Closeup/The Nation

East of Eden

If Quebec goes, will the East suffer even more? Yes

Ralph Surette September 19 1977
Closeup/The Nation

East of Eden

If Quebec goes, will the East suffer even more? Yes

Ralph Surette September 19 1977

East of Eden

Closeup/The Nation

If Quebec goes, will the East suffer even more? Yes

Ralph Surette

It was the biggest bash in the east and the host was in high spirits. The Maritime premiers and New England governors had gathered once again—this time amid the CPR-canadensis decor (hint of beaver pelt, hint of dining car) of the Pines hotel-resort at Digby, Nova Scotia—to talk about their common interests, complain about their lack of clout with their respective federal governments and bask in the sun.

The emphasis was on basking in the sun, but nevertheless the meeting provided the occasion for the first chill question that had blown eastward following the Parti Québécois victory in Quebec: if Quebec separates, do the Atlantic provinces join the United States—land of plenty to the south—which, it was fabled, every Maritimer secretly yearned for if only the chains of this vile Confederation were lifted?

The host, Premier Gerald Regan, without losing his joviality, managed to respond with irritability and finality: “No. I don’t see anybody at all in favor of it, not even a minority—not in Nova Scotia, anyhow. Not even someone far out. If there’s someone in favor of it where are they? Why isn’t someone—even some crack-

pot—writing to the newspapers? I just don’t see it.” And, like a fellow who has just scored a point and intends to score another, he added: “I hate to say it in the present company, but any policies the United States has in commitment to regional development is strictly adhoc-ery” Definitely a good day for the host. But a few months before the question would not so easily have been put down. The first reaction in the Atlantic area in response to the Parti Québécois victory was taken by 10 anonymous businessmen in Saint John who commissioned a study on the feasibility of New Brunswick joining the United States should Quebec separate. Because the group was linked to the Saint John Board of Trade, the matter was wending its way onto the agenda of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and it seemed for a moment as if the clash of Great Canadian Hypotheses, Atlantic Provinces Division, would pit the attractions of the United States versus

those of Canada should Quebec separate.

Yet the wry jokes about “lining up behind Puerto Rico” had started and thoughtful people had evoked the differences in laws and traditions between the Atlantic provinces and the United States, so come June the Chamber of Commerce had brushed the thought aside and passed a “renaissance resolution” instead, a clarion call to the cause of Confederation.

And then it was July and the study on joining the United States had reached the stage of initial conclusions, although the businessmen were still anonymous and the study itself was not released. Gary Davis, a member of Matrix Management, the Saint John consulting firm that did the study, said his conclusions were that if Quebec separates, if New Brunswick splits up into French and English halves and if other circumstances are favorable—and, one is inclined to add, if the moon is full—the English part of New Brunswick (which, oddly enough is always trumpeting its “loyalist” heritage) would join the United States. Money being tight, he had not done any opinion surveys but his personal thought was that among the common folk “frankly no one gives a damn.” The upshot is that among the first victims of the Parti Québécois victory we find the myth that Maritimere are itching to throw in their lot with the United States. The same glance at the map that raises the question “What happens to the Atlantic provinces if Quebec separates?” also reveals that only three provinces in Canada do not touch physically on the United States. All are Atlantic provinces. These old provinces by the sea have a firm sense of place. Loyalty to the Boston Red Sox notwithstanding, the “crisis” on the Atlantic shore is not one of identity.

But the question remains: what would happen to the Atlantic provinces if Canada split? What future for this clump of four half-forgotten footnotes to Canadian history—losing political clout with every census, getting shakier with every economic misfortune—should the final alienation of a physical cutoff occur? The most common answer amid a flux of conflicting opinions—often existing side by side within the same mind—is “disaster.” In its simplest form it means that English Canada would lose the will to continue vital transfer payments and subsidies. The already poor Atlantic region would slip economically— some say to Third World status—and probably undergo another round of Depression-style depopulation.

With the “American option” shunted

aside, the basic division of views now falls between those who think the region—by choice or necessity—would have to separate too and those who think there is no question but that it would stick with the rest of English Canada. But regardless of

which view is taken, the word “disaster” still crops up. Harvey Webber, a Sydney businessman and president of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce asserts: “It would be such a disaster that it would be beyond the comprehension of any living being. If we could not attain parity in transportation and wage scales in Canada, how could we attain it alone? It would be impossible to work over that land mass in the middle. No customs union or arrangement could be made with security, no matter what the intentions of the present Quebec government.” And the other view by Premier Regan: “Separation by Quebec would be an unmitigated disaster for the Maritime provinces. Canada would survive but it would never be the sort of Canada we’ve known.”

Then there are those, like Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick, the man you saw in anguish on national television the night of the PQ victory, who have not come around even to thinking about it. “Which would you rather lose, the right or the left side of your heart?” he snapped in answer to the question. An odd bird; an emotional Maritimer. But despite its forthrightness, “disaster” is not an answer that speaks for itself. It is full of gradations, ambiguities, old grudges, even a kind of grim optimism for some who see “disaster”—or something near it—as the only thing that will shock the Atlantic provinces out of their welfare syndrome and force them to live by their own devices once and for all.

Here, in other words, are all the self-torments reserved for those who exist on the margins of wider forces. “How long are we to have this play of Hamlet with Hamlet himself omitted?” asked Joseph Howe, the Nova Scotia anti-confederate leader, in 1866 as his “poor Nova Scotia” squirmed in the crunch of those wider forces, unable to make up its mind between loyalty and revolt as a friend (Britain) and a foe (Canada) conspired together to bring it into Confederation against its will. Being a cynic, Howe would likely not have been surprised as the curtain rose for the umpteenth act on November 15, 1976, to find Nova Scotia, along with its sister provinces, still strutting and fretting with more tangles than a cross-eyed octopus, secure only in the knowledge that the great decisions affecting its future will be taken elsewhere.

For starters, in the eyes of Atlantic Canada there is not one crisis over Confederation, but two: the threat of Quebec independence and economic disparity. The cultural problem of how Quebec will fit into Canada and the economic problem of how the Atlantic region will fit into Canada. This second crisis is the deepening dependency of the Maritimes and Newfoundland on transfer payments from Ottawa at a time when the federal capacity to continue transfers is under attack, an assault mounted not primarily by Quebec but by the “have” provinces who want to keep more of their riches for themselves. The two crises become one when “decentralization” and “power to the provinces” are held out as the solution to the demands of both Quebec and the “haves.” “That frightens me,” says political scientist Murray Beck at Dalhousie University. “The Liberals, Conservatives—all have come out for decentralization. The kind of decentralization Trudeau’s talking about is frightening.” Marty Dolin, research assistant to the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP says, “Quebec wants political separation with economic union. Alberta wants economic independence with political union. Alberta’s more dangerous to us than Quebec. They can kill us.”

As for the threat of Quebec separation in isolation, “it’s a Quebec-Ontario crisis basically,” says David Alexander, a historian at Memorial University at St. John’s. “It’s the question of how Ontario and Quebec are going to live together that goes as far back as the Act of Union of 1841.” Although not all agree—Beck, for instance, says that even the “small voice” of the Atlantic area is “worth something” in the national unity debate—the feeling that Quebec is “Ontario’s problem” is pervasive and probably explains why central Canadian media and other observers have found, sometimes to their dismay, a low level of concern on the East Coast over Quebec’s threat to Confederation.

June 21, and Nova Scotia Finance Minister Peter Nicholson was delivering the inevitable Rotary Club speech. He started with what sounded like an anti-Ottawa diatribe, complaining about “wrestling the federal crocodile” and “getting blood out of Ottawa and other stones.” Except that he finished by saying that “the authority of the federal government needs strengthening rather than diluting.” What’s this? Puffing up the crocodile that eats you! Another Maritime mind-bender? Masochism among the lobster pots? Indeed, the dilemma. Despite the lack of emotion about Canada breaking up, no one needs Confederation more than the Atlantic provinces. “Of this province’s $1.25 billion of estimated revenues and recoveries for the

current fiscal year, $573 million comes from federal sources. In other words, 46%,” Nicholson told his audience. He might have added that the story is roughly the same in the other three provinces. The matter of calculating who gets what from Confederation is known to have its hazards. But in balance-sheet terms, if anyone gains, it has to be the Atlantic provinces. The total federal transfer to the area in the current fiscal year is likely to reach more than $2.5 billion (some $900 million in equalization, $800 million more in uic payments, about $200 million in transportation subsidies, $200 million more in DREE spending plus payouts from other

federal departments, such as fisheries subsidies, energy grants, etc.), or double what it was only four years ago.

The thought of losing this largesse is what the word “disaster” means. To many, it’s a thought that arises as easily from recent changes in the Fiscal Arrangements Act (whereby Ottawa gave more tax room to the provinces in exchange for cutbacks in cost-sharing in medicare, hospital insurance and post-secondary education, thus favoring the richer provinces in the long run) or from federal cutbacks in transportation subsidies as from Quebec separatism. Then there’s the “crocodile” part, which means that virtually nothing moves in the Atlantic area without federal money, without a fight with allegedly supercilious Ottawa bureaucrats. Or, as Premier Regan has put it, “If you oppose them on one thing today, they’ll get you on five more things tomorrow.” This is the resentment of dependency, a resentment made worse by the historical awareness of having gone from prosperity to poverty in 100 years. Blamed for this in large part are centralist federal economic policies starting with the national policy of protective tariffs in the 19th century—a centralist bias in economic structure which many feel is poorly compensated for by equalization payments since the Atlantic area is not getting any less destitute.

It is a resentment—the residue of postConfederation separatism in Nova Scotia, the anti-Confederation fight in Newfoundland and similar feelings in New Brunswick and PEI—which leads some to see more virtue in Quebec separatism than in Ontario centralism. In his recent book, Confederation And The Maritimes, Paul MacEwan, author and Nova Scotia NDP MLA, borrows René Lévesque’s “white Rhodesians of Westmount” phrase and applies it to the “white Rhodesians of the Rideau.” For him the Quebec referendum on independence—although not independence itself—is desirable because it will “shake to their very foundations the smug and arrogant assumptions on which the ‘Toronto-is-Canada’ creed is based.” For him equalization payments in no way compensate for centralist policies that savaged the prosperity of the past and keep the Atlantic area in a situation of buying high-priced goods from the “Ontario company store.”

MacEwan has occasionally been accused of extreme views, but here’s Premier Alex Campbell giving cultural expression to the same feeling. Like Quebeckers, he said in a speech in Toronto in the spring, “we are aware of patronizing remarks about how quaint we are in the Maritimes and that it is too bad we have failed to adopt the industrious values of other Canadians. We too, although for vastly different reasons, know how it feels to have less virtue than the majority.”

Love-hate toward Ottawa aside, the question persists: what happens to the Atlantic area if Quebec goes? For MacEwan “there is no doubt that very soon after Quebec independence, we in the Maritimes would have to follow suit, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. If Ottawa has shown little use for us to date, one can imagine what our impoverished and colonial status would be. were we geographically separated from Upper Canada by another country.”

Thus the debate goes—except that it is not really a debate, but the outline of one that would presumably become of critical importance if Quebec did separate. As of now they are simply reactions attendant on events elsewhere. Nobody’s actually arguing. And there are other views as well. James McNiven, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, puts forth what he calls the “fourth option” (after joining the United States, staying with Canada, and going it alone): an accommodation with Quebec. “Whether Quebec goes or not we’re going to have to deal with it,” he says. “These guys in Ontario who want to build a Berlin Wall on the Ottawa River—I wish they’d remember we’re behind that wall too.”

Since the St. Lawrence freezes over every winter, Quebec “will need the Maritime ports for its Atlantic economy, and will have to make deals with this part of the country.” He expects that “when things die down in a couple of years, PQ ministers will be coming around saying ‘Look, here are

things that are in your interest.’ ” He also expects more bilingualism in the Maritimes, whether or not Quebec goes, because of these dealings. “Look, the rest of the country is bigger and can afford to be hostile. We can’t.” He expects that “no matter what happens, we’re going to have to go it alone a little bit more.” So does J.

K. Bell, secretary-treasurer of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labor, who expects in addition that traditional trade ties will be resumed with the West Indies. These are “eager for such ties now,” he says, “except that the federal government is afraid to open the door to non-white immigration.” Premier Frank Moores has suggested that Newfoundland might join up with “Norway”: a euphemism for “anyone who happens to be around to make a deal.” That anyone might be, as McNiven says, Quebec. Premier Moores recently declared himself “surprisingly impressed” after economic talks with Premier Lévesque— talks that took place despite strains between the two provinces over Labrador and the contract over Churchill Falls electricity.

All these opinions carry with them— apart from the belief that things are going to get tougher—another near-universal assumption: that most of the changes that may be brought about as a result of Quebec separation will likely occur, in moderated form, whether or not Quebec separates. So one answer to “what happens to the Atlantic provinces if Quebec separates?” becomes “the same as if it doesn’t separate, only worse.”

The likelihood is of weakened equalization and increased Atlantic area hardship and of interprovincial deals with a semi-international flavor. “Some things happening in Quebec have ramifications here already,” says McNiven. “It’s full of shadows and no one wants to talk about it.” Fie mentions the cutoff of the Caisses Populaires as a source of borrowing for small Nova Scotia municipalities. But the main wheel that has been set in motion— and that in fact had started to budge even before the Quebec election—is the one that moves toward some kind of partial or total union of the Atlantic provinces. Quebec separation would quickly force closer cooperation among the four provinces, says Premier Moores, in which economic considerations would overcome geography, provincial differences and traditional bickering. And, says Bell, “unconsciously we’ve been moving toward some kind of unity for some time.”

Last winter the three Maritime provinces formed a joint corporation to plan and pool vital energy resources. There has been a common signing of an offshore resources pact with the federal government (although Newfoundland is holding out for a better deal), there have been moves in common on fisheries policy and other matters. Although the link with Quebec separatism is not entirely obvious, the fact that all these things have happened in a rush after a century of noncooperation indicates that the shake-up in Confederation is the cause. To the extent that these moves toward greater cooperation indicate eventual unity of at least the Maritime provinces, if not the Atlantic provinces, a whole new bag of old battles is thereby reopened, battles which would likely intensify if Quebec separated.

Premier Moores’ fellow Newfoundlander, trade unionist Richard Cashin, the Atlantic provinces’ representative on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s task force on national unity, points out that in much of the Atlantic provinces there is as much resentment toward Halifax as a centre of influence as there is toward Toronto nationally—“and Halifax would likely be the capital of a unified Atlantic provinces since it’s the largest city.”

For the Acadians of New Brunswick, too, any Maritime or Atlantic union is anathema, since it would mean becoming a smaller French-speaking minority in a wider political grouping. La Société Nationale des Acadiens has put out a new report this summer denouncing the idea. Maritime union (which existed briefly between 1763 and 1769 when the whole territory was called Nova Scotia) was attempted seriously in 1864. That’s why the Charlottetown Conference was called. Instead it led to Confederation. There has been a report or commission recommending union in every generation since. The latest was in 1970. It was rejected by the provinces, although the Council of Maritime Premiers was formed as a result of the report to deal with some matters in common. Now, says Premier Regan, the most adamant opponent of Maritime union, “I don’t see Maritime union as bringing any economic benefits to Nova Scotia commensurate with giving up our identity as a province.” Yet if economic forces dictate union as a result of Quebec separation, local identities and economics will be in conflict and the fight will be on.

Within this question of closer ties among the provinces is that of forming economic contingency plans in case Quebec separates. No such plans are being formulated. For Premier Regan,“I don’t fully understand what contingency plans you can undertake ... I don’t see that our trade patterns would be substantially altered by the separation of Quebec ... our contingency and expectation is that we would continue to be part of Canada.” For others, there is a feeling of urgency about planning for all the eventualities.

“Always being caught off guard, ill-prepared and behind the times—that’s the name of the game here in the Atlantic provinces,” says William Jenkins, former executive vice-president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. “I just wish that for once we were ahead.” “We need an Atlantic strategy,” adds Harvey Webber. “We need to bring together representatives of everyone. We must study the future. We must look at the future of the Atlantic provinces as one political unit.”

Impatient with the slowness of governments and others to get concerned to the point of action, Webber’s Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce has launched what it calls “Atlantic Canada Plus”—a campaign to have more local products consumed in the region. A list of regional manufacturers is being compiled and retailers are being asked to stock \% more local goods while consumers are being asked to buy as much. This would mean, according to the Chamber of Commerce, an immediate injection of $85 million in the economy of the region, which is heavily dependent on outside goods. For Webber, moves toward self-sufficiency are the key to survival after Quebec goes, if it does go—and perhaps even survival if it stays. Q