Unravelling Canada's crazy quilt

Our annual Canada Day survey pits province v. province


Two years ago, our annual Canada Day special report compared Canada with its bête noire and sibling to the south, and we liked, and were sometimes surprised, by what we found. Last year, we tested Canada against the wider world and again performed impressively. In this edition, we turn inward, using the same evolving array of studies, surveys, and census information to compare the provinces to each other on various economic, social, and medical metrics.

The differences, in many cases, are jarring. We have grown accustomed to startling economic disparities among the provinces: the survey confirms, for example, that Alberta has the country’s highest labour-force participation and its highest weekly wage, though it serves to add the valuable caveats that Albertans spend the second most amount of time at work and are the least likely of all Canadians to have a pension plan. What’s perhaps more interesting is the subtler ways in which the basic texture of life differs between provinces (and the territories, by no means forgotten, but left aside from our charts, with regret, because their small populations and unique socio-economic structures produce volatile, extreme data).

What mysterious virtue, for example, makes Nova Scotians devote 20 per cent more of their time to volunteering than Saskatchewanians? How can one part of the country (Newfoundland and Labrador) have literally twice as many heart attacks as another (B.C.)? How is it that nearly 20 per cent of the workforce is self-employed in B.C. when the number is closer to 10 per cent in New Brunswick?

The simple variables in our charts conceal worlds of complexity. The three-year gap in life expectancy between Newfoundland and B.C. doesn’t look like much, for example, but it is almost as large as the four years of life Canadians would gain from the overnight elimination of all cancer. Health-wise, the figures suggest that B.C. is among the world’s most favoured jurisdictions, while Newfoundland lags behind Greece or Costa Rica.

It is tempting to explain the gap by pointing to other charts that show Newfoundland’s high rates of obesity and smoking, but are these numbers merely manifestations of underlying socio-economic variables? According to recent Canadian research, one can predict premature death in a region or community pretty well knowing only a handful of “deprivation” factors. If you can count the number of single-parent families and persons living alone on one hand, and measure employment, income, and education on the other, you can do a pretty good job of guessing population health without looking at any other behavioural or genetic factors. (Newfoundland probably derives a significant health benefit from having a large number of people in their twenties living with their parents (52.2 per cent)—if you leave aside the likelihood that they’re doing so because they’re broke and can’t find work.)

There may not be any number in these charts that isn’t connected to some equally fascinating matrix of cultural processes. New houses in Quebec are the smallest in the country: this points to an urbanized, dense, aging population where the mean family size is (despite recent gains) significantly smaller than anywhere else in Canada. Quebec’s lingering attachment to TV and its relatively slow acceptance of the Internet tell the tale of a besieged linguistic culture where old media are much more than just a buffet of amusements. Homicide rates, which are lowest in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, ostensibly defy explanations based on poverty, but the disturbingly simple linear relationship between homicide rates and Aboriginal population ratios tells a story behind the story.

Striking, persistent differences such as these will seem objectionable to those who think of Canada as progressing continually toward homogeneity. One thing we know pretty confidently about the economic differences is that labour mobility intensifies them, rather than reduces them. We live in a free, decentralized federation wherein people are at liberty to migrate from place to place. That’s good for the economy overall; considering labour strictly as a commodity, we all benefit when it flows to where it is needed and where it will be most productive. But the result is to make the provinces less equal, as human capital departs the less productive regions and puts them at risk of entering a downward spiral.

That’s a major reason we have interprovincial equalization, and it’s one argument for our relatively open-door immigration policy, since inbound foreign labour tends to counterbalance the inequality effects of migration within Canada. Canadians may rarely see raw counts of interprovincial migrants, and the numbers are slightly surreal. In the 2006 census, 852,580 Canadians reported that they had changed provinces in the prior five years. Of these migrants, 226,865, or more than one-quarter, had ended up in Alberta. Ontario had 185,785; B.C., another 164,710, including nearly 63,000 from Alberta itself. The old story is not over yet: Canada’s centre of gravity is still moving westward.

It is perhaps counterintuitive that a nation-building project like Confederation still looks like such a crazy quilt. Even the bits of Canada entirely planned and settled by other bits of Canada don’t look that much alike. Nothing but a north-south line on a map separates Alberta and Saskatchewan; that line could have been put somewhere else or drawn east-west, and the two provinces could have been left as one or turned into four. Yet barely 100 years after they were arbitrarily divided, “Albertans” and “Saskatchewanians” differ discernibly and are not shy about pointing out those differences.

Canada was designed with centralization and homogenization in mind, but the designers were 19th-century classical liberals who couldn’t foresee the “mixed economy” and welfare state of the 20th. Health, welfare, and education, not yet presumptively considered the state’s business in 1867, were left to the provinces as local, marginal matters. Unexpectedly, those concerns grew to swallow the state, turning Canada’s political history into an unceasing, ill-planned struggle for relevance between the federation and its components.

The neurotic nature of our arrangements is well symbolized by the fact that our provinces are called “provinces.” In familiar federations like the U.S., Australia, and Mexico, the components are called “states,” a word denoting dignified sovereignty. Switzerland has highly autonomous “cantons.” We are at least as decentralized as almost any of these countries, but our regional political units are called by a name more typically used in unitary states to denote purely administrative components, ones that can be erased or rearranged at the whim of the central government. And colloquially, in England or France, the phrase “the provinces” refers to the rustic hinterland beyond the limits of the metropolis. Almost everywhere on earth, to be “provincial” is an insult.

But Canadians? We’re all provincial. (Except for those of us who are territorial.) In American history, nine of the 13 colonies that seceded from the British Empire, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Bay, were formally considered “provinces.” The word denoted that these tracts were no longer the private property of some mighty subject, but chartered self-governing polities answerable to royal authority. “Province” was a step between “colony” and sovereign “state.” That is the step we never officially took, yet our provinces are more powerful than U.S. states.

The process by which this came about could fairly be called passive or even accidental. And everybody can agree that the result is something of a mess. The federal government uses its spending power to obtrude upon the managerial responsibilities of the provinces; the provinces acquiesce or resist, doing so with little regard to principle and much to perceived self-interest. (As the current debate over the creation of a national securities regulator shows.) Our judiciary, left with a mixed and confusing heritage of precedent, remains unable to offer a clear, predictable, objective norm for settling power disputes where the Constitution falls short.

We try to get along, in a friendly and respectful way, with national round tables on this and national councils on that. Confederation is a pretty good machine for creating talking shops and information-gathering apparatuses, where some good can be done by them. But meanwhile, programs like the federal Millennium Scholarships for education pop into existence suddenly and vaporize equally suddenly.

The thickets of internal trade and interprovincial labour certification are hacked away at, slowly. Somehow, we grow ever more allergic to broad constitutional reform as Meech Lake and Charlottetown fade further into the past. Even an institution as unpopular as the Senate resists change. Meanwhile, more Canadians than ever are living in cities, giving us a third species of identity that is arguably more genuine than any purely provincial attachment, but much less well reflected in our fundamental political arrangements.

So does this antiquated, curious formula actually work? Consider the evidence turned up by Ontario’s Mowat Centre think tank in February, when it commissioned a Pollara survey on Canadians’ attitudes toward Confederation. The Centre found that Ontario, traditionally the one refuge from feelings of grievance toward Confederation, is gradually becoming a source of complaints just like any other. (But it also suggested that few Canadians outside Quebec put their provincial identity ahead of their national one. Only 19 per cent of respondents were “province-first” or “province-only” patriots, a figure markedly lower than the 26 per cent reported by the Dominion-Historica Institute and Ipsos-Reid in 2007.)

Pollara asked 2,697 Canadians from across the country how much influence they thought their province has on “important national decisions.” Overall, the number answering “More than its fair share”: a mere nine per cent. The number answering “Less than its fair share” was a whopping 45 per cent. Even in Ontario, the “lesses” outnumbered the “mores” nearly two to one (28 per cent to 15 per cent). In B.C. and the territories the margin was 62 per cent to two per cent. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it was 62 per cent to one per cent. In Atlantic Canada, 65 per cent to one per cent.

Meanwhile, every province, by about the same margin, is convinced that it is getting cheated economically as well as politically. Pollara asked, “Thinking about all the money the federal government spends on different programs and transfers to the provinces, do you think your province receives” more than its fair share, less, or about the right amount? Fifty-two per cent of all Canadians said “less,” and just five per cent said “more,” with the ratio about the same everywhere one looks. “Less” won over “more” 40 per cent to 11 per cent in Quebec, and 57 per cent to four per cent in the Atlantic provinces.

This might seem to add up to earth-shattering, horrifying news for Confederation. Equalization’s beneficiaries seem at least as resentful as its contributors. Either an overwhelming number of Canadians everywhere are convinced they are losers in a zero-sum contest between provinces, which can’t literally be true, or nearly everybody agrees that Ottawa is denying them a voice and wasting their money, which would seem to leave the very legitimacy of Confederation on a shaky basis.

The punchline, of course, is that when Pollara asked people directly about whether Canadian federalism “has more advantages than disadvantages,” it did pretty well. Nationwide, 48 per cent agreed with the statement, and only 33 per cent disagreed. “Agree” won the day almost everywhere, even in ever-contentious Quebec (48 per cent to 42 per cent). Only in grouchy Alberta did it lose, 36 per cent to 43 per cent; and even Albertans express a robust, aggressive patriotism by other measures, suggesting that they may think the game is rigged against them but they’re still happy to remain at the table. The consensus seems to be Canada may be a rip-off, but it’s our rip-off and we love it.


Click below for the provincial leaders and basement-dwellers in each of the following categories:

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