COVER

VIEWPOINTS

Regional differences affect attitudes towards Canada

CHRIS WOOD July 1 1994
COVER

VIEWPOINTS

Regional differences affect attitudes towards Canada

CHRIS WOOD July 1 1994

VIEWPOINTS

Regional differences affect attitudes towards Canada

Coastal detachment

Memo to: The rest of Canada From: British Columbia Message: Everybody take a Valium.

OK. In deference to the Nineties, make that a Prozac. But the advice applies as aptly to the current alarm over British Columbia’s supposed secessionist tendencies as it did when Aislin, the brilliant Montreal cartoonist, put it into the mouth of René Lévesque after he led the Parti Québécois to power for the first time in November, 1976. Indeed, rather more aptly. Eighteen years after Lévesque’s victory, an altogether more serious gang of separatists may be on the verge of taking control of Quebec’s National Assembly. In British Columbia in 1994, by contrast, not even those working the hardest to fan the flames of a new romance with their American neighbors are eager to burn their Maple Leaf

flags—let alone adopt the Stars and Stripes. “Hardly,” huffs Marian Robson, executive director of the year-old Cascadia Institute, a private Vancouver think-tank dedicated to increasing ties between Western Canada and its U.S. neighbors in the Pacific Northwest.

‘This whole notion of sovereignty is not what we’re about at all. If s just not on.” It is a notion with persistence, though. In April, independent B.C. MLA Gordon Wilson caught Central Canada’s attention when he declared that “British Columbia may no longer be served by remaining in the Canadian Confederation.” The following month, federal Opposition Leader Lucien Bouchard was widely reported to have mused privately to a business group that if Quebec leaves Canada, British Columbia could end up in the arms of the United States (a statement he later denied making). And then in June, former B.C. liberal leader Gordon Gibson travelled to Montreal to promote his new book, Plan B: The Future of the Rest of Canada, in which he asserts that British Columbians now “routinely debate a question that would have been totally unmentionable a few years ago, namely: “If Quebec goes, should we go, too?”

But as 3.3 million British Columbians approached their 123rd anniversary in Canada—and the country’s 127th birthday—the question, surely, was not the first thing on many minds. There were simply better things to think about. These are good times on the Golden Mountain, as the Chinese dubbed the West Coast a century ago. Construction cranes hover in flocks over the Lower Mainland, first-class business flights to Hong Kong are fully booked and the world’s most luxurious ocean liners vie for space in Vancouver’s harbor. A booming economy has instilled British Columbians with a new measure of self-confidence, even as some of them discover new areas of common interest with the neighbors to the south. Ottawa, meanwhile, has not gotten any closer over the years. From a distance of 3,500 km, its world view still often seems alien. And plainly, for many residents of this sybaritic and ambitious province, the idea of debating— yet again—Quebec’s place in the country is an unwelcome distraction from the natural order of things: making money and enjoying the scenery.

But Confederation’s irritants hardly amount, in B.C. eyes at least, to anything like grounds for divorce. Buoyant British Columbians surveyed in the latest Maclean’s/Decima poll were, in fact, more likely by a considerable margin than any other Canadians to agree strongly with the proposition that “Canada is the best country in the world in which to live.” That being so, they had no wish to break it up. To the contrary, most British Columbians would clearly far rather see Quebec and their own province both remain part of a united Canada. What they do share however, is what Vancouver talk-show host Rafe Mair calls an “utter impatience” with never-ending constitutional debate. ‘We would rather see Quebec go,” Mair asserts, “than endure endless more years of this nonsense.”

But if there is little taste in these parts for more eye-glazing constitutional debate, there is even less for political union with the United States. That is so despite growing levels of contact with neighboring states and increasing talk of “Cascadia”—an evocative name for the region on both sides of the border, derived from a range of mountains stretching from British Columbia to California.

The contacts, especially with Washington, are partly social. Seattle, a three-hour drive to the south, is a favorite Vancouver weekend getaway spot, to the extent that Vancouver magazine devoted its June cover story to an affectionate examination of its rival. When baseball’s American League Seattle Mariners appear at home, as many as a fifth of the seats in the Kingdome are occupied by Canadians. Meanwhile, the pierced and plaid-clad denizens of Seattle’s trendsetting alternative music scene frequently appear in Vancouver’s avant-garde clubs.

Business contacts are also multiplying. Two years ago, a consortium of Vancouver investors was formed to help Seattle keep the then-troubled Mariners in that city. This year, the Seattlebased McCaw family, owners of the largest cellular-phone empire in North America, returned the favor by joining a syndicate that secured a National Basketball Association franchise for Vancouver (Seattle already has one, as does Portland, Ore.). Canadian environmental firms, meanwhile, have found work cleaning up nuclear waste in Washington state; other firms, dedicated to computer software, have forged alliances with Redmond, Wash.-based giant Microsoft Corp. The most audacious common cause to date finds business leaders in Seattle and Vancouver proposing to launch a joint bid for the 2004 Summer Olympics. “It could be made as a Cascadian bid,” suggests Vancouver business consultant Bill Winnett, one of those promoting the idea. “Neither country would take a predominating position. It would be a fifty-fifty split of events.”

That high-profile proposal apart, Cascadia remains a nebulous concept outside a few research centres and interest groups. Definitions vary widely. At its most modest, it refers only to the burgeoning corridor of explosive growth from Portland to Vancouver. At its most inclusive, the name has been applied to vast expanses of the continent including Alberta as well as British Columbia, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. Within those larger borders live 16 mil-

lion people with a combined GDP of more than $400 billion, enough to rank in the world’s top 10 economies. “Working together,” argues John Miller, spokesman for a Seattle think-tank that promotes Cascadian economic co-operation, “we can have a bigger pie.”

Beyond that, the idea of an altogether new Cascadian nation, a sort of Shangri-La with espresso in the shadow of the coastal mountains, does hold a certain allure. This is a region where dropping out of society has a long and honored tradition, on both sides of the border. “It is a kind of a dream,” says Mair, “something you think about, that should happen.” There is even a flag: a rather busy banner emblazoned with mountains and, oddly, a trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario. But reality intrudes: “Everybody knows it can’t happen,” the radio host observes. “The United States isn’t about to give up sovereignty over Washington, Oregon and Alaska.”

Nor are Cascadia’s binational residents quick to give up old habits of mutual reserve, not to say occasional suspicion. Five years after the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, an association of Canadian and American legislators and business people, identified 124 economic areas where regional co-operation was possible, work has begun on only eight. And despite several recent joint undertakings to promote tourism and better transportation links, there is little sign that the pace will accelerate.

In fact, the same shared geography that Cascadia’s proponents argue makes for common cause equally often serves to divide. “We are not natural partners,” argues Michael Walker, executive director of Vancouver’s conservative Fraser Institute. “We are natural competitors.” That is evident in several ongoing disputes between British Columbia and its American neighbors. In one case, the failure to resolve an argument last month over U.S. fishing rights to salmon spawned in B.C. rivers led federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin to impose a punitive $1,500 fee on each American vessel travelling through Canadian waters. Canadian fishermen, who accuse their U.S. counterparts of squandering their own fish stocks, heartily applauded the step. Declared commercial fisherman Dennis Brown, in a sentiment that bodes poorly for the future of regional co-operation: “The good neighbor policy isn’t working any more.” Those most zealously promoting closer economic relations meanwhile, firmly disavow any loftier ambitions. “Nobody,” declares Roger Bull, a former Canadian diplomat who is now executive director of the binational association of legislators, “has the slightest interest in a political movement. The Canadians are quite happy to go on being Canadians; the Americans are happy to be Americans.”

Besides, on the booming West Coast, America is no longer the biggest game in town. “Clearly, Asia is hotter,” notes Wilson Parasiuk, chairman of the B.C. Trade Development Corp., a Crown agency charged with developing the province’s trade with both Asia and Africa. Governments in the Orient plan to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next eight years on infrastructure alone, Parasiuk notes, adding: “Those are astronomical numbers.”

It is to China that ambitious British Columbians now look for golden mountains to conquer. In comparison to the glittering prospects to be found in Asia, America’s familiar embrace has lost both some of its charm and much of its former threat. But whether the residents of the coastal rain forest find their fortune by looking south or west, they show no signs at all of forgetting who they are at home. They are Canadians. From British Columbia, Canada.

And now, they might add, shall we get on with business?

CHRIS WOOD