Coyne v. Wells: Looking west -

Coyne v. Wells: Looking west

How much clout do the western provinces have? And to what end?


Looking west

On Jan. 20, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on “The West is in. Now what?” at Calgary’s Theatre Junction Grand, the third in a series of national debates. Broadcast live on CPAC, it will feature Nancy Heppner, Saskatchewan’s minister of environment, Lloyd Axworthy, the University of Winnipeg’s president, Lindsay Blackett, Alberta’s minister of culture and community spirit, and Melissa Blake, mayor of Fort McMurray, Alta. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne as panellists. Tickets can be bought at This week, Wells and Coyne kick off the debate.

Andrew Coyne: Paul, I’ll start by softening you up with a barrage of statistics. In 1896, when Sir Wilfrid Laurier laid the foundation for a century of Liberal dominance with his first of four election wins, Quebec held 30 per cent of the population of Canada. The whole of the territory of Canada west of Ontario accounted for less than 10 per cent. As late as 1980, when the National Energy Program was launched, Quebec held nearly as many people as the four western provinces combined. Half the seats in Pierre Trudeau’s majority government that year came from Quebec.

But now look. As of 2006, the combined population of Alberta and B.C. alone was enough to surpass Quebec’s. (They still have 11 fewer seats, but with the coming redistricting that will be corrected.) And the trend is clear: where Manitoba and Saskatchewan used to be the laggards, all four provinces are now growing faster than the national average. The West is younger, attracts more migrants, and has more babies. By 2031, Statistics Canada projects the West will have nearly a third of the population of Canada; Quebec, as little as 20 per cent.

Bigger, and richer: in 2008, the West’s combined GDP outstripped that of Ontario for the first time, fuelled in part by skyrocketing oil prices. If predictions of continued rising world demand for oil and other resources hold true, that trend should also hold. And as the West’s wealth grows, so will its appeal to footloose workers from the rest of Canada.

I’m taking a risk, talking about the West as if it were one region. But in fact it is more possible to speak of the West as a cohesive entity than ever before. The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between Alberta and B.C. will soon be expanded to include Saskatchewan, whose political and economic culture, with a per capita GDP that now exceeds Ontario’s, more and more resembles Alberta’s. Even my home province of Manitoba increasingly looks west, not east, for its interests and inspiration. As, for that matter, does Ontario.

The whole centre of gravity of the country, in other words, is shifting west, with implications we’ve only just begun to consider. For instance: in the century from Laurier to Chrétien, it was rare for a party to win a majority without carrying Quebec. In the next century, might the same be true of the West?

Paul Wells: Andrew, your last question implies a link, or rather an inverse relationship, between the rise of the West and the decline of the federal Liberals. I hope our session in Calgary on Jan. 20 goes well beyond that dimension, but it’s a handy gauge of how things have changed. Liberalism since Pierre Trudeau has meant a few things: a very urban perspective on social issues, a belief that a strong federal government is synonymous with the vigorous defence of the national interest, and so on. The Chrétien decade, based on a divided and perfectly conquered opposition in Ontario, masked the longer-term divergence between the way Liberals conceive the country and the way the West does.

Here, as you said, we run into unavoidable problems of definition. Vancouver, Edmonton, much of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are hard to squeeze into a cookie-cutter conception of what “the West” thinks. Even in Calgary I know a lot of people who aren’t big conservatives. They just seem to be outnumbered, is all.

Anyway, in Calgary we’ll concentrate on the Prairie West and visit B.C. another day. And probably the smartest thing we’ll do is let our guests, who live there, do most of the talking.

One question I’ll put to them a dozen different ways is: is it a place? One reason Quebec has had such an influence in our national politics is that its politicians are willing to speak with one voice to the rest of the country, even at the risk of turning the message into a caricature. A diverse and divergent West is a fascinating place but it can’t dominate the nation’s agenda if it doesn’t have a strong sense of what that agenda should be.

But maybe it doesn’t want to speak with one voice, because decentralization wouldn’t require it to. If rugged individualism extends to the ways in which provinces and parts of provinces govern themselves, theoretically they could go their own way. No harm done then?

AC: Paul, okay, I’ll bite. Decentralization is a splendid way of accommodating diversity—which is why we’re a federation rather than a unitary state. I’m not sure there’s any need for further devolution, and I’m not sure the West will see it in its interest in the future, in the way it did in the past. I’ll explain.

You’re right, of course: the West is not a monolith. Winnipeg is a very different city from Calgary, and city differs from country. Nonetheless, there are certain traits that characterize the West in general, and that shape its culture.

One is fluidity: compared to the rest of Canada, the western provinces are accustomed to high numbers of people entering and leaving every year. Their economies, likewise, are more vulnerable to swings in resource prices. That instability is accompanied by some degree of social stress, as reflected in, say, higher crime rates. But it also makes for a more dynamic society, one that’s more open to change. There is a higher degree of egalitarianism, but it’s social and democratic—less tolerance of pretension, less deference to authority—rather than economic.

In one respect, in particular, the West shows a notable commonality: politics. You talk of Quebec’s ability to speak with one voice. But in fact no region in recent times has voted so massively en bloc, so consistently, for so long, as the West. In 10 elections since 1979, the West has only once given the conservative parties, singly or combined, less than 48 per cent of the popular vote; they have averaged more than 50 per cent. That dominance has only become more pronounced of late: in 2008, the Conservatives took 75 per cent of the seats west of Ontario, and 52.5 per cent of the vote. Only the Diefenbaker sweep can match it.

Until now, the western block has not been enough to decide the government of the country. But as the West’s numbers and wealth grow, it will. For 30 years or more, the West’s default view of “Ottawa” has been oppositional, if not hostile. How will it adjust to the experience of running the place?

PW: Andrew, one way the West—or at least Alberta—could respond to having one of their own in charge is to decide he’s not really one of their own. That’s how Alberta responded to Joe Clark at the end of the ’70s (admittedly a very, very different case: Clark decided most Albertans weren’t one of his own first), and, to some extent, how it turned on Jean Chrétien after 1993 (his Liberals won 21 seats across the Prairies that year, and fewer ever after). On recent trips to Calgary I’ve heard a bit of oil-patch grumbling that Stephen Harper doesn’t really “get” Alberta, and that it’s Jim Prentice who really understands Calgary’s assorted social strata.

Probably that’s just grumbling. The test question—are you going to vote for another party then?—tends to deflate the importance of that kind of talk. But I wonder whether the turmoil engulfing Ed Stelmach’s Alberta Progressive Conservative government isn’t some kind of weird bank-shot reaction to the rise of Stephen Harper federally.

Anyway, to my mind it’d be all the better if “western” issues were reflected in our national politics. But they’re not. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have burgeoning Aboriginal populations, but Indian Affairs is no higher-profile a federal portfolio under this government than its predecessors. Alberta has one of the lowest rates of post-secondary education participation in the country (too many kids think they’ll live a better life in the oil sands, and they’re wrong). But the Harper government has shown no signs of worrying about that. So far it looks like clout without content.

AC: Paul, Alberta also has some of the best schools in the country, I should note, which takes us back to a point you were making off the top. Not all of the ways the West will change Canada will be through federal politics. Provincial governments lead the way on many measures: lower debts, lower taxes. That not only sets an example for the other provinces: it also presents a competitive threat.

With Ontario’s economy flatlining, in particular, the province, and its largest city, Toronto, are in deep fiscal trouble. Suppose they respond in the usual way, by raising taxes. And suppose the Wildrose Alliance displaces the ruling Tories in Alberta, ushering in a new age of smaller government, and (still) lower taxes. How long before that trickle of head offices moving west becomes a flood?

And the West’s new clout will be felt in ways outside government. When I was a lad, well-to-do families in Winnipeg typically sent their kids east to university: McGill, Queen’s, Toronto. My sense is that more and more of them now head west, to the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. In the same way, I expect more of Ontario’s trade and investment will be with the West in coming years, less with Quebec and the East. That’s bound to make Ontarians more attuned to western values and interests.

But here’s the thing. To some extent, the West’s outlook has been shaped by what I call its oppositional standpoint. The West has hardly ever voted with the governing party; in consequence, it has not typically been the recipient of federal largesse, or not on the scale the East has. I would argue that’s been a large part of the region’s success. But what happens now that it has its own government—one that seems quite happy to splash the pork about. Might Canada change the West, as much as the contrary?

PW: Andrew, that process—Canada changing the West—may already be under way. Certainly something’s changing Calgary, though it could be Edmonton, the world outside Canada, or the city’s own (out of touch?) elites. We’ll be in that city during the High Performance Rodeo, an avant-garde theatre-arts festival that some might expect to see in Montreal. The city council just sole-sourced a footbridge from Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava. Calgary Economic Development writes in urgent tones about the need for cultural and quality-of-life offerings to keep the cosmopolitan banker-and-investor community from going back home to New York and Paris and (whisper it) Toronto.

The good news is that as soon as you and I get to Calgary, we’ll put all these questions to the people who are actually helping to shape the new West. I think, of all the events we’ve done so far with CPAC, this will be one of the most offbeat and intriguing.


Coyne v. Wells: Looking west

  1. Hey what happened to Danielle Smith?

    • That's an excellent question. I'll address it onstage on Wednesday.

      • Oh please, please, please let Craig Chandler be her replacement.

        • Are you afraid she'll win?

      • I was pleasantly surprised with Rob Anderson, but I'm still kind of curious about this!

  2. While I know there will be an attempt for some of your guests to bring up the NEP (bad, bad AC) I think the transformative event for the new West occured through the Canada/US Free Trade agreement, and the lessening of control of resource exploitation through the new mandate for the National Energy Board (loosening of rules for gas/oil exploitation and international pipelines) under Mulroney.

    This placed far more control of development and rate therof at the provincial level, and created many of the tensions (both within the provinces, and with the ROC) through what some perceive as out of control development. Melissa Blake has been fairly outspoken on these types of issues as mayor of Fort McMurray.

  3. The comparisons here using statistical data are bizarre. "By 2031, Statistics Canada projects the West will have nearly a third of the population of Canada; Quebec, as little as 20 per cent.

    That still means that by 2031, the East will have over 60% of the population, pretty much the same situation now.

    If this is any indication of how the conversation is going to be steered, I'll pass.

    • You're being a tad harsh, but that sentence struck me as a bit silly too. One of my brothers moved out to Calgary a year ago from Windsor, ON. One of my best friends grew up in Alberta and goes back there for business and to see relatives at least twice a year. They both have told me that apart from all the animosity left over from the days of the NEP, that westerners still have a gut emotional reaction when they look at a map of Canada– they see half the territory in the west and therefore think fully half the political/economic influence is warranted, without really taking a hard look at population.

      Anyhow, as long as resources continue to be as valuable as they have lately been, Ontario is in for some wrenching neo-liberal economic adjustments in it's future. Ontarians still don't seem to have grasped this.

      • "Ontarians still don't seem to have grasped this."

        What makes you say that?

        • Well it's just anecdotal really, so just my opinion. My friends who are politics/economics junkies see that if the dollar keeps rising due to rising oil prices, Ontario better invest in productivity efficiency and even that will only go so far to mitigating the cost of exporting. People I know who pay no attention to these things still just generally bitch, if they think about it all, about "greedy" Albertans who had the luck of sitting on oil and leave it at that. They don't think about the real competitive implications mentioned above for things like similar taxation for similar services, retaining head offices in Ontario etc.

          • Ontarians tend to bitch at least in part because they've been told over and over that it's a fairness thing: they paid $12-billion more in equalization than in services received in kind, and now they're economically hurting; meanwhile, Alberta, Newfoundland, and Saskatchewan want to avoid taking oil revenues into account, and Alberta and NF in particular are fighting for every dime. Rightly or wrongly, it's a broad perception.

            Ontario does need to invest in improvements to efficiency (through infrastructure, education, et al) to try to maintain some sort of competitive advantage to keep companies in the province – if not head offices, then large workforces. But there's a lot to be said for the argument that oil is not an everlasting solution; that Alberta in particular has some stellar academic institutions, but still a lower per capita rate of post-secondary education is concerning for its future, too.

          • "meanwhile, Alberta, Newfoundland, and Saskatchewan want to avoid taking oil revenues into account,"

            or maybe they are making the statement that they want the same deal as Quebec whose hydro revenues are not included in the equalization equation. Fair is Fair!

          • In Alberta we pay $21 billion more then we receive. Stop the rape!

      • This is all because Alberta is squandering it’s oil wealth. When the oil craze is over, and if oil sands ever becomes uncompetitive again, Alberta will be left with an economy with no room for value-added services, an uneducated workforce, not a penny saved from the obscene fortune beneath their feet, and a poisoned toxic wasteland covering a vast stretch of the province’s north.

        • Norway, for instance, seems to have had a better eye on the future. In any case Albertan's will reap pretty much what they sowed. They continued to elect that clown klein despite knowing he didn't give a rat's ass about Alberta's future – fiscal or environmental. His idea of leadership was to find a parade and get out in front of it.

          • Well, in comparing a unitary state like Norway to the province of Alberta, one should keep in mind that a great deal of resource wealth is collected by the feds in this country. Norway doesn't have that issue. That being said, I think both Alberrta and Ottawa should save more of the royalties they collect, but then they'll each have to find other ways to fund their respective programs (tax hikes, spending cuts, both?).

            It looks like Alberta's attempting to move away from the Klein-era of pro-cyclical spending and slash and burn budgeting to the Lougheed approach. But, with the timing of this transition being so unfortunate in the midst of economic turmoil, it's looking like a painful conversion.

          • Any return to Lougheed style of governance has my approval.

          • Norway does not tax their Oil companies, but has $5 per litre gas and taxes the people. Never compare Alberta to Norway!

        • Yes we squander our wealth through transfer payments totalling 161 BILLION since 1961. We are the biggest rape victim in confederation!

  4. "You're being a tad harsh"

    Harshness is required. That kind of picking and choosing of statistics and reporting them using units that are not easily comparable is how the news media shapes and distorts public discussion.

    It's unacceptable.

  5. Great start to the discussion.

    With regards to Coyne's point about the West's "notable commonality" of politics: Chantal Hébert is fond of pointing out that the Liberals have won just one election in the past quarter-century against a united right. She's correct, of course, but I'll add that the Liberals have only won one in 25 years when the West voted as a bloc.

    If the Liberals want to win a federal election anytime soon, they must actively woo Western voters. Ignatieff, to his credit, has already started to do so, but the Liberals have a huge amount of work ahead of them if they want to repair their party's tattered image west of Ontario.

    • To be fair there's a little less work to do in BC, where the enemy is the Ndp as much as the Tories.
      But your right. They badly need to become less Toronto centric…giving MPs like Kennedy more proflie would help. As would actively recruiting westerners. Something has to be done…unite the left or something. My biggest fear is that a resurgence of the liberal party will only underscore the divisions in the country – east vs west.
      I don't think it'll be quite as hard for the libs to come back in the west as conventional widom says…they need good policies of course…but they also need a galvanising personality. Dion and Ignatieff just don't cut it. Kennedy would have been an intersting choice for the future [ Edmonton boy…not an intellectual] Manley would have gone over well out here…it shows out of touch the liberal brain trust is, that they didn't try harder to get him to come back…ah well, spilt milk.

      • I agree with you that a major breakthrough in the West would probably require a different Liberal leader.

        To expand on my earlier point about western "bloc" voting, I think there have been only four elections in the past 25 years when the West truly voted as a bloc: 1988, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Contrary to popular wisdom, I never really saw the Reform Party as an example of western bloc voting, despite its regional origins. Manitoba was never on board, electing just one Reformer in 1993, three Reformers in 1997, and four Canadian Alliance MPs in 2000.

  6. "Canada changing the West"

    That's an interesting question. i hope it gets raised. I don't know the figures, but a significant proportion of Ab's pop wasn't born there – they're immgrants or from elsewhere in Canada. It has changed the west that iv'e lived in for more than 30yrs. Believe it or not, the west [ particularly AB/BC] is considerably more liberal than is commonly assumed. Not lib in the sense of voting for the liberal party – which is seen to still be out of touch with the west – but liberal in it's social values. These values are not always apparent [ particularly in AB] where the rural vote is still overrepresented. It would be interesting to see just what a PR vote would produce…many who now vote conservative for strategic reasons would feel freer to align themselves with another party. I'm just positing a view that the monolithic view of the west – as seen from the east [ and from the west]- is not everything it appears to be.

    • There's a running joke in Calgary that hardly anyone you meet was actually born here. When two native Calgarians meet for the first time and discover their shared origins, it invariably becomes an opportunity for "insider" reminisces about how much the city has changed over the years.

      • Have you ever heard someone leaving Calgary saying "I'll be back."?

        • Sure, many times.

          • We had a word for native Calgarians when i lived in Edmonton. :)

          • No doubt, CR

          • I prefer Edmonton. I like trees.

          • I prefer Calgary. I like the Rockies and the Chinooks (take today's temp, for instance).

          • Yeah, the Rockies are nice. But they're not exactly *in Calgary*. And you can't seem them everywhere in the city.

          • I was born and raised in Cowpatch. And yes, the change has been profound. Money has queered the place alot.

          • "Money has queered the place alot."


            anyways, I welcome most of the changes the city has undertaken. I just hope and pray that the wholesome Prairie hospitality remains at least somewhat intact as Calgary welcomes 200K more people in the next decade.

            Coyne is right, this country is shifting west. Go Canada go!

  7. the West is now in, it's a shame Harper moved <figuratively> to the east.

    • Harper grew up in Toronto.

  8. “How the W.E.S.T. was S.P.U.N.”. If I write it they will come…to their senses…

  9. The Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between Alberta and B.C. will soon be expanded to include Saskatchewan, whose political and economic culture, with a per capita GDP that now exceeds Ontario's, more and more resembles Alberta's.

    The last part sounds like it was written by someone who took John Gray's recent ROB piece a little too seriously, but I'm wondering more about the first part: are you talking about TILMA, or about WEPA?

  10. Three thoughts:

    1. No "bank shot" here. Stelmach et. al. are simply not smart, and continue to find more and more obvious ways to show people that.

    2. Interesting thought on Canada changing the West with changes in Calgary as the case(s) in point. I assumes this twins with the moniker "new West." I don't think either is accurate. The High Performance Rodeo is not new. While the Grand and Kantos Centre are laudable, they are overdue and a public art gallery in Calgary is still stymied. Calgary always grows in fitful spurts and I don't really think there's anything new. There's just more of it because there are more people. If anything, I'm surprised at the extent to which attitudes are continued despite the growth and influx.

    3. WTF is up with Ottawa spiking Air Emirates' direct air service to Calgary in favour of Toronto?

  11. As for the Liberals and the west, it would be so easy.

    Just don't, I mean bite your tongue, when in a close election, on the verge of losing some seats in Ontario, start slagging Alberta. It usually happens in the last desperate week of an election that the Liberals are about to lose.

    Odd that.


  12. "When I was a lad, well-to-do families in Winnipeg typically sent their kids east to university: McGill, Queen's, Toronto. My sense is that more and more of them now head west, to the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. In the same way, I expect more of Ontario's trade and investment will be with the West in coming years, less with Quebec and the East."

    Any numbers or stats to back this up? At Queen's, for example, undergrad lectures and graduate seminars are getting progressively larger each year as the number of students slowly grows.

  13. End equalization payments to Quebec and then the west will really be in.

  14. Not that I expect anyone to read this at this point, but a discussion thread of some kind about this would have been nice.

  15. "Vancouver, Edmonton, much of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are hard to squeeze into a cookie-cutter conception of what “the West” thinks".__I'm from Saskatoon and am frustrated with the rural vote drowning out the urban vote which is mostly influenced by how the boundaries are set up. Maybe if the boundaries in Saskatchewan were re-drawn to reflect the urban/rural differences then more people in Saskatoon and Regina would vote. As it stands now, people in the northern area of the city have Maurice Vallecot as their MP because 80% of the rural vote for him. I'm not saying they should be re-drawn so the urban vote counts more than the rural. They should make the boundary at the city limits as the needs of urban and rural populations are different. The current situation where most of the MP's are conservative from Saskatchewan is not an accurate picture of the political landscape here at all.