SPECIAL REPORT

THE FORCES OF DIVISION

EXPERTS ASSESS THE UNRAVELLING

GREG W. TAYLOR November 20 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

THE FORCES OF DIVISION

EXPERTS ASSESS THE UNRAVELLING

GREG W. TAYLOR November 20 1989

THE FORCES OF DIVISION

SPECIAL REPORT

EXPERTS ASSESS THE UNRAVELLING

The spirit of Canadian nationhood has followed a roller-coaster course in the 22 years since the country celebrated its centennial in 1967. In that anniversary year, there was unbridled confidence soon to be checked by 1970’s October Crisis and again, in 1980, with the Quebec Referendum. On the eve of1990, the mood is anything but confident. Maclean’s surveyed many of the leading experts on Canadian nationhood, several of whom played cen-

tral roles in the constitutional debates of the past two decades. They offered a sobering assessment of Canada’s prospects.

In New Brunswick, political scientist Sidney Pobihushchy said that Canada’s politicians had better take people like Robert Dennis of Moncton very seriously. The 41-year-old Via Rail baggage handler says that, for the first time in his life, he has begun to see the benefits of an Atlantic Canadian separatist movement. For years, Dennis’s concerns have focused on shrinking government support for passenger trains, but that has changed since Ottawa cut back Moncton’s military supply

depot, refused to pay for repairs to the province’s cracked section of the Trans-Canada Highway and instituted the free trade deal that Dennis blames for several local business closures. What all this proves, he says, is that Ottawa has given up on the Maritimes. His conclusion: “Maybe we should be looking at forming our own country—or joining the United States.” Pobihushchy says “hopelessness” is spreading rapidly in Eastern Canada. And

that concern finds echoes among practised observers of Canada’s national fabric in every region. For a few, there is fear that Canada may even be on the brink of disintegration.

Division: Indeed, according to a Maclean ’s sampling of political scientists, historians, constitutional experts and veterans of the federalprovincial wars of the past two decades, seldom have the forces of national division been so vigorous—or the forces of national unity so weak. For the first time, declared Allen Mills, a political scientist at the University of Winnipeg, “unthinkable things like the breakup of Canada are plausible.” And even those whose vision is less apocalyptic concede that the tide

of nationalism that swept over most of the country in the years following Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967 has reached a low ebb. Remarked Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto historian: “Canada has always had centrifugal forces, and these seem to be growing.”

Even if Confederation survives its latest constitutional crisis, many analysts predict that those forces will make Canada a markedly different country within 30 years. Among the influences at work: Ottawa’s attempts to manage its $28.9-billion budget deficit; strained relations between provinces, particularly over the Meech Lake accord and interprovincial trade; lacklustre national and provincial leadership; and shifting patterns of immigration that are bringing profound change to some provinces while passing others by. In fact, predicted New Brunswick’s Pobihushchy, Canada may soon resemble “a number of principalities rather than a nation.”

Pride: Several observers suggested that the federal government’s actions on some of the vital economic issues discussed at last week’s First Ministers’ conference could be as important to national unity as the constitutional discussions. Richard Simeon, director of the School of Public Administration at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., for one, noted that many Canadians have come to regard the national social welfare system, including Old Age Security and Medicare, as a source of pride and a reason for loyalty to the federal government. Pointing to last April’s announced cutbacks in unemployment insurance benefits, he said, “We are pinning the union on programs which themselves are in trouble.” And while provincial premiers last week attacked Ottawa for its proposed new Goods and Services Tax and the Bank of Canada’s highinterest-rate policies, the discussions ended with no sign that the government was prepared to relax its zeal for deficit-trimming.

Indeed, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney hinted to the premiers that his next target for budget cuts may be the transfer payments that several poorer provinces rely on to pay for basic public services. “It is a user-pay country now,” said Pobihushchy. “Those who can pay, use. Those who cannot, tough.” Observed Thomas Courchene, director of Queen’s School of Policy Studies: “What it means is that the provinces have to start raising taxes on their own. In the long run, that is really decentralizing.” And for Courchene, that trend raises an open question: “How do you keep the federal system going in an era of restraint?”

Another development putting pressure on the nation’s strained unity, according to its

FUTURE TRADE AND IMMIGRATION PATTERNS WILL FRAGMENT CANADA

critics, is the 11-month-old Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Jacques Parizeau, the separatist leader of Quebec’s Parti Québécois, is among numerous economic and political observers who have noted that the FTA, by lowering barriers to continental trade, has encouraged provinces to seek closer economic ties with the United States than with the rest of Canada. As a result, noted Simeon of Queen’s, “less and less is it possible to talk about the Canadian economy as a single entity.” He added, “Less and less does one province have a stake in the economic success of other ones.” Still, other influences threatening to erode national unity are less tangible than trade. Edward McWhinney, professor of constitutional law at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, for one, says that there is “a certain meanness of spirit in the provinces, a certain bitchiness and a narrowness of vision.” As well, he said that recent trends in immigration are altering the nation’s political dynamics. After a decade of accelerating Asian immigration, noted McWhinney, “demographically, British Columbia is quite distinct even from Alberta within the same region.” Significant demographic differences across the rest of the country, he added, “create different outlooks” on a wide range of issues. British Columbia, for one, has been prompted by its growing demographic ties with Asia to seek stronger links to the Pacific Rim countries, at odds with the rest of the country’s traditional overseas focus on Europe.

Antagonism: In 1984, Prime Minister Mulroney campaigned successfully on the theme of national reconciliation, a theme that he repeated last week. “Unity is the linchpin of our growth,” he told the premiers, “and the cornerstone of our future.” Despite that declaration, some critics accused Mulroney of lacking an inspiring national vision. Declared Bliss: “There was always someone to speak for Canada until Brian Mulroney.” Meanwhile, Courchene said that the federal Tories have created divisiveness by making inconsequential reductions in the deficit. Said Courchene: “They have saved piddling bits of money to close military bases.” After the brief flowering of national reconciliation in the early months of the Tory government, he added, “they have recreated the Trudeau antagonism among the provinces with very little to show for it.” Others are equally critical of provincial leaders for failing to reflect a national vision. Simon

Fraser's McWhinney, for one, accused provincial governments of “irresponsibility” in their pursuit of narrow regional self-interest. He noted, for example, that provincial governments have failed to dismantle their pervasive system of interprovincial trade barriers that have contributed to a fragmented national economy. Said McWhinney, who has advised former premiers in Ontario and Quebec on constitutional law: “There is an appalling absence of leadership at the provincial level.” Many analysts observe that the current situation is in stark contrast to attitudes in the 1960s. Then, Canadian nationalism gathered

strength with the creation of a Canadian flag in 1965 and Expo 67 in Montreal celebrating the country’s first century. In 1968, Pierre Trudeau swept to power with a charismatic style that seemed to epitomize a national spirit of confident independence. But ultimately, Trudeau’s vocal advocacy of a strong central government created conflict with the provinces. In the 1970s, Trudeau battled with Alberta over energy policy and Quebec over independence. Trudeau’s combative style intensified those conflicts, suggested Bliss, and “weakened the confederation in the long run.” Trudeau, said Bliss, “did not respect the notion of Canada as a group of communities,” while Mulroney, in turn, is “too willing to pander to the provinces.” Bliss argues that a prime minister of Canada should occupy a middle ground be-

tween these two approaches: “There is a difference between respecting the regions and surrendering to them.”

But whatever compromises may eventually be reached on Meech Lake, some analysts say that other forces will inevitably bring big changes to Canada in the coming decades. Courchene, for one, said that because of Quebec’s declining share of the total Canadian population, by the year 2020, it “is not going to be the major driving force in Canada.” By then, he added, Japanese will be British Columbia’s second official language. The rest of the country, he concluded, will be “a series of distinct societies” made up of different regional, ethnic and language groups. Added Simeon: “In 25 years, it will certainly be a looser federation.” Several analysts expressed deep concern that the erosion of national unity could ultimately lead to the breakup of the country— regardless of the outcome of the Meech Lake impasse. In Winnipeg, Mills reflected that “the breakup of the Soviet empire is taking place so rapidly, we have to realize that the breakup of Canada could happen just as fast unless we take care.” For his part, former Manitoba NDP premier Howard Pawley noted “an unfortunate trend towards apathy and hostility, which is leading towards the potential breakup of the country.” Bliss predicted: “Canada is not going to have fallen apart by 1994. Whether it will be here in the year 2000 is another question.” Abyss: Still, other observers called predictions of Canada’s demise alarmist. Said Gordon Robertson, a supporter of Meech Lake who, as clerk of the Privy Council from 1963 to 1975, was Canada’s top civil servant: “When Canadians get close to the edge of the abyss and look over, they will have enough common sense to decide they do not want a fracture in this country.” Added Robertson: “Compromise has been the Canadian genius for 200 years.” And in Vancouver, Michael Walker, executive di2 rector of the right-wing Fraser Institute, even I argued that a looser federation could be good I for Canada. “The more autonomous the provinces are,” Walker said, “the less likely it is % that any group of them will agree to a proposii tion that would see Canada fragment and link ° with the United States.”

Until the June deadline for ratification of the contentious Meech Lake accord, the Constitution is likely to remain the focus of much of the debate over Canada’s future. But whatever shape that document takes in the end, other changes—in the orientation of the national economy, the makeup of Canada’s population and relations between Ottawa and the provinces—are likely to proceed swiftly. Reflected Bliss: “I am worried about the country either way, if the accord is ratified or if it isn’t.” Similarly, ordinary Canadians like Robert Dennis have reason to wonder whether the country that emerges from those influences will much resemble the one that they are trying to save.

GREG W. TAYLOR with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, DON MACGILLIVRAY in Winnipeg, E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa, EUGENE WEISS in Moncton and GLEN ALLEN in Halifax

HAL QUINN

DON MACGILLIVRAY

E. KAYE FULTON

GLEN ALLEN