CalgaryGreatGate: Oh the indignity!

Paul Wells: ‘In Canada we rehearse for the real controversies by getting huffy about fake ones’

The greatest pity in the country

Stuart Gradon/The Calgary Herald

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.

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CalgaryGreatGate: Oh the indignity!

  1. The Calgary comment was a rookie mistake….but after seeing the PM in his farmer get-up, surrounded by other farmers looking up [and oddly, a FN in a business suit]…. for rain? God? grasshoppers?…..it was understandable. Rookie deluxe. Extra fries.

    • oh and yeah the biggest mistake Harper made was in saying Calgary is the greatest city in Canada. What he should of said is that Calgary is the greatest city in the world!!!

    • Oh what an stupid comment!

      • Yup, a stupid and rookie comment….Harper should know better by now.

        As to the image…..well, it’s not the way anyone foresaw Canada in the 21st century.

        • No, the stupid comment is by you, as usual.

          And Canada is rather well in the 21st century.

          • Canada, under Harper, isn’t IN the 21st century.

      • Sorry to come between your barb and EmilyOne’s crack. I know you posted it for her. Agree.

    • Still doing your hissing snake at anything in a stetson act? Shouldn’t you be off somewhere picking up some designer sushi, or working on the latest gluten free diet or hunting down some trendy super fruits or fancy cupcakes or something?

      • LOL Not my fault you guys want to remain in farming and be pre-industrial.

        • You have a strange idea of pre-industrial. I know you’re just trolling, but do you have any idea how much science, engineering, geology and physics goes into producing these massive amounts of money to aid the federal coffers that helps all of the provinces? Not to mention the myriad of interconnected and world business, high level contractual financial dealings and support systems in Alberta and worldwide? Over 100 years of hard won expertise and sweat that helps support nation wide infrastructure by a tough grade of minded people who drive forward in spite of ungracious and rude ignorance from smaller minded ones.




          • A) ‘Trolling’ doesn’t mean what you think it does, so stop using it everytime you disagree with somebody.

            B) Pre-industrial is a primary resource economy .[cattle, oil, wheat etc] no matter how many cell phones you have.

            C) Stop whining at me about the backward way you’ve chosen to live

            PS. Primary resources only make up 6% of GDP, and employ only 4% of Canadians…..resources the ROC helped you build btw, so spare me the wounds of ingratitude..

          • trolling – to cause to turn round and round…that’s you.
            A closed mind can never process new information.

          • Geez, you must have inhaled too much barnyard dust to get so confused.

            Try looking at ‘internet troll’…..which is what we’re discussing

          • Quick question Emily, where do you think you would be without our pre industrial resource based economy? Or without the primary resources? Every single aspect of your life depends on the oil we produce, and the money we provide.

          • We started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers ….but the majority of humanity left that behind thousands of years ago.

            Same with primary resources….and stop with the ‘we’ nonsense’ Wherever did you get the idea that primary resources support this country??

          • Don’t worry, I wasn’t including you in we, I was talking about the “backward” Albertan resource economy. Also, you ignored my final point. forgetting the financial aspect, where would you and your knowledge based economy be without primary resources, especially oil. You judgementally refer to us as backwards, while living a life entirely made of the resources we provide you.

          • Alberta does not support Canada….never did. We don’t live on your resources either.

          • How can you say your day to day life does not depend on oil? If you own or use a car or any other mode of transportation. Anything made from rubber or plastic, or anything other material for that matter by the time you factor in transport and manufacturing. I assume you eat, which means even without the transportation, and the farm equipment, you are consuming oil through nitrogen based fertilizers and pesticides, both byproducts of oil.

          • There are two parts to this…..for one thing there are ways around all of those things, and people have been moving in that direction for some time.

            For another, Ont imports oil from other countries.

          • Explain to me the great innovations moving us away from oil, cause I’m all ears. Ethanol? Electric Cars? How about vegetable oil based plastics?

          • Well Chris, here’s my suggestion.

            First have a stiff scotch….maybe two, even three.


            Then go to bed, and stick your thumb in…..that ought to solve it.

          • Well done Emily, why respond to a question you don’t have a viable answer to, when you could just talk down to someone. For the record, I drink Irish Whiskey, and frankly, I don’t know that we, as a society, have another thousand years, especially at the current pace.

          • I told you exactly what you wanted to hear.

            Don’t blame me if it doesn’t get you anywhere.

          • And again, no new information, or even opinion. Lets try one more time. Name a major innovation that has eliminated the need for oil. Doesn’t have to be altogeather obviously, just so long as it’s notable..

  2. ‘The Spanish countryside is mostly trouble’?!?! Paul, have you been to Gaucin? To Torla? To Ronda? Begur? Nerja? Gaudi-inspired Barcelona is unforgettable, but for sheer beauty and quality of life, the small towns there outshine their big-city rivals by a huge margin.

    • Every small town everywhere brags about it’s “quality of life”. While there is something to be said for vacations to the country, people pay more to live in cities for a reason!

  3. I appreciate proper use of the term “mug’s game”. All too often it seems to be used to merely describe a situation that can’t be won.

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