Jason Cherniak, in his posting today “A Green Shift is Fair for All Canadians” (a matter of opinion, that), has taken up one side of the East-vs-West theme that has been developing over the time since Stéphane Dion made his “Green Shift” announcement. In response, there have been many voices raised, most notably that of The Grumpy Voter, an ex-Liblogger, who responded with “Cherniak on Western Alienation”. As someone who (a) remembers the NEP [National Energy Programme], (b) was born and raised in Ontario and — with two brief sojourns out of the country — lived there until he was 46, and (c) moved to the West in 2000, I’d like to weigh in on the subject of perceptions of fairness in this regard.
When I first moved out to Vancouver, I couldn’t really understand the attraction of what was then the Canadian Alliance. I was a Progressive Conservative — and a Toronto Red Tory in the David Crombie/Robert Stanfield mould — and the voices of “alienation” didn’t resonate for me. Certainly I wanted the Chrétien Government to be dismissed from office, but thought (still, seven years after the post-Mulroney/Campbell collapse) of my party as the natural alternative governing party. I didn’t feel alienated from the Federal Government; it felt as much “mine” as anyone’s.
Slowly this has changed. Partly this is a function of distance — the rest of the country is a long, long way from here (good heavens, Canada is “beyond Hope” — and more than once each winter accessible only by heading south first, or by flying over the snows in the passes) both in terms of distance and time zones. (Three hour time differences — Vancouver to the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal axis — are some of the most difficult to bridge easily, as anyone who conducts business over that distance or travels frequently knows.) Morning press conferences occur before breakfast or while commuting; Question Period is a late morning event; the budget comes down right after lunch; the political programmes on television occur in mid-afternoon: none of this is conducive to paying close attention to the news, especially when one works for a living.
Local news — especially on the radio — therefore tends to turn on matters municipal and provincial far more often than on matters federal. First of all, the players are “available” to be interviewed at all hours of the programming day; second, these are the issues that motivate my neighbours. Call volumes often seem far higher for these topics than for federal ones. It’s not that the effort isn’t made to deal in national issues, for it is; it’s that the world doesn’t turn on every twist and turn in Ottawa, and not at all on matters in Toronto or Québec City. (Halifax, Fredericton, Charlottetown, St. John’s: these might as well be in a foreign and not well known country most of the time.)
Out of sight and sound, out of mind. All the stürm und drang of the last Parliamentary session effectively flew overhead, motivating nothing (other than the belief that Ottawa is just a big waste of time). A steady diet of “Québec 400” ads in the past weeks has been coupled to the Federal Government as yet not making good on the request for supporting funds for “BC 150” — more evidence for the belief that the civil service in Ottawa is equally out of touch with the “outer provinces”.
The West of this country — whether it’s the ecotopian coast or the resource-rich mountains and high prairie, or even the breadbasket lower prairies east of the “adequate for agriculture without irrigation” line — is a society that lives through booms and busts, for it is inextricably tied to the ups-and-downs of its primary commodities economy. Despite this, the region continues to diversify its economies, and to maintain its own sense of social justice in its institutions. There is a strong sense of being misunderstood by Canadians to the east, for the rise of the West is upsetting a long-standing set of power balances in this country, just as surely as Confederation shifted power from the Maritimes to Ontario and Québec.
If there is a word I would find to describe Westerners of any stripe, it would be an emphasis on fairness. This gets expressed both in loud disagreements about courses of action, both sides claiming their view is “fair to all parties” — and in a general agreement about what pan-Canadian fairness would mean.
Simply put, it’s not Jason Cherniak’s version of it. Now Cherniak does refer to “strong provinces”, each able to respond in their own way to events — but he also wants a strong central government imposing its will, and that is just not deemed “fair” in the West. Westerners, for instance, do not ask other Canadians to share their values, merely to leave them free to live as they do; those in the T-O-M (Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal) axis, on the other hand, insist that their way is to be imposed, limited only by money, and (often) that to reject it is to be “unCanadian”, “less than Canadian”, “provincialist/regionalist” and the like.
The Ontario I grew up in did not think of itself as just another region in the Canadian Confederation; to be Ontarian — especially in Southern Ontario — was to be Canadian. It took moving to BC to allow the notion to dawn that there were many ties that bound us all together, coast to coast, but that, simultaneously, we are a land of fragmented and multiple identities, and that we are “Canadian” only when we recognise that in ourselves — and in others.
Back in 1980, when (amongst other evils done to the body and soul of this Dominion) the Trudeau Government brought in the legislation for the National Energy Programme, the goal was explicitly to force the West to sell its assets at a below-market price for the benefit of the East. Upward of $100 billion was lost to Alberta alone; housing prices crashed by upward of 50%; bankruptcies per 1,000 businesses rose by upward of 150% — while the T-O-M maintained its property values and its prosperity. For a people willing to live and prosper/suffer under the free market and price mechanisms, being forced into penury and loss is hardly a friendly act. Such losses are typical of depressions — indeed, the decline in Alberta lasted the same length of time as did the Dirty Thirties; Saskatchewan and BC forewent a decade of growth — although the Greater Toronto Region held steady and failed to grow only in one year due to the squeezing out of inflation triggered by the high interest rates of the time (and would that we actually had a Governor of the Bank of Canada today instead of a toady living in emulation of the Fed’s laisser les bon temps (pour mes amis) rouler attitude).
The Dion “Green Shaft” promises to once again target the economies of the West, and transfer their wealth eastward, to let the good times keep rolling in the T-O-M axis. Defenders of the proposal can argue all they like about carbon reductions (no targets offered), the urgency of dealing with global warming (in that case, order facilities shut rather than developing an elaborate transfer scheme to fund social programmes), or the creation of “national programmes” (as did Cherniak); the reality is that once again the West will be made to pay, and those in the T-O-M live without worries for a little while longer on the proceeds.
I don’t even live in Alberta or Saskatchewan, the two provinces expected to be hardest hit by Dion’s proposals, and I find myself in full empathy with the notion that this truly is NEP II, regardless of the name. (Nor do I believe for one minute that the Campbell Government has thought through the differential effects of its carbon taxation regime on BC.) As with other Westerners, I’m prepared to live with the ups and downs of the market and take my signal from prices. I don’t need distortions introduced as “public policy”.
Does this make me less well disposed toward Ottawa? You bet it does. I now understand — viscerally — why the bumper sticker was “Let those Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” back in the 1980s. For if anyone is “unCanadian”, it is he who would penalise their fellow countrymen deliberately for living with the risk of a commodity-based economy and willing to run those risks cleanly, substituting a socialist redistribution based on the notion that “Papa knows best”.
I guess the West is truly now home, and “Canadian” is just one of the fragments of my identity, instead of the denial of the others that it was in 1970s and 1980s Ontario.
POSTSCRIPT: The question, by the way, is one that opposed the “Green Shift” to “no action” (and isn’t it interesting how the BC Liberals have adopted that term ‘Green Shift’ to describe their now implemented carbon tax regime). Rather, it is one of “what do we really need to do” vs “what has been proposed”. In this, our Conservative Government is letting the country down. There is much we do need to do to prepare for the economic woes facing us, and much we need to do to prepare for a world with far less fuel readily available at reasonable prices. Now that would actually benefit all Canadians — not just some at the expense of others — just as “doing nothing” benefits some at the expense of others. We shall see if any party can figure this out in time. I’m not holding my breath.