Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe raised a fair number of Canadian eyebrows this week when he announced that he wants his province to be recognized as a “nation within a nation,” and to consequently benefit from the precedent set in Quebec that says such a creature deserves greater autonomy over its affairs.
Mr. Moe’s political opponents immediately (and correctly) labelled it a distraction from his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned Saskatchewan into one of the worst-hit parts of the country this fall.
Other skeptics wondered how the province might qualify for nationhood. Saskatchewan has no obvious linguistic or other peg on which to hang the idea, and being terrible at public health is not something known to rouse a populace to seek self-determination.
But we say go for it, Mr. Moe, and welcome to the club.
There have been very few moments in Canadian history when there weren’t politicians and voters demanding a better deal from Confederation, and threatening to walk if they didn’t get it.
It’s a tradition as old as the country itself. In a typical Canadian paradox, Prince Edward Island, the so-called “Birthplace of Confederation” – it’s right there on their licence plates – didn’t join Confederation until four years after it happened. And the ink was barely dry on the 1867 British North America Act when the Anti-Confederation Party won 18 of Nova Scotia’s 19 seats in the new House of Commons, and unsuccessfully tried to split to join the United States.
There have been similar movements and moments since. Quebec’s two referendums on separation, and several decades worth of mostly successful demands for more autonomy, are obviously the biggest.
But Alberta, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and the western provinces as a group, have all at various times produced parties, initiatives and movements dedicated to the end of Confederation, or at least to its radical redefinition.
Sometimes these non-Quebec movements are based on sincere feelings of alienation, an inevitable condition in a country as culturally and geographically varied as Canada, and whose population is heavily tilted to the east.
Other times, such as the case of Mr. Moe, they are expressions of frustration at Ottawa – or at whatever level of government is seen as a barrier to self-determination. There is a “partition” movement that comes and goes in Montreal to separate the city from the province; people in Labrador have toyed with parting ways with Newfoundland; and there was briefly a political party that stood for the independence of Vancouver Island from the mainland.
It has not always been pretty, but it’s kind of our thing, this constant questioning of the power relationships between the governments that co-exist under the flag of Canada.
So Mr. Moe is perfectly welcome to throw his hat into the ring. That said, it’s hard to understand why he thinks he needs to declare Saskatchewan a “nation within a nation” in order to ask for even more of a say over immigration, or to create a provincial police force. These are issues other provinces have been able to handle without rancour. The Ontario Provincial Police have been around for more than 110 years – to enforce the law, not thumb a nose at the feds.
And while Mr. Moe insists he isn’t pushing for separation, his appropriation of the word “nation” suggests he hopes to brandish the leverage assumed to be associated with an independence movement when he deals with Ottawa.
To have that in his pocket, he’d need to get voters onside, either through a general election or a referendum in which people in Saskatchewan gave his government a mandate to negotiate independence.
It’s doubtful that many voters in Saskatchewan want that, when Quebeckers didn’t embrace that choice over grievances that are deeper and of longer standing than one premier’s momentary pique over something the federal government did or didn’t do.
And it seems unlikely that, after all that Confederation has been through in 154 years and counting, the 1.2 million people living in Saskatchewan would want to achieve what Quebeckers decided they could live without.
But, as we said, Mr. Moe is welcome to try. He’ll learn soon enough that it takes more than blithely throwing out the word “nation” to bring this resilient country to its knees.
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