I'd Unite the Prairie Provinces
A distinguished jurist urges political union as a means to more efficient and economical government of the Prairie West
HON. W. F. A. TURGEON
FOREMOST among the uses of our present adversity is the awakening in the national as well as in the individual consciousness of the impulse to put an end to waste and to establish economy. We have become more careful of our personal and household expenses, and more mindful of our right as citizens to examine and to express our views upon the financial structure and the financial operations of the nation. And, as the pursuit of one object sometimes brings another into view, it comes about that many have been led from a study of the financial situation of the community to a better understanding of our political system and to a desire to see it modified where modification appears desirable and feasible. It is, therefore, not surprising that this quest for reform has created some new problems and reopened some old ones which are being placed before the public in a new light. So it is that questions which were debated and settled, in one aspect, in years gone by, have been brought back into the field of controversy and are being dealt with in a different aspect in these days of national heart-searching. i. It is my purpose in this article to deal with one of these questions which has been the subject of much discussion in f Western Canada during the last few months— the question of the number of provinces into which this part of Confederation is divided, and the possibility of improving our condition, from both a national and a provincial standpoint, by bringing about an amalgamation of two, or of all three, of the provinces which now exist.
The question is not a new one; it was debated and settled over a quarter of a century ago. It has lately been revived as a subject of discussion, and some of the considerations brought to bear upon it are being advanced for the first time. It is possible that the present controversy may do nothing more than bring home to those of us who govern, and to those of us who are governed, a better realization of the necessity for reform in the machinery of public administration and in its cost. But this result, in itself, is well worth the time and the effort given to the discussion, and signs are already at hand which indicate that the ideas behind the proposal brought forward have begun to bear fruit.
The 1901 Proposal
THE Province of Manitoba was created, with a very small area, in 1870, and additional territory was added to it in 1881 and again in 1912. During the half dozen years which preceded the organization of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, the Government of Manitoba cast covetous eyes upon the vast and rich territory lying immediately west of it, and efforts were made to persuade the inhabitants of a large portion of that territory to consent to annexation to the older province.
The question became such a live one that it was debated at a public meeting held at Indian Head on December 18, 1901, the supporters for the affirmative and the negative, respectively, being Mr. Roblin—now Sir Rodmond Roblin Premier of Manitoba, and F. W. G. Haultain—now Sir Frederick Haultain, Chief Justice of SaskatchewanPremier of the Northwest Territories. Mr. Haultain was a strong advocate of provincial autonomy for the Territories
as an independent unit, and he opposed Jthe designs of the Manitoba Government with all his energy. The agitation in favor of annexation steadily lost strength after the debate at Indian Head, and it had entirely spent itself by the time the Dominion Government decided to confer provincial autonomy upon the Territories.
In the meantime, however, another issue had taken form among the inhabitants of the Territories at the approach of their political maturity. Mr. Haultain and his Government favored the establishment of one province to include all the area now comprised in Alberta and Saskatchewan. A strong minority in the Territorial Assembly objected to this course, and asked to have two provinces established. When Sir Wilfrid Laurier introduced into Parliament the Autonomy Bills providing for the creation of two provinces. Mr. Haultain sent him a letter oí protest, in which he summarized his views in opposition to the proposal. He pointed out that the Territories had. for a number of years, been under one government and one legislature, performing most of the duties and exercising many of the more important powers of provincial governments and legislatures; that it had never been suggested that the Territorial autonomy was inadequate for the purposes for which it had been created; that the people of the Territory had acquired a political individuality as distinct as that of the i>eople of any province; that the provincial machinery is elaborate and expensive, and is more suitable to large areas and large populations; and that no good reason had been advanced for dividing the territory into two parts, with the consequent duplication of this machinery and of all provincial institutions.
In his speech on the Bills in the House of Commons. Sir Wilfrid Laurier said that in the opinion of the Government it was inadvisable, in the interests of Confederation, to create a single province containing an area much greater than that of any of the older provinces. He was also of the opinion that the administration of the vast area as a provincial unit would be attended in the future with great difficulties.
In the provincial elections which took place in Saskatchewan and in Alberta after the passing of the autonomy enactments, the question of the number of provinces gave way to other questions of more absorbing interest, and Mr. Haultain himself ceased referring to it before the campaign was over. On the whole the people seemed satisfied with what had been done.
After the lapse of a quarter of a century the considerations which Mr. Haultain advanced in 1905 in favor of a large province in the Canadian West have been brought forward once again for discussion. But now the question has assumed larger proportions. Facilities of administration are much greater than they were in 1905, and those who advocate modification see no reason why not only Alberta and
Saskatchewan, but Manitoba as well, should not be welded together into one province with one government, one legislature, one judiciary, one set of provincial institutions.
Those who advocated the creation of one large province instead of two in 1905 were taxed with local megalomania, with a desire to secure for the West a “predominating and overshadowing” influence in the councils of the nation, and to subject national policies in undue measure to the exigencies «if Western ambitions and pretensions. This charge and the argument, based upon the difficulty of efficient administration, were the weapons used to combat Mr. Haultain's policy.
The situation is vendifferent today. Whatever may have been the case in Territorial times, those who now advocate a change are not in the least influenced by the spirit of local domination. Rather is the contrary true. Economy and true efficiency are the objects which the promoters of union have in view, and a look around will show that they are among those who, in national affairs, favor a strong central authority rather than a loosely connected confederation of ixnverful local units. But since the fear of giving undue strength and influence to a united West was spread abroad and was really acted upon in 1905, and is again being held up as an argument against union at the present time, it must be met and disused of before the question of amalgamation can be discussed in its other aspects.
Territory Rather than Population
IT IS necessary to bear in mind that in countries like Canada, the United States and Australia, where the functions of government are divided between a central body on the one hand and several local bodies on the other, the jxnver of a local unit, in the sense in which the word is imjxjrtant in this controversy, consists not so much in its population or its territorial extent as in its legislative and executive jurisdiction. In so far as territorial extent is concerned, the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec are much larger now than they were in 1905, Quebec particularly containing an area practically equal to the combined area of the three prairie provinces; and the population of each of these old provinces and its representation in the Parliament of Canada are still greater, and in my opinion are likely to remain greater for an indefinite period, than the population and the Parliamentary representation of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba taken together.
But, in any event, questions affecting the division of powers between the Dominion of Canada, on the one hand, and the individual provinces, on the other, are matters for juridical debate, their solution depending upon the interpretation of our written Constitution by our legal tribunals. When disputes arise, the provinces, like the individual citizens of the country, are all equal before the law. Population and area mean nothing. Prince Edward Island has the same status and the same rights, when in conflict with the Dominion, as have Ontario and Quebec, because in each case that status and those rights are those of a province and are determined by an interpretation of the
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provisions of the British North America Act.
Proposed Province Not Too Big
UPON many occasions in the past, disputes have arisen between the Dominion and the provinces out of those fundamental provisions of the Constitution which vest in each province the property in the Crown lands and other natural resources within its limits, while legislative jurisdiction for public works and undertakings of a national character is conferred upon the Dominion. Attempts have often been made to imi>ede the progress of Dominion action in national undertakings upon the ground that they interfered with provincial property rights; and it is not difficult to imagine that the ground between the two jurisdictions will be contested from time to time in the future. The greater the extent and the availability for public undertakings of the ! territory of a province, the more often j controversy is likely to arise within that ; province. But it can make no practical 1 difference in the result whether the possi! bilities of dispute are confined to one large j province or divided among several smaller ones. Again, it must be remembered that in many, if not in most cases, legal controversies of this sort are initiated, not by governments but by individuals and corporations whose interests are at stake, and who invoke the British North America Act in opposition to the legislation which they oppose.
In this field and in the entire field of government and legislation it does not appear that the size of a province, either in area or population, has had any effect, or is likely to have any effect, upon the number of cases in which federal jurisdiction has been, or may. in the future be disputed.
But in addition to the occasions of conflict between governments, there is the influence in national affairs which is wielded ¡ in the councils of the nation by the people ! inhabiting the various Canadian provinces. Here also the action of a “predominating j and overshadowing” province is feared. But, i as I have already pointed out, the facts ! provide no foundation for the apprehension conjured up. The proposed amalgamation j would produce a province somewhat inferior i to Quebec and greatly inferior to Ontario in population and in parliamentary represen| tation. and consequently in national influence.
I think the same conclusion must be i reached upon the question of national pride ! and national feeling. We are told that the inhabitants of a large province look upon j their province as more important than the nation. This suggestion does not appear to ! be well founded. It would be difficult to ; prove that the people of Ontario, for instance, are less Canadian in their feeling or their outlcxik than those of. say. New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that I the people of the Middle West provinces i have developed a social and political indi| viduality which tends to bring them ! together, and which would make it com| paratively easy for them to agree on the I management in common of their local : affairs, if certain material difficulties could j be put out of the way.
Difficulties to be Surmounted
THE proposal for a union of the three provinces of Alberta. Saskatchewan and Manitoba contains, therefore, nothing that is undesirable from a national point of view or unsound from the standpoint of the people concerned, as was the union between j Ontario and Quebec which was tried without success in the period between 1841 and 1867. j Those who suggest the union of the ! provinces have mainly in minu: (1) the economy which would result from the substitution of one government and one legislature and one set of public services for
three of each; (2) the benefit to be gained from the fact that our public men, being much fewer in number in the large area, would be compelled to give more of their attention to questions of general interest such as the management of the natural resources, the administration and the studied improvement of the educational system, etc., having recourse to a wise policy of decentralization in respect to the problems of merely local interest which now take up too much of their time; and (3) the advantage of greater care and economy in the enactment of general legislation, questions having to be decided from a broader point of view than is at present the case. In short, what is contemplated is a reform which will reduce expenses, place provincial public life upon a higher plane, and produce fewer and better laws.
Since, then, the proposal to unite Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan as one province cannot be met by any objection either of paramount national importance or based upon radical differences in the character and the outlook of the people concerned, it is the privilege of these people to decide for themselves whether or not they desire the union to take place. The discussion recently begun on the subject has has not yet spread far enough abroad to justify the drawing of any conclusions as to what the view of the people may be. There is no doubt, however, of the general desire for economic and political reform of the sort I have indicated.
Great obstacles of a material order lie in the way of union, and make its accomplishment a matter of no small difficulty. It would have been easy in 1905 to put into effect Mr. Haultain’s policy of one province instead of two for Alberta and Saskatchewan. The machinery of single government had then been in existence for some time, and it might easily have been made to function under the additional responsibility of complete provincial autonomy. But the opportunity was lost, and I now believe that a mistake was made. It is because I served for more than thirteen years as a member of one of these Western governments that I have some practical knowledge of the question I am discussing.
Those who are now advocating the union not only of two, but of three provinces, are confronted with conditions which are the result of many years growth. Three cities have become provincial capitals, three provincial universities have been established, all other important and necessary institutions exist in triplicate, and, what is perhaps more serious than anything else, each of the three units has contracted its own financial obligations. Pressing necessity alone could bring about a voluntary liquidation of this state of affairs, and the new order could be established only by the exercise of great courage and great generosity on all sides. But a similar union of interests and of liabilities has been discussed from time to time in the Maritime provinces, and it is admittedly within the range of political possibility. There is no doubt that the desire for reform, and particularly for economic reform, in our scheme of government is abroad, and it is for the people of the West alone to say whether that reform should be made to extend to a reduction in the number of their provinces.
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