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Blinkered by rectitude
Western Canada's view of itself as self-sufficient makes it
less sympathetic to others, argues analyst JOHN RICHARDS


Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Politics is an endeavour whereby people collectively decide on many matters. Some are mundane: where to build bridges and roads. Some entail moral dilemmas and controversy: how generous should social programs be and who should pay the requisite taxes.

Inevitably, people construct myths about all this. A myth, explains Webster's Dictionary,is a "traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people." True or false, the myths we believe reveal who we are and who we want to be.

The first myth of Western Canadians is that we embody the traditions of the pioneers, of hardworking immigrants from many lands who plowed the sod, who created an ocean of wheat from the banks of the Red River to the Peace River, who built solid, self-sufficient communities. Implicit in this myth was mistrust of central Canadian institutions -- the banks and railway companies -- that earned money from the farmer, yet bore none of his risks. Also implicit was mistrust of the elite running Ottawa, whose primary concern was the well-being of those east of the lakehead. A classic expression of all this is the famous milch cow cartoon from the Grain Growers' Guide.

Is this first myth true? Pretty clearly, contempt for top-hatted elites in the East was overdone. And early pioneers hardly integrated all in their communities: They were largely indifferent to the aboriginals they displaced. But there is also a fair measure of truth.

The West was the first Canadian region to work out a reasonably harmonious multicultural society where neither the French nor British formed the majority ethnic group. After Manitoba's language legislation of 1890 dashed hopes among francophones that new French-speaking communities might prosper in the West, multicultural integration entailed (as in the United States) intergenerational assimilation to speaking English.

One consequence of our myth about multicultural integration is that few Westerners appreciate francophone Quebeckers' myth -- that Confederation is a means to enable "their" government to preserve and promote French language and culture. Over the last generation, Westerners have been passive observers of the destructive game played between Quebec sovereigntists (who insist that linguistic protection is feasible only in a sovereign Quebec) and Canadian nationalists in the Liberal Party (who disingenuously promote Ottawa's individual bilingualism as a feasible substitute for Quebec language laws). Failing to understand what's at stake, we in the West have rarely tried to effect a compromise.

A second myth we believe about ourselves is that we are heir to midwestern ideals of "good government." Believing that our pioneer industriousness carries over to our politics, we think we have an instinctive revulsion for the politics of clientelism, whereby politicians in Washington or Ottawa corrupt the ability of local communities to govern themselves.

The skeptic finds this myth easy to ridicule -- was Bill Van der Zalm or Glen Clark the least-competent first minister of the last generation? Or was it Grant Devine, who, defeated in 1991, left Saskatchewan the most debt-ridden of the 10?

Still, this second myth also reveals an important truth. Most Westerners for most of the last century have received reasonably good "value for money" from their provincial governments. From women's suffrage during the First World War to medicare, Western governments pioneered many of Canada's core reforms.

This history has made most of us instinctive supporters of a decentralized form of federalism. While Western separatism is a marginal tradition, there is a fair consensus among us that Ottawa should attend to those dossiers that fall within its purview and not confuse things by intruding on those within provincial purview. In particular, Ottawa should not undermine "good government" by what Ralph Klein labels "boutique programs" based on last month's focus-group results.

Over the last generation, the Ottawa elite has consistently failed to understand this "good government" myth. The result has been unnecessary stress on national unity.

An illustration: In 1984, Westerners voted for Brian Mulroney's Conservatives, expecting this would end the Liberals' penchant for buying electoral support via extravagant discretionary spending (targeted primarily at Quebec and Atlantic Canada). Given Red Tory influences, Mr. Mulroney closed Ottawa's deficit only slowly, and to the dismay of many Westerners, he continued ad hoc spending traditions.

Western frustration came to a head when Ottawa awarded the CF-18 repair contract to Montreal-based Bombardier, not to the Winnipeg-based firm preferred by the Defence Department for technical and cost-related reasons. The CF-18 affair cracked the Tory alliance between moderate Quebec nationalists and Prairie conservatives. In breaking that alliance, Westerners displayed their desire for "good government." But the response was simplistic. Reform leaders assumed Quebeckers' aims turned essentially around federal subsidy; by simultaneously rejecting the Meech Lake Accord, Reform ignored Quebeckers' cultural and linguistic concerns.

The ideal of "good government" has mattered not only in the negative sense of turning Westerners against the major national parties, but also in the positive sense of showing that political solutions to intractable problems do exist. By the early 1990s, aggregate provincial-federal accounts had been continuously in the red for two decades; resolving the problem appeared impossible. The first of Canada's 11 senior governments to take fiscal redress seriously were Saskatchewan and Alberta. Both undertook three years of program spending cuts and simultaneous increases in own-source taxes. By the time of Paul Martin's seminal 1995 budget, both had achieved fiscal surplus.

The last federal election provides a final illustration. As part of their campaign, the Liberals opted to restore (some) pre-1995 UI regulations that accommodate seasonal unemployment. Non-partisan analysts were nearly unanimous in thinking that the pre-1995 UI scheme amounted to "bad government." It contained many incentives to sustain low-productivity seasonal employment; it discouraged workers in high-unemployment regions from continuing education and from migrating. By reducing benefits for repeat UI claimants, the new 1996 rules helped restore UI to its role of providing insurance against unanticipated unemployment.

But the 1996 reforms cost the Liberals. In 1997, they lost two-thirds of the Atlantic caucus. By reneging on the 1996 reforms, they won back more Atlantic Liberal MPs in the election of 2000. The tactic worked in Atlantic Canada. In the West, it assured defeat for most Liberal candidates.

In many ways, Western myths of multicultural integration and "good government" are worth celebrating. Where these myths serve Canada poorly is that they have led Westerners to ignore what is at stake in the non-co-operative game played out between Quebec sovereigntists and anglo-Canadian nationalists.
John Richards, an associate professor in the business faculty of Simon Fraser University, is the Phillips Scholar in Social Policy at the C. D. Howe Institute.


Yesterday:Our identity trap
by Jocelyn Létourneau
Today: Myths of the West
by John Richards
Tomorrow: Atlantic heritage
by Margaret Conrad
Thursday: Living the indigenous part
by Drew Hayden Taylor
Friday: A northern notion
by John Ralston Saul
Saturday: The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture by Alain Dubuc

A joint initiative of the Dominion Institute, John Ralston Saul, La Presse and The Globe and Mail, these articles are published concurrently in French and English. The LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture will be delivered Friday in Montreal, and broadcast at 3 p.m. Saturday on CBC Newsworld.

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