Fix Western Alienation and Everyone Wins

January 21, 2020 Updated: January 22, 2020


If you told a visitor from Mars that Canada faced yet another national unity crisis, they might well conclude that human beings like to be miserable. As might a visitor from almost any other country on Earth, baffled that a nation as happy as Canada in every respect, from natural endowments to security, could have people as unhappy about Canada as we have. But maybe some good will come of it.

First, give us credit for our ingenuity. After decades haunted by Quebec separatism, we find ourselves with a happy Quebec and an unhappy “West,” meaning primarily Alberta and increasingly Saskatchewan, plus parts of rural British Columbia and Manitoba.

Don’t think it was easy. But it was effective.

There are many ways of slicing the differences that now divide us. Urban/rural is a big one: In Canadian elections, you need only win MTV, a now badly outdated ex-cool reference to our three biggest cities of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. (There was a hip TV channel called MTV back when people watched this thing called “television” instead of being glued to “devices.”)

Speaking of cool, the divide between it and uncool is another major Canadian rift that fairly closely matches urban/rural. But there’s also English/French, progressive/conservative (we even do that one inside one party), East/West, North/South, Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal. You want divides? We got divides. Even the Atlantic provinces are grumpy, though currently in no position to make demands.

So where’s the good news? Well, first, the Western alienation crisis actually has people’s attention. The federal Liberal cabinet huddled in Winnipeg this week, one of those second-tier not-so-cool off-the-beaten-track cities they’ve heard of, trying to look as though they’re listening to the West and maybe even managing to do it. But fishbowls are portable, so it’s one thing to set out to listen to unfamiliar and unwelcome voices and quite another to hear and understand them. The prime minister’s highly publicized Winnipeg purchase of luxury doughnuts at $47/dozen is a case in point.

The Conservatives are huddled we know not where gnashing their teeth at yet another unexpected electoral defeat and plotting the next one with their usual counterproductive cunning. But back to the Liberals, currently governing in a minority Parliament with support from further left.

When you have regional divides, one thing you try to do is to grant some of the demands of the unhappy region even when you don’t agree with them. After all, if you agreed with those demands, you’d have done them years ago and the divide would be less.

It was the strategy pursued for many years with Quebec, which long demanded greater decentralization including powers over things that actually were provincial anyway in our original Constitution. (And more money, which wasn’t.) And the great centralizers in Ottawa, of both parties, sometimes gave way. Not on principle, alas, which would have meant giving all provinces more power. Instead, they turned the whole thing into jury-rigged deal-making and called it statesmanship, Canadian style. The result is that Quebec is happy and the West is not, and polls show that people outside Quebec think Quebec doesn’t like them, bringing us back to the sorry thought that if humans can’t make Canada succeed, they can’t make anything succeed.

But maybe they can.

The Liberals are now attempting something similar in some ways for the West, including buying and building a stalled pipeline to bring diluted bitumen, or “dilbit,” to the consumers and ports of British Columbia. (In case you’re not Canadian, dilbit is one of those odd words we all had to learn and means bituminous sands diluted with various lighter petroleum products. Oh, and in case you’re not Canadian, “bituminous sands” are a mix of sand, water, clay, and really gooey asphalt-like heavy oil. Enemies call it “tar.” And the pipeline is “TMX” for Trans Mountain Expansion.)

In seeking to build this pipeline, the Liberals may end up hoisted with their own petard of over-regulation, climate alarmism, and toleration of “direct action” by protestors. But they genuinely are trying, even though they believe fossil fuels are A Bad Thing. And the attempt is a good first step, not just for Alberta and the West or for national unity, but for Canada’s economic and geopolitical well-being because of the vital importance of the energy industry to our prosperity and security.

Uncharacteristically, I have more good news. Meeting Western demands for a pipeline would not be the only way in which efforts to defuse a regional crisis would benefit the nation as a whole. Last spring, the Economic Education Association of Alberta held a conference in Red Deer on the subject of Western alienation, at which I said what I’m saying here: that a number of “Western” demands aren’t just good for the West but for the East. And again, I don’t just mean in saving Canada, worthwhile as it is. They would produce much better government throughout Canada.

When I say “Western” demands I acknowledge, of course, that the West is diverse and has liberals, socialists, populists, confused people, and others not of the more libertarian persuasion one typically associates with Alberta. But as a rule, what “the West” wants is less government delivered better. (It also wants no service cuts, a typical modern voter have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too topic for another day.)

So here are some things the federal government could do that would address Western alienation squarely and leave everyone better off.

  1. Balance the budget and stop trying to spend (or tax) your way out of debt.
  2. Simplify the tax system and lower rates.
  3. Take demographics seriously and address pension and health-care reform while there’s still time, in a market-friendly way.
  4. Decentralize on principle.
  5. Use the undoubted federal power to impose real free interprovincial trade.
  6. Get Alberta oil to market.
  7. Hold a national referendum to abolish the “equalization” program that drains money from successful provinces to prop up bad policy in less successful ones.

OK, maybe number 7 is getting a bit hysterical. And boring to non-Canadians who don’t even want to know what we did to ourselves with this incomprehensible, resentment-fuelling, grotesquely inefficient Constitutional monstrosity. But the weird thing about Western alienation is that, while it never should have happened, it may trap the federal government into doing a number of right things after having exhausted the alternatives.

As to why it was necessary to exhaust the alternatives, well, see my reflections above on the ability of human beings to find Canada bleak and annoying and otherwise to manufacture trouble when none comes along of its own accord. But if the result is dramatic policy reforms for the better that make the West happy, save the nation, and make the East prosperous, it will be proof that even humans sometimes get it right.

Including in Canada.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.