This year marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation, in case you hadn't noticed. There will be celebrations throughout 2017. Canada Day, especially, will be a moment to reflect a little longer than usual on our country's achievements, and on the abundant blessings that derive from living in a peaceful liberal democracy. Break out the sparklers, people of Canada. This is your year.
Well, not just your year. It's also your government's year, and Ottawa has big plans to celebrate its greasiest tradition: rolling out the pork barrel and sprinkling tax dollars across the land in the form of grants and the like. The federal government will spend a total $500-million celebrating this country's sesquicentennial. That's half a billion of your tax dollars that will be flung about the provinces and territories to pay for the renovation of museums, libraries, arenas and docks; to hold a big party on Parliament Hill with the usual retinue of Canadian talent; and to fund earnest cultural projects designed specifically for the anniversary.
With the exception of the Parliament Hill bash, this is money that will be doled out to an indifferent reception. For example, we do not doubt at all that Canadians will not feel as if their country hasn't been properly celebrated unless Ottawa gives $155,000 to two artists who will transport a red leather sofa across the country for people to sit on and ruminate about what Canada means to them, with the purpose of creating a video of people sitting on a red leather couch ruminating about what Canada means to them.
Nor do we think Canadians from coast to coast to coast might look back in 2018 and say, darn it, why didn't Ottawa give the company that made that farcical MyDemocracy.ca website another $576,500 to create a portal on which we could have developed "meaningful associations with the myriad interpretations of being Canadian"?
We don't have a quibble with offbeat ideas about celebrating Canada. Maybe the red-sofa film will become a domestic blockbuster. Who knows. But even so, would Canadians' celebration of their country's founding be diminished by the absence of tax dollars to fund it? That's the question Ottawa should ask before pouring millions into such things, instead of prioritizing those dollars for critical spending, or simply not spending them at all.
The same skepticism applies to the $300-million that has been and is still being dispensed through the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program. The Harper government conveniently created this ATM in advance of the 2015 election, causing the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau to call the $150-million program a "slush fund." Then Mr. Trudeau got elected and sluiced a further 150 million units of general-revenue slush into the kitty, and set about eagerly giving it away.
Liberal or Conservative, it matters not. Ruling governments dole out grants constantly under one program or another, and ramp up the doling as elections approach. Patriotic milestones like a 150th anniversary are another signal opportunity to open the spigot. Which is why there will be a lot of work done on hockey arenas and cenotaphs this year, thanks to federal grants that cover up to 50 per cent of a project, to a healthy maximum of $500,000.
Are we missing the poetry in this? Perhaps for some there is nothing that says "150 years of peace, order and good government" like a Canadian dock refurbished at taxpayers' expense. Maybe to some there is an ineffable value in giving a privately owned media company in Toronto $1.3-million to create a website and app that will award badges to people who attend anniversary events and share their thoughts about their experience.
But even if there were, it would be beside the point. The real motivation for the federal largesse of the 150th anniversary lies in the inexhaustible political urge to campaign constantly. The year would not be less memorable if that $500-million stayed in its bank account. The government, on the other hand, might be less memorable to voters in 2019 if there are not thousands of black-and-white signs in front of public buildings announcing its contribution to this or that new roof.
There is a particular madness to these anniversary celebrations. Montreal, which turns 375 this year – not exactly a diamond anniversary – is going to spend $200-million on trinkets, including $35.9-million alone just to light up a bridge. How will they possibly top that in 25 years? Maybe they'll spend $1-billion and build an elevator to the top of Mount Royal.
Between Ottawa and Montreal alone, Canadian taxpayers will spend $700-million on anniversary gifts by the end of 2017. It is a giant sum of money that could have gone into new mass transit, more health care, or better schools and universities. It is also money that is being spent without a shred of evidence that it will improve Canadians' experience of their Canadianness.
The very same day The Globe and Mail reported that Ottawa intends to spend half-a-billion dollars on 2017 party treats, it also reported that new projections from the Finance Department show that Canada's long-term fiscal picture has deteriorated dramatically since 2014.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if, as a birthday gift to the country, Ottawa could suppress its raging desire to give us back our tax money in the form of renovated arenas every time the calendar rolls around to another useful fraction of a century? We're a modest people: All we need is a decent party on Parliament Hill, one good speech about the greatness of this land, and maybe some free sparklers for schoolchildren.
But $500-million? That money would have looked darn good on Canada's books, and we could have celebrated 2017 with the same enthusiasm, sitting on a warped dock, drinking a cold one, and being less worried about the maniacs who control the public purse.