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opinion

Canada's provincial premiers meet in Toronto, Dec. 2, 2019.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Central Canadian know-it-alls smirked as Ontario’s Doug Ford presented his fellow premiers with Maple Leafs jerseys before Monday’s meeting of the Council of the Federation. So good-old-boy. So amateur. So ... provincial.

But as the premiers once again demonstrated, the provinces run this country. The political elites in Ottawa find this intolerable. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

At the meeting, 13 provincial and territorial leaders were able to speak with one voice. All of them, including Quebec Premier François Legault, supported changes to the Fiscal Stabilization Program that would help Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador weather the effect of falling oil prices.

“Today, they had our backs,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. “And I commit to them that we will have theirs when needed as well.”

The premiers agreed that the Liberal government should start spending the billions of dollars it has promised for infrastructure funding, rather than tying up that funding in red tape.

And they said no province is interested in talking about a proposed federal pharmacare program until Ottawa properly funds existing health-care commitments.

The know-it-alls will sigh with boredom. Once again, those whiny premiers demand that Ottawa shovel more tax dollars to them with no accountability and no national vision. Don’t they understand that the federal government must act in the interest of all Canadians, rather than simply serving as an ATM for greedy provincial governments?

What these fiscal centralists refuse to acknowledge is that the provincial governments are responsible for virtually every aspect of the life of any Canadian not living on a reserve. The federal government spends its time neglecting the reserves and not acquiring fighter jets.

Provincial governments set the highway speed limit – and build the highway. They oversee the great cities and the family farm and everything in between, including crown lands and natural resources. They also oversee health care, education, the provincial justice system and the stock exchange. They make and run the parks you are most likely to visit outside your own community.

They paid the costs of your birth, educated you, married you, set the rules in your workplace, shaped the street you live on and the buying and selling of your homes and cars – including the insurance. They shaped the commute you endure. They will help care for you as you age. You will be buried according to their rules.

Meanwhile, still no new fighters.

But the federal government collects the lion’s share of the taxes. That tension between federal resources and provincial responsibility shapes the politics of our federation. That is why premiers aren’t just whining – usually – when they demand more money from Ottawa. They need that money. In a just world, the federal government would transfer much of its taxing authority to the provinces. But it won’t. So we’re left with this.

Of course, there are provinces and there are provinces. Quebec is now a self-governing dominion, as one might call it, within Confederation, about as independent today as Canada was in 1867.

Ontario and British Columbia have the population, fiscal capacity and access to markets to be as independent as they choose. A minority of Albertans want their province to secede entirely. On the other hand, the impoverished Atlantic provinces depend on Ottawa for their survival.

The Council of the Federation seeks to reconcile these disparate power structures, including the disparity between the provinces and the territories. It usually succeeds, and succeeded again on Monday.

With power comes responsibility. Every bit as much as the federal government, the provincial governments have a duty to make Canada work. They did that job by agreeing Monday on all major items on the agenda.

With his imposition of conditions on federal health transfers, and with his imposition of a carbon tax on provinces that lack one, Mr. Trudeau angered premiers across the country. Mr. Legault is every bit as opposed to federally imposed taxes and to intrusions into provincial control over natural resources as Alberta’s Jason Kenney.

Those intrusions contributed to Mr. Trudeau receiving his comeuppance in October’s election – the Liberals lost the popular vote and were reduced to a minority government that has little representation in the West. Since then, the Prime Minister has displayed a previously unaccustomed deference.

When he meets with the premiers in the new year, we’ll see if that deference is real.