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Canada: A nation of strangers

Scott Gilmore: Canadians don’t often move out of their birth province. We vacation elsewhere. We barely know each other. We’re now unable to muster national responses to big issues.
A member of the United We Roll protest convoy holds a sign during a two-day demonstration in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 19, 2019. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The idea that this is a nation divided linguistically has dominated Canadian politics for generations. Every party effectively builds two platforms and wears two faces—one smiling toward Quebec, the other winking at the “Rest of Canada.” Every government rules with one eye on anglophones, one eye on francophones. And while we have become very good at this bifocal governance, Ottawa still goes cross-eyed on occasion (consider the SNC-Lavalin scandal, for example).

A more accurate way to describe this country, however, would be to call it a nation of strangers. Every region, every province, sits in isolation. And while a Canadian in Prince Edward Island and one in British Columbia may speak a similar language, they are divided by far more than their accents.

According to data from Statistics Canada, only 15 per cent of Canadians live outside of their province of birth. We are not a mobile people. And we never were. During the early part of the 20th century, our great age of nation building, that number was below 10 per cent. We immigrated from overseas, picked a province and then stayed there.

READ MORE: Canada is not a country.

By comparison, in the United States, more than 30 per cent of Americans leave their state of birth. Similarly, 30 per cent of U.S. students attend an out-of-state college, while only 10 per cent of Canadian students leave their home province.

We don’t even vacation in Canada. In 2017, we made 22 million overnight trips to another province and 38 million to another country. This is not a surprise when you consider that Canadian domestic airfares are among the most expensive in the world (twice as costly per kilometre as in the United States). And, as I’ve written before, it is far more affordable for Canadians to fly abroad. (The cheapest one-week fare for Toronto to Vancouver: $397; to Miami: $273.) If you live in Ontario you are far more likely to have spent time in Florida than in Alberta.

When you consider the fact that we are a nation of strangers, a lot of things begin to make sense. Our chronic disputes about transfer payments and pipelines illustrate our lack of empathy. It’s easy to demand that those eastern bastards should freeze in the dark when you don’t know any.

This lack of empathy metastasizes into regional alienation, which is reaching all-time highs, according to new data from the Environics Institute. More than 40 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government is “virtually irrelevant” to them. And 56 per cent of people in Alberta and 53 per cent in Saskatchewan believe their provinces would be better off to “go it alone.” The corollary is a growing sense of regional identity. The same survey found that in the last 15 years the percentage of Canadians who said their province or region was important to their self-identity rose from 69 per cent to 77 per cent.

RELATED: Why Canadian federalism is bigger than Ottawa and the provinces

Is it any wonder we can’t manage to sell beer in a different province or that Alberta finds it easier to build pipelines into the United States than it does into British Columbia? It has become painfully evident in the last several years that when faced with problems on a national scale, we are unable to muster a national response. This federal dysfunction is not because of a flaw in the Westminster system—it’s because of us.

We can’t wish this problem away. If there is a solution it will likely require some governmental intervention at the federal and provincial levels.

We could refocus the Canada Service Corps, which facilitates youth volunteerism by encouraging out-of-province service, or by paying a stipend to those who do it. Tax credits could be granted for attending out-of-province schools or to subsidize interprovincial labour mobility. Perhaps we could formalize the first ministers’ meeting, and give it a mandate to encourage pan-provincial connections, as opposed to its current focus on championing regional causes. If we were especially ambitious, we could imagine a true nation-building project like an ambitious space program.

If we don’t accept that this is a problem, if we don’t try to build stronger people-to-people connections, the various regions in this nation of strangers will continue to go off in their own direction, defending their own interests, promoting their own causes, until they are all so far apart there is no coming back together.

This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Stranger danger.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.