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Business Commentary If we’re talking obstruction to national projects, it’s always been the provinces

Mark Milke is a Calgary author and columnist.

If voters care to understand why Canada is occasionally hobbled in capitalizing on more economic opportunities, citizens might spend less time parsing federal political party platforms. They should instead gaze intently at provincial capitals: The barriers to new jobs, higher incomes and greater prosperity, courtesy of narrow provincial political interests, are often constructed right there.

That reality is why Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's campaign-trail assertion about Stephen Harper – that had he been prime minister at Confederation, the Canadian Pacific Railway would never have been built – has it backward. Since before Confederation, actual impediments to national projects, usually commercial ones, have emanated from the provinces.

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There is no shortage of examples.

In 2012, B.C. Premier Christy Clark laid down five conditions for Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Lawyers will argue over the fine print and whether a province can assert jurisdiction this way, but the practical effects were to impede a cross-provincial project and set an example for other premiers.

Thus, last year, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Ms. Wynne set seven conditions for TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East pipeline to be allowed to cross "their" provinces on the way to New Brunswick. In June, Mr. Couillard argued that he didn't see much economic value in his province becoming a "transit place" for an oil pipeline.

In response, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, whose province will benefit from extra employment and tax revenue if Energy East reaches Saint John, attempted to prod Quebec with the argument that benefits to Quebec in jobs and extra tax revenue from the project would eclipse what would accrue to New Brunswick.

One wishes Mr. Gallant bonne chance here, but provincial opposition to projects that originate elsewhere often result from other calculations: staunch opposition to pipelines from a portion of the public in some provinces, and this opposition's possible effect on voter intentions.

But whether it's that or just a "What's in it for me?" stance, the tendency of provinces to act as de facto protectionists is widespread. It crops up in matters as diverse as labour mobility and provincial dairy and poultry marketing boards. It's rife in our cities, where some small-thinking municipal politicians oppose interprovincial and international free-trade agreements because such deals force cities to drop local, vote-buying protectionism.

The protectionist impulse even crops up over wine, where recalcitrant provinces try to prevent wine shipments across provincial borders. Just last month, a Newfoundland court was forced to dismiss provincial charges against FedEx for shipping B.C. wine into Newfoundland.

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As such, the premiers are at least consistent with some of their historical predecessors. But that very history includes the fact that Canada became a country in part to create a free-trade dynamo that could transcend narrow provincial interests.

For example, while debating Confederation in 1865, New Brunswick politician John McMillan argued that "'Free trade, free trade with the world' … should be our motto." He supported Confederation on the grounds that a union of the provinces "that will enable us to have free trade with our neighbours … would be commercially the best step we could take."

George Brown, the reform-minded politician from Upper Canada (and founder of The Globe) complained of the provincial tariffs and duties then imposed on goods from other provinces. In 1865, Brown remarked that trips to the Maritimes were akin to visiting a foreign country, where a "customs officer meets you at the frontier, arrests your progress and levies his imposts on your effects."

Instead of such barriers, which hampered travel and trade, Brown argued "heartily for the [proposed] union, because it will throw down the barriers of trade and give us control of a market of four million people."

Alas, in 2015, and despite the successful nation-building project that was Confederation, premiers are still emblematic of the provincial brick walls of protectionism.

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