WITH the stage set for Dominion-Provincial talks here this month, Ottawa’s full of the spirit that pervaded San Francisco in April. There’s the same consciousness of the job’s importance —to Canada it may even prove more important than the United Nations Charter, for it will amount before it’s done to a new Confederation. There’s also the same mixture of high hope with deep doubt.
Unless Ottawa can persuade the provinces to accept its major proposals, Canada’s reconstruction program will collapse. Tax reform, co-ordinated public works, conservation on any considerable scale—none has much chance without some constitutional reform. And the outlook for constitutional reform is none too bright. Looking over the situation from coast to coast, Ottawa finds plenty to worry about.
Take British Columbia, to start with—habitually suspicious of Eastern intentions, and “Eastern” seems to mean anything east of the Rockies. Premier John Hart, moreover, is a personal devotee of provincial tax rights. If Ottawa hopes to keep its wartime monopoly of income and corporation taxes (without which no real tax reform is feasible) it must count on opposition from John Hart.
Then there’s Alberta. Premier Manning isn’t as intransigent as the late Premier Aberhart, who joined Mitch Hepburn and Duff Pattullo to scuttle the Sirois Conference in 1940. In fact, since Alberta put through its debt refunding deal, Ottawa’s relations with the Social Creditors of Edmonton have been pretty cordial. But Social Credit does have a traditional bias in favor of “provincial rights,” and that bias is strengthened just now by its violent feud with the CCF.
The CCF, which rules Saskatchewan, is of much the same mind as the Federal Liberals on constitutional reform, though for different reasons. The present BNA Act would be a lethal obstacle to a Federal CCF Government if one should be elected at some future time. But support of the CCF in principle is likely to be offset by bitterness of the CCF against the Mackenzie King Government, and CCF determination to function hereafter as a vigorous and implacable opposition. And, of course, any support by the CCF, however slight, merely intensifies Social Credit hostility.
Something the same is true of Progressive Conservative Ontario. Besides, Premier George Drew isn’t given to ready agreement with Mackenzie King on anything. Lately, after a long period of suspicious bickering between Ottawa and Queen’s Park, there has been a burst of co-operation in getting ready for the conference. The Drew Government sent a man to Ottawa to work on financial statistics, and went so far as to throw away some elaborate figures of its own and adopt the Federal system in order that accurate comparisons may be made. But this is collaboration in setting up the machinery. It doesn’t necessarily imply agreement on the aims of the conference itself.
As for Quebec, Premier Maurice Duplessis has always made “autonomy” his chief stock in trade. He usually thinks, too, that if Ottawa wants anything, that’s reason enough for being against it.
Some elements of cheer are present. In Manitoba, Premier Stuart Garson is expected to be a tower of strength. Garson is one of the Liberal Party’s brightest young men; as head of a coalition government and former lieutenant of John Bracken he also enjoys the good opinion of Progressive Conservatives, and the CCF agree that he’s not a bad egg. People here hope and expect that he’ll
come out of the conference with increased stature.
Maritime Premiers, too, are expected to be more or less on Ottawa’s side in the general argument.
Even in the central provinces some factors will work against open hostility. Premier Duplessis is in bad political shape since the Federal election—his “independents” took a terrible licking, and his Party’s war chest is said to be almost empty. He wouldn’t welcome an election, and if he did try to fight one on the “autonomy” issue or any other issue this fall he’d probably be beaten. This may help to keep him quiet.
Col. Drew is, of course, impregnable at home. But he’s also crown prince of a Party whoso national leader, John Bracken, was the strongest advocate of the Sirois Report in 1940. Too tough a line against Federal proposals could be made embarrassing for Mr. Bracken if the thing became a national issue.
But Ottawa is walking very warily, and trying to pick no fight with anyone. The August meeting is carefully noncommittal. No province is going to he asked to agree to anything, except to set up committees of study. All the provinces are asked to do is consider the Federal proposals, which at the same time will, of course, be made public. Ottawa’s hopeful that they’ll be generous enough, and popular enough, to win support from public opinion that may modify any hostility from provincial governments.
Meanwhile it’s hoped at least to avert a breakdown at this stage. But if an open break should come now, Ottawa has one more shot in its locker a Federal election this fall. No opposition Party wants one, but the Liberals would as soon have one as not. Using their constitutional proposals as a platform, they think they could pick up at least a dozen more seats and incidentally ruin whatever Party started the fight. They may be all wrong, but that’s what they think.
WESTERN LIBERALS, particularly, would like another deal—they’re extremely unhappy about the one they’ve got.
Time was when the West was the great Liberal stronghold. In the last Parliament, out of the Liberals’ 150-odd seats, 41 lay west of the Lakes and 31 on the prairies alone. It was a pretty powerful bloc in Liberal caucus.
Now the Western Liberal seats number only 19, Manitoba, the main bastion, has 10 of them; five more are centred in B.C. Saskatchewan and Alberta are down to two apiece, and it all adds up to fewer seats than the Party won in the lowly Maritimes, who got practically nothing they wanted in the last House because they were so weak in numbers.
If the West doesn’t get what it wants, for the same reason, consequences will be disastrous for the Party, say Liberal pessimists. In 1944, agricultural subsidies to the Prairie Provinces alone ran to $39j^ millions nearly 40% of all the subsidies paid to Canadian farmers. And that was without counting the cost of maint .lining wheat prices if, or when, t he world market falls below $ 1.25.
(Ian a mere 1Í) members wheedle such swacks out of a parsimonious East ? West ern Liberals doubt it. And if they don’t, succeed, they say, one harvest could wreck t he Party t here for years to come.
* * #
Private enterprise in t he housing field has just had a friendly kick in the pants from Ottawa. So far the results appear to be beneficial.
As no Canadian needs to be told, housing in this country is a major problem which gets rapidly worse as more and more veterans come home from overseas. Official Government policy, proclaimed in the Reconstruction White Paper of April 12, is that 50,000 new homes must be built in t he first year from V-E Day and we shall need every one of them if all Canadians are to have a decent roof over their heads.
Every kind of priority went to the building indust ries. National Selectivo Service rated housing above war work in directing workers to essent ial jobs. Wartime Prices and I rade Board and the Wartime Industries Control Board, czars of finished products and raw materials respectively, gave a green light on supplies for just one example, more sheet steel has been made available for stoves and furnaces than was ever used for this purpose in any peacetime year.
But in spite of all this not enough was happening as spring wore on into summer. Veterans rehabilitation agencies were putting up 3,000 homes for returned men; Wartime Housing Limited was building 5,000 of its temporary dwellings. Permits for about 23,000 homes were issued to private builders. But this latter figure less than half the total number needed was confined almost wholly to relatively high-cost brackets. Nobody was doing much about the low-rental houses which are the most urgent need.
The only Government agency for dealing with this problem has been the National Housing Administration, which is just a loan-guaranteeing agency. It can only function as a stimulus to private enterprise, and the Government desires and intends that private enterprise shall remain the principal factor in home building.
But private enterprise didn’t seem to be interested in low-rental housing. Loan companies didn’t want to go into it in any big way. Building costs were too high, they said; return on capital would be too low Sorry, but thev couldn’t see their way clear, etc , etc
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This went on until about the end of June. Then some other Government departments lost patience.
“Look here,” they said in effect, “we have to have these houses, no matter who builds them. If you want us to turn Wartime Housing loose on the
whole problem, we’ll build 50,000 houses all right—and low-cost housing I will be state enterprise for good. If you don’t want that, get busy.”
At last reports the loan firms and the builders were getting busy.
The teapot tempest about who shall get the family allowance cheque, papa or mamma, is an object lesson in the t difficulty of pleasing everybody. No
matter which way the Government’s decision might have gone, somebody would have been sore.
Original idea of the Cabinet seems to have been to pay the mother in eight provinces of Canada, the father in Quebec. You can make out a case for this decision on both counts. For paying the mother, because the mother is the one closest to the responsibility I of feeding and clothing the children — I the Government wanted to make sure ! the family allowance cheque went in ! with the egg and butter money. Britain ! lately introduced a hill providing for payment of family allowances to the I father, hut it raised such a unanimous howl in all Parties that the bill was i amended to make cheques payable to I the mother, and the amendment went 1 through without a dissenting vote.
But for paying the father in Quebec, a case can be made out too. The Quebec Civil Code regards the property of husband and wife as common (except in the case of the few who have marriage contracts), and the husband is the head of this community. He is the one who normally receives payments, gives receipts, makes payments himself. Moreover, it was assumed (perhaps
too hastily) that payment to the father would best suit the customs and desires of the Quebec people.
When news of this leaked out, though, there was great outcry. Letters poured in from trade unions, social welfare groups, women’s organizations, even some branches of the St. Jean Baptiste Society, protesting vigorously against this policy of singling out Quebec for special treatment. It was recalled that when the Family Allowances Bill was being debated, spokesmen of every Party favored paying the mother.
Only a handful of letters came in favoring the pay-papa scheme. The more vociferous advocates of it, the nationalist groups, were roundly repudiated by the Federal election results. Yet in spite of this seeming preponderance of opinion, Ottawa knows very well that there are powerful influences in Quebec that will be opposed—openly or otherwise—to payment of Family Allowances to Quebec mothers.
The Government, in short, is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t, and wishes the whole thing had never come up.
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