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.

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