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Joe Clark is a former prime minister of Canada. This piece was adapted from a speech given at the Harvard Club of Ottawa on Sept. 13.

I was born and raised in High River, Alta., just down the street from the writer W.O. Mitchell. The majestic Rocky Mountains were in plain sight from our family’s west-looking windows, though they were about 60 kilometres away.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege to represent, over more than three decades in the House of Commons, constituencies both rural and urban in Western Canada. First, I was the member of Parliament for Rocky Mountain, and then, after a redistribution, I represented the Yellowhead riding, named after the Indigenous fur trader known as “Tête Jaune” who, in the early 1800s, found a pass through those formidable mountains near present-day Jasper. Then I was elected and served, briefly, as the MP for Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia – the native province of my great-grandfather – before returning west, for four years, to represent Calgary Centre.

I’ve come to realize that for all of their pride and investment in this country, many Albertans, along with many other Western Canadians more generally, consider themselves to be “outer Canadians”: Canadians still, but without the connections and the influence – and sometimes, the sense of shared destiny – of those in Ontario, Quebec or Atlantic Canada. That latent alienation is most acute in Alberta and Saskatchewan, although there are some similar senses of estrangement in British Columbia, Manitoba and the North.

While that estrangement remains a real concern, I am confident it can be overcome. But the apprehension needs to be deliberately addressed, because it will grow if it is discounted. And I fear that the current discouraging styles of our governments and our political parties will only widen regional gaps in this still-complicated country, because they enlarge the gulfs between politicians and the people themselves.

I recall an observation by the late George Shultz, then Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, as we drove to the Ottawa airport after one of our quarterly meetings as neighbouring foreign ministers in the 1980s. He was looking forward to a Saturday morning off, and asked what I was going to do on the weekend. I told him I planned to get on a commercial flight to Alberta and spend a day and a half in local conversations with the people who elected me.

“I envy you,” he replied. “Apart from a few close friends, I have virtually no ordinary contact with people outside my work.”

George was a naturally engaging person, so this was not his choice of lifestyle, but rather an isolation that came with his job as a cabinet secretary. And while that was nearly 40 years ago, the risks of being isolated in high office have almost certainly grown. That’s a problem, because good politics requires respectful engagement with inclusive communities.

National political parties were once themselves a notable example of inclusive communities, often creative and diverse, with influence on their leaders and capable of turning strangers into colleagues by bringing together – and keeping together – partisans from different regions with different dominant interests. But today, there has been a sharp decline in the broad inclusiveness of national parties and, in the case of the Liberal Party, the virtual trivialization of some ministerial roles; now, political parties are largely and merely electoral machines.

Curiously, there has not been much serious analysis of the nature of our political parties and their effects on national unity in Canada. When mentioned at all, the focus is more often on their leaders, or other significant or unusual personalities, with the party membership as mere backdrop. That’s rather like celebrating the jockey, not the horse.

While building national understanding wasn’t their primary purpose, parties were once active agents of Canadian connection and, often, common purpose. Certainly, we can all cite instances when especially ferocious partisans breached that trust, but it was more typical that national political parties brought differences together, often by simply meeting and working with colleagues from afar who nonetheless shared a collective bond, and, at critical times, their internal bonds and their sense of national responsibility could advance barrier-breaking national policy. The Progressive Conservatives’ 1967 thinkers conference at Montmorency around the question of Quebec in Canada, and the Liberals’ Kingston Conference in 1960, after the party’s disastrous showings in 1957 and 1958, are exemplars of parties’ power to unite and move forward.

When I was young, party membership was an immersive lesson in the diversity of the country. Time and again, I found myself working with fellow Progressive Conservatives from different regions whose backgrounds, interests, aspirations, preoccupations and prejudices were often very different from my own. But the national party was our shared family.

As in a family, our very differences led to learning, compromises and sometimes – in celebrated cases – conflict. The divisions within the parties of my era often burst into public view, as they made good headlines. But the nation-building and nation-learning quality of political parties was often underestimated, and there were rarely references to the genuine sense of family among partisans, which often served the purpose of constraining or reconciling those internal differences.

Friendships formed, which was no trivial matter in a huge and diverse country, so both understanding and connection could grow. As a young partisan, who had not had the opportunity to travel much beyond my own province, I learned more about my country from my party than from any other source. I acknowledge that was in an era before social media connected us, or at least appeared to, but those human interactions – those party connections – were deeper and more durable, and they better served our country.

Of course, times have changed. I am a product of what could be called the “direct contact” era in Canadian politics: before Parliament became secondary to recording studios, when lobbyists and other go-betweens were relatively rare, and before social media helped accelerate the distance between our politicians and our citizens. So the question arises: How does a country respond when some of those informal but essential connections fray?

For most Canadians, the thing that connects us is not a star-spangled anthem, nor a long-shared history of conquest or challenge, which might bind older or less diverse countries. It’s not ethnicity, in a country that is increasingly diverse. I suspect it’s not really Parliament, or the CBC, or other “national institutions” either, even though they were built for that purpose.

And yet we share extraordinary assets and advantages – broad-based economic opportunity, a genuinely free and respectful society, high levels of innovation and ambition and education, as well as peace, order and, often, good governance. Those can constitute powerful connective tissues, if we respect and invigorate them.

The continuing Canadian challenge is how we build that sense of respectful national conduct, especially with alienation growing in Western Canada.

I have one modest suggestion, from my time as the minister responsible for constitutional affairs in the early 1990s. When the Charlottetown constitutional negotiations nearly collapsed before they started, I convened five Canadian public-policy groups to ask their help in organizing a series of conferences, each on a specific constitutional issue, to be televised live by the CBC. The aim was that the 200 participants in each conference would reflect diverse backgrounds on constitutional issues.

One of those policy groups was the Canada West Foundation, whose agreement was on the condition that half those conference participants would be “ordinary Canadians”: interested, informed, but not necessarily pedigreed on constitutions or constitutional law. I said I could do 25 per cent, and on we went. Those conferences – six of them, in the end – were among the most open and constructive consultations in my longish career.

There is an opportunity for serious public-policy organizations such as the Canada West Foundation to work in concert to guide such an initiative on Canada’s modern connective issues and tissues. In fact, they might be more capable of generating a constructive discussion than our governments would be.

Long ago, true to my hopeful Western Canadian roots, I described Canada as a “community of communities”; for that, I was called, among other things, “a head waiter for the provinces.” But that concept of Canada – as a community of diverse yet inherently congenial and constructive internal communities – is broader than mere federal-provincial relations, mere governments, mere constitutions.

The “common-purpose instinct” is dwindling in our world today, as self-interest grows. That’s true among nations, and it’s true within countries. But those generous instincts are not extinct. And where they have deep roots, as they do in our lucky country, they need to be encouraged and fostered, whether it’s in our political parties or other agencies where serious and uniting conversations can be had.

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