In Canada we rehearse for the real controversies by getting huffy about fake ones. My colleagues in Quebec spent the hottest weekend of the year trying to rally the public’s sympathy for their plight: political reporters will soon be forced to cover a historic provincial election.
Hand across forehead: oh, the indignity! “Don’t come talk to us about equalization, restrictions or tax rates,” Stéphane Laporte wrote in La Presse. “We just want to know where the pickles are.” (It read better in French. Very slightly better.)
Never mind that summer elections have been held at the federal level in 1968, 1974, 1984 and 1997; that Quebecers voted in a summer provincial election in 1994; that Nova Scotians did so in 1988, 1999 and 2003; that Ontarians did in 1987 and 1990; the fiction that elections constitute a hardship and a chore persists, if only because until an election starts, column inches have to be filled with something.
Outside Quebec the journalistic pickings are even slimmer. So it was with positive gratitude that the scribes fell upon news that Stephen Harper had showed up at the Calgary Stampede to call Calgary “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.” Could this be controversial? It might! The National Post called a political scientist for analysis and checked in with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, who said the Prime Minister misspoke. Online reader surveys were organized. (Calgary topped the CBC’s, edging out Vancouver and Montreal.) Wise men wondered whether the Prime Minister’s remarks constituted a “gaffe.” Thomas Mulcair and Bob Rae were consulted: each announced his love for every part of the country was equal to three decimal places.
In the end, CalgaryGreatGate blew over for lack of sufficient dudgeon. It’s hard to get angry at any politician for declaring his love for any part of the country that reliably elects him. If anything, the reaction of Mulcair and Rae—so robotic, so cheerfully bloodless—made Harper look more human by comparison.
You love the whole country equally, gentlemen? Really? I don’t. I am awfully fond of Ottawa, my adopted home, but it has few decent places to hear music, its main sports venue is a half-hour out of town, and you can’t find a decent burrito. The cities I love most are, for entirely personal reasons, Quebec City, St. John’s and Montreal, or at least the remaining still-intact bits of Montreal that are not under an overpass. If you disagree, good for you. My list of candidates for “greatest city” would be different. Toronto and Montreal, neither very great. Most promising? Calgary would be hard to beat.
If anything, Harper’s assertion that Calgary is “the greatest city in the greatest country” leads us to suspect that, if Canada is the greatest country in the world, it’s not because of any of its cities. That’d be fine too. Some countries lead with their cities. Italy would be lovely if it had no city larger than Orvieto, but its greatness is contained almost entirely within the municipal limits of Rome and Florence. The Spanish countryside is mostly trouble, but they have Barcelona so all is forgiven. Canada’s greatness, a quality not often remarked upon by non-Canadians, seems to be too bound up in rocks, trees and vast Arctic expanses to be contained within any of its cities.
The whole thing is a mug’s game. Still, it’s striking that Harper’s offhand comment drew so much attention, because it should have been the blandest dog-bites-man story imaginable. But we Canadians are exquisitely attuned to assertions of superiority, privilege or favour from any corner of the land. If regional jealousy were an Olympic event we would own the podium, although we’d never agree on where to put it.
The eternal danger is that the same instinct to second-guess arises when the stakes are higher than Stampede pep talks. “In a country like Canada,” Jean Chrétien said in a 1998 interview, “there are regional jealousies that are inevitable. If you take one problem at a time, you eliminate the jealousies. If you don’t, if it becomes one big bargaining session, you never get out of it.”
On this, at least, Harper has tended to agree with Chrétien. He’s done everything he could to avoid big bargaining sessions. He increased transfers to the provinces soon after taking office, essentially buying their goodwill. He almost never meets the premiers as a group.
But big questions do not go away simply because he prefers to avoid them. The federal government’s $15-billion equalization program comes up for renewal in 2014. The provinces will need to know before then what to expect. Unless Harper announces his terms in the next six weeks, there is a good chance he will announce them to a Parti Québécois government in Quebec. The spring election in Alberta featured Opposition leader Danielle Smith arguing that her province pays too much into equalization as it is.
Harper’s keen instinct for fights he’s best to avoid will lead him to renew equalization with few changes. But meanwhile, as I wrote in our last issue, his energy-export policies seem to be leading to a showdown between the governments of Alberta and British Columbia. If you replace “which part of Canada is greatest” with “which deserves more wealth and power,” you get no end of headaches. Don’t cry for Harper. He wasn’t drafted. He volunteered for the job. So far he is still grateful to Calgarians for their help.