuition fee that Quebec’s English-speaking universities are required to charge to out-of-province students.
Understand: The universities in question would not get to keep the proceeds of this punitive fee, assuming anyone were inclined to pay it. The revenues, if any, go to the government. Rather, the intent of the policy is, explicitly, to deter students from attending: to repel the ”threat,” as Quebec Premier François Legault calls it, that a few thousand visiting English-speaking students allegedly pose to the 94-per-cent French-speaking province. The effect on the receiving schools – a collapse in enrolment, and of funds – is likewise expressly understood. Is there a similar policy anywhere in the democratic world?
Meanwhile, the government of Alberta is proposing to pull out of the Canada Pension Plan. The pretext is that the CPP is unfair to Albertans: not because they are treated any differently from other Canadians – as individuals, they pay into the plan at the same rate and receive the same benefits on retirement – but because, in the aggregate, Albertans pay more and receive less. Well, yes: because Albertans are younger, on average, than people in other provinces.
Well, they are now: These things can change. Quebec’s population was younger than the rest of Canada’s in the early 1960s, when Quebec opted out of the CPP. But now it is older: one reason Quebecers pay a higher contribution rate (12.8 per cent versus 11.9 per cent) than other Canadians. Another reason: the Quebec Pension Plan’s inferior investment performance, a legacy of successive Quebec governments’ habit of tapping it to fund their industrial-policy ambitions.
Concern that an Alberta Pension Plan might follow the same path – or indeed replicate the province’s own Heritage Savings Trust Fund and Alberta Investment Management debacles – is only one of many reasons Albertans might have to doubt the wisdom of the Smith government’s proposal. More fundamentally, it is based on a fantasy: that Alberta can leave the CPP and take more than half of its assets – 53 per cent – with it. On any reasonable assumption of the province’s actual share, the supposed benefits look a lot less impressive, even without the additional risk.
But then, economic logic isn’t the point. The point of leaving the CPP isn’t to produce better pensions for Albertans. The point is to slam the door. The people behind this idea are the same people behind the Alberta Sovereignty Act. They’re not interested in rational public policy, and they’re certainly not interested in the consequences, either for Albertans or Canadians generally. They just want to break things.
And in this, it has to be acknowledged, they have the support of a good many of their compatriots. Danielle Smith may have downplayed her specific pension-plan designs in the last provincial election campaign, but Albertans knew about her broader aim to take a wrecking ball to the federation – and elected her with 53 per cent of the vote. The same applies to Mr. Moe (61 per cent). And to Mr. Legault (41 per cent, but with 30 per cent of the vote going to parties even more hostile to Canada than he is). Trashing Canada sells.
It isn’t that people in these provinces want to detach themselves from Canada (though stay tuned: the Parti Québécois is on the rise again in Quebec). It’s just that they don’t feel especially attached to it, either. Neither do Canadians generally, it appears. Just 45 per cent of respondents in a recent EKOS poll said they had a “very strong” attachment to Canada, down from 76 per cent a generation ago. Indeed they don’t seem attached to anything: the country, its institutions, reality.
The danger in this is not so much separation, but enervation; not that we will fall apart, but drift. Without a sense of common nationhood, we will be unwilling to take decisions together – the sorts of decisions that transcend our interests as residents of one province or another, but that rather are assigned, as in any federation, to the federal order of government. That was the whole point of Confederation: to give ourselves a federal government. There was no other.
To give legitimacy to the new government, the Fathers of Confederation spoke feelingly of the new “political nationality” they were creating, beyond language or ethnicity. And it was the federal government that they intended to be the glue that held the new nation together.
It was the federal government that was supposed to protect our rights, as it was also to enforce the economic union. But the former task was handed off to the courts, and the latter has been entrusted to the provinces, which is to say the cause of the problem. Which leads us to our present fix, of more or less complete federal impotence, if not irrelevance.
Presumably the feds can’t be happy to see provinces defying the law, treating other Canadians as second-class citizens and tearing down national institutions. But they dare not do anything to stop it, because they lack the legitimacy: because in any confrontation with a provincial government, Ottawa is likely to emerge the loser.
It’s easy to blame the Trudeau government for this state of affairs: its constant denigration of our history and symbols; its tendency to play one part of the country against another. But in truth this is a problem going back decades. To be sure, any government that was elected with just 33 per cent of the vote – the weakest mandate in our history – would have some legitimacy issues. But the broader problem is structural. The problem is that governments can be elected with 33 per cent of the vote.
Indeed, thanks to our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system, it takes little more than that to win a majority. As the number of parties has proliferated, and the distortions from vote-splitting have grown more acute, governments have been elected off a narrower and narrower base of support.
That’s not just an arithmetic proposition, but a geographic one. We don’t really have national parties, as such, in this country. The Liberals have not won a majority of seats in the West since 1949. The Conservatives have carried Quebec just three times since 1887.
There was an unintended truth in that now-infamous line of Gudie Hutchings, that if Westerners wanted to get a hearing from the government, “perhaps they need to elect more Liberals.” It’s probably true that if the Liberals elected more MPs west of Ontario they might have more understanding of, if not sympathy with, Western frustrations.
It’s not that there aren’t Liberal voters in the West: 20 per cent of Westerners cast their votes for Liberal candidates in the last election. But the electoral system ensures that next to none of these get elected. But then, the same electoral system ensures the Liberals don’t need them to form a government: They can rack up most of the seats they need just by winning 40 per cent of the vote in two provinces, Ontario and Quebec.
In a more proportional system, where the numbers of seats a party won, overall and in each region, more nearly approximated its share of the votes cast, parties would not only have a better chance of winning seats in regions from which they are now all but shut out – they would have to. Imagine: No longer would it pay off to pit one region against another. Parties would have to fight for seats everywhere in the country.
Imagine, too, if in addition to reform of the electoral system, we also reformed Parliament. If MPs had real power to represent their ridings: to vote, to debate and to pass legislation, not in strict obedience to the party brass, but as their consciences and their constituents demanded. Imagine if Parliament were regarded as a vital national institution, and not a pointless relic.
Then and only then might “Ottawa” have a fighting chance against the provinces. In time we might begin to see a virtuous circle. A Parliament that was more representative of the nation might begin to act as if it were, asserting its authority over the executive; the more it was seen to represent the nation, moreover, the more it would suggest there was a nation to be so represented.
A federal government that answered to such a Parliament would thus be seen to be answering to, and acting for, the nation: all of it, not just one part or the other. Which implies further virtuous circles. As it began to enforce the economic union, we might begin to see ourselves as one market, not 10. As it stood up for vulnerable minorities in one part of the country, people in other parts might begin to care about them, too.
To do any of this, it is true, requires some enlightened self-interest on the part of our prime ministers. Far from weakening their authority, such reforms would strengthen it. Prime ministers in this country have acquired more and more power over less and less. The greater the control they have exerted over Parliament, the less control they have had outside of it. Only by letting go – a little! – can they regain their grip.