To appropriate a phrase, when Ontario sneezes, Canada gets a cold. Which is why everyone from St. John's to Victoria should be frustrated by the contretemps over that province's new sex-education curriculum.
Ontario's finances are in terrible shape, dragging down the national economy. Since Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne appears to be unable or unwilling to tackle the problem, that leaves the Progressive Conservatives as the only party that might put the province's books back in order.
But instead of readying themselves for government, some Tory MPPs are plunging their party into a culture war over whether and when students should be taught human sexuality. They continue to refuse to understand what both Mike Harris and Stephen Harper understood: Conservatives lose when they focus on social conservatism and win when they focus on economic conservatism. The Tories' folly, unless they abandon it, will ensure Liberal election victories for many years to come.
Despite low growth and high unemployment, Ontario remains home to almost 40 per cent of Canada's population and economy. So when the situation deteriorated to the point, in 2009, that the province became eligible for equalization payments, the fiscal federation shuddered. Who would pay into the pot, now that Ontario was taking from it?
The answer, of course, was Alberta. But Canada's richest province may be headed for its very own recession, thanks to tanking oil prices.
So we have a situation this year in which Ontario will be drawing $2.4-billion in equalization – money that the other have-not provinces will have to do without – mostly paid for by Westerners, even with Alberta in recession. Not healthy for all concerned.
The falling oil prices that hurt the Alberta economy should boost the Ontario economy. But the province has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. Many of those jobs were in businesses that closed. There are no shifts to return to.
Liberal efforts to reverse the decline – usually right-hearted but often wrong-headed – have left the province with rising electricity bills, a deep structural deficit, and a provincial debt that has soared from 28 per cent of the GDP to 40 per cent on their watch. Ontario's debt now represents half of all provincial debt, which the province's auditor general calls "a national concern."
The solution is as obvious as it is unpleasant: Queen's Park needs to cut spending in order to eliminate the deficit. It will be harder to find a doctor. Classrooms will get larger. Municipalities will have to cut back on garbage collection. Public servants will face layoffs and wage cuts. Reversing a decade of deficits will be hugely painful. The Liberals clearly don't have the stomach for it.
The Progressive Conservatives, however, may not be fit to govern. The party has lost four consecutive elections, thanks to foolish pandering to social conservatives with promises of public funding for faith-based schools and by referring to new Canadians as "foreign workers."
Now they're doing it again. While objecting to the province's new sex-education curriculum, unveiled this week, Tory leadership candidate Monte McNaughton declared, "it's not the Premier of Ontario's job, especially Kathleen Wynne, to tell parents what's age-appropriate for their children."
Ms. Wynne is a lesbian and, despite his protestations, Mr. McNaughton's remark was interpreted by many as homophobic.
"What is it that especially disqualifies me for the job that I'm doing?" Premier Wynne thundered in the Legislature. "Is it that I'm a woman? Is it that I'm a mother? Is it that I have a master's of education? Is it that I was a school council chair? Is it that I was the minister of education?"
"What is it exactly that the member opposite thinks disqualifies me from doing the job that I'm doing? What is that?"
Stephen Harper has won three federal elections by prohibiting any debate on abortion or other social-conservative hot buttons. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris, an enthusiastic tax cutter and budget balancer, won his second majority government after promising to extend provincial benefits to same-sex couples (though he was nudged by the Supreme Court).
Christine Elliott, who is leading in the race to replace Tim Hudak, is trying to distance herself from the sex-ed debate. But others in the caucus and party are happy to rage against modernity.
When Liberal Education Minister Liz Sandals asked rhetorically whether the province should also abandon teaching evolution, Tory MPP Rick Nicholls retorted that he thought it would be a good idea.
"I don't believe in evolution," he told reporters Wednesday. "People are entitled to their own perspectives and views on life."
Meanwhile, the provincial debt continues to climb. For anyone who believes Canada can't be healthy if Ontario isn't healthy, it's enough to make you weep.