To have and have not
When Ottawa sends money to Atlantic Canada, it's called a
handout; elsewhere, it's investment, says historian MARGARET CONRAD
Wednesday, March 7, 2001
No region of Canada has suffered more from the complex intersection of history, heritage, and myth than the Atlantic provinces. From the angry outburst of Ralph Klein -- "Don't give me that shit" in reference to equalization payments -- to the token treatment of the region in the CBC's much-lauded Canada: A People's History series, Atlantic Canada seems destined to be frozen in a time warp. Indeed, the difficult process of constructing useful public policies for Atlantic Canadians is compounded by the fact that we see ourselves reflected in the nation's media in ways that are increasingly demeaning. While the fault for our poor media image is perhaps our own as much as it is Ralph Klein's or Mark Starowicz's, the result is as destructive as if the rest of Canada lobbed a bomb into the region every so often to keep us in our accustomed place as a throwback to an earlier and less progressive era.
The gap between myth and history has widened since the 1960s due to the outpouring of scholarly research on Atlantic Canada. In academic circles, the myth of the region's debilitating conservatism has been called into question by historian Ernest R. Forbes, who exposed it as a largely unjustified stereotype. True, Atlantic Canadians were slow to support radical political movements. But Mr. Forbes and others have noted, as progressive initiatives, the region's leadership in the push for responsible government, its early commitment to the higher education of women, and the Herculean efforts by provincial governments to impose modernization in the 1960s -- Newfoundland's wholesale resettlement programs, New Brunswick's sweeping municipal reform.
Who reading this article knows that Halifax and Edmonton have roughly the same unemployment rates? Or that Atlantic Canada has embraced neo-liberal orthodoxy more fully than any other region? We have tolls on sections of the Trans-Canada Highway, university tuitions twice the level of many other provincial jurisdictions, and corporate ownership of some of our new school buildings.
Of course, emphasizing what some might see as progressive trends serves the region no better than belabouring the conservative ones. The wiser course is to concede that Atlantic Canada is a complex region with a history long and deep enough to accommodate most academic prejudices.
The widely held perception that the region gets more than its share of handouts from Ottawa is another myth that has outlived its usefulness. While it is certainly the case that the region benefits from transfer payments, it does so less now than 20 years ago, and rarely receives its share, even on a per capita basis, of funding from national policies designed with other regions of Canada in mind. Patronage remains a factor in the region's politics not because there is something in our history or genetic makeup that makes Atlantic Canadians more corrupt, but because it serves as a way of legitimizing a national policy that does not serve the region very well.
Elsewhere in Canada, patronage is dressed up as national policy: the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway or federal investment in cultural industries, for example. Programs tailored to meet the needs of Atlantic Canadians are invariably deemed less worthy. The recent demand from the region's premiers for a fairer funding formula and a bigger share of royalties from offshore resources fell on deaf ears -- just those whiners from Atlantic Canada again.
On a closer look, it is clear that the poorer provinces -- Saskatchewan and Manitoba included -- have suffered disproportionally from cuts to federal spending in the 1990s. Surely, our premiers would be remiss if they failed to enlist Ottawa's help in their crusade to reverse the trend to greater regional disparity.
The structure of Confederation created the framework for the region's marginalization. Under the British North America Act of 1867, small political jurisdictions had little chance of shaping national policy to meet their needs. Even their protests have gone missing in the national narrative. Canada: A People's History presents Joseph Howe as a supporter of Confederation rather than the indefatigable leader of Nova Scotia's anti-Confederation movement, a selective perception highlighting the point that the past can be used to confirm whatever political prejudice suits us.
Nova Scotia's anti-Confederation movement was only the first of several protests designed to produce a national policy that would serve the region's interests. In the 1920s, the three Maritime provinces collaborated in an effort to get their "rights" within Confederation, but found their demands eclipsed by political manoeuvring and the Depression. Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 and immediately became lumped with the three Maritime provinces into a new entity called Atlantic Canada. Although differing from each other as much as the four Western provinces do, the Atlantic provinces are usually seen by policymakers outside the region as a single unit -- which may be another myth long overdue for re-examination.
Why did the Atlantic provinces, which came together in the so-called "Atlantic revolution" of the 1950s to wrest concessions form Ottawa in the form of adjustment grants and federal planning agencies, fail to realize their goal of economic equality with the rest of Canada?
In 1945 francophones in Quebec had one of the lowest per capita incomes in their province. That situation no longer prevails. Similarly, the Western provinces have come into their own in the last half century. What happened in Atlantic Canada? Do our myths get in the way of effective public policy? There is evidence that this is so. In his 1957 preliminary report for the Royal Commission on Canada's Economic Prospects, Walter Gordon suggested that money be provided to move people from Atlantic Canada to growth centres elsewhere. In what other region of the country would such a policy be advanced as a solution to economic woes?
So what is to be done? In my classroom, I often ask my students to look at national policy since Confederation and decide where the region went wrong. Most of them conclude that the biggest mistake was joining Canada in the first place. With impeccable logic untainted by the complex realities of human affairs, my students suggest that, while Confederation may have worked in the age of rail and the welfare state, it serves us less well in the era of globalization. Much better to follow the model of the Scandinavian countries, which can fine-tune their policies directly to global market forces (and reap the benefits of their off-shore resources), rather than through some distant and increasingly ill-informed federal government.
As someone who came of age in the heady nationalist atmosphere of the 1960s, I am saddened by this, and try to counter their separatist leanings. I am, however, encouraged by their determination to develop new approaches to help us move beyond a myth that has clearly lost its ability to inspire us: that the rest of Canada could or should care what happens "down there."
Margaret R. Conrad is a professor of history at Acadia University and co-author with James K. Hiller of Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making, published by Oxford University Press.
Monday: Our identity trap
by Jocelyn Létourneau
Yesterday: Myths of the West
by John Richards
Today: Atlantic heritage
by Margaret Conrad
Tomorrow: 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.