THE COMING SHOWDOWN WITH THE WEST
THE NATIONAL SCENE
Fed up with neglect by the east and “favoritism” to Quebec, the west is more and more thinking the unthinkable . . . separatism
WESTERN CANADA IS FED UP. From Vancouver Island to the Ontario border there hangs an almost palpable cloud of discontent, powerful enough to provoke serious thoughts about separatism here for the first time in more than 30 years. The signs of unrest are everywhere — in three studies commissioned to discover if an independent west could survive economically (they all said it could); in the rumblings of businessmen, politicians, labor spokesmen and farmers; in the almost universal rejection of the federal Official Languages Act, which has somehow become identified as an eastern law designed to placate that spoiled child of the east, Quebec; in three new political parties, two of them openly separatist, founded within recent months.
When I was assigned to test that mood of alienation across the west I
expected to find the usual catalogue of historical gripes: the tariff, wheat sales, oil exports and the iniquities of the wicked barons of Bay Street. I found all these, of course, but I found much more — a seething rage directed at central Canada and shared by an astonishing cross section of the population. I stood in a crowd of 6,000 farmers in Saskatoon and watched them shake their fists and boo at every mention of Ottawa or the federal government; I read the signs that said, “We Want Bread and Butter, Not B.S.,” and “We’ve Been Feeding The Wrong Hogs,” and “Ottawa, Go To Hell,” and I thought of earlier meetings where the sentiment was similar but the signs read, “Québec, Oui, Ottawa, Non.” I sat in a Regina pub, engaged in what I thought was the brisk give and take of debate, until a large, angry young man told me, “You’d better leave, now, Easterner,” and I left. I sat in farm kitchens and city living rooms, in business offices and union halls, and in most of them I heard the Same message that went winging with the ripe tomato someone pelted at Prime Minister Trudeau when he turned up for a Liberal fund-raising dinner in Calgary. The message, like the tomato, was aimed at the Canadian government (“the Ottawa government,” they call it in the west) and its import was plain: unless something is done, and soon, Canada will have a new crisis of unity on its hands.
The western threat is not at all like the threat in Quebec. For one thing, the thrust toward independence is not nearly so strong; for another, the ties that bind French Canada to Confederation are economic, while the forces working against it are cultural; in the west, the reverse is true.
Perhaps the only parallel is the fact that in both areas discontent cuts across normal political and occupational loyalties: NDP, Conservative, Liberal and Social Credit party members share a sense of outrage against the east, Saskatchewan farmers are mad at Ontario farmers, the Manitoba Federation of Labor is mad at the Quebec Federation of Labor, and British Columbia businessmen are sure that banks in Toronto and Montreal discriminate against them in favor of eastern businessmen. ¿
In Edmonton, I attended a coffeeand-cakes party at which forpier Tory chieftain John Diefenbaker hurled his customary thunder at Ottawa, and I chatted afterward with an elderly matron who revealed that, “except for certain people,” Diefenbaker would
still be exercising his oratorical talents as prime minister. Which certain people? Not the dirty Grits, but Ontario Tories. “Those big power people, those people on Bay Street ... all those easterners,” my informant said, and flounced away.
Western discontent is as old as blight and drought and mortgage foreclosures. It found expression in the Progressive Movement of the 1920s, in the emergence of the CCF and Social Credit parties of the 1930s, in the Annexationist sentiment, aimed at linking the western economy to the U.S., which blossoms in this fertile soil from time to time, then withers and dies in the same regular rhythm. None of this is new; what is new is that the malcontents are no longer a minority but a majority (when Manitoba Premier Walter Weir rumbled against Ottawa at the federal-provincial constitutional conference in February. he became an instant hero, and his party won impressive by-election victories in three doubtful constituencies), and that their leaders are not radicals on the fringe of society, but pillars of the Establishment.
It was no crackpot, but Richard Baxter, an influential Winnipeg businessman, and chairman of the Manitoba Export Corporation, who told me, “I believe in the Canadian concept, but 1 believe it’s being loused up . . . Emotionally. I don’t want to get out of Canada, but you have an infallible argument economically for getting out, and if some strong leader could be found to support the idea, it could be sold, because it is so right.”
It was no maverick, but Dr. Hu Harries, former dean of commerce at the University of Alberta, and now Liberal MP for Edmonton-Strath-
“There is not one damn thing that Quebec opposed and we wanted that we could get
cona, who said. “For years and years we'd cuss and swear at the east, but we had no place to go. Now we’re a viable economic unit, and the rules have changed ... I had my firm [an Edmonton-based company of economic consultants] prepare a budget on an independent west, and discovered that we’d have a hell of a surplus at today’s tax rates . . . We want to maintain Confederation, and we don’t mind accommodating Quebec, but when we have to pay for it. and at the same time we’re excluded from the play. well, that’s more than we can stand.”
(Two other studies, one financed by a retired Calgary oilman, the other by a group of federal and provincial political figures, came to the same conclusion as Flarries’ firm about the economic feasibility of an independent west.)
It was no political neophyte, but Art Coulter, executive secretary of the Manitoba Federation of Labor and a member of the Metropolitan Winnipeg Council, who stabbed a square finger across the dining-room table of his suburban home and said, “The more 1 look ahead, the less I can see that eastern Canada can do one damn thing for us.”
Most westerners look at independence as these men do. not as a likelihood, but as a tantalizing alternative to the disgruntlement they feel every time they look east.
This disgruntlement comes not because westerners are poor — the western provinces are better heeled than any but Ontario — not because their children lack shoes or schools, but because they feel disconnected from the rest of Canada. I called on Senator John Nichol, former national president of the Liberal Federation of Canada, in his luxurious Vancouver home. Here. I thought, is the man to set the record straight, a clever and humorous man who has obviously made it and will have nice things to say about Ottawa. The Senator, hitching up his jeans (he was about to take off for his island cottage), let me have about 45 minutes on the arrogance. ignorance and general stupidity of eastern attitudes. He wound up: “I don't think there’s anything in this separatist bit. but I can see a generation from now a lot of people out here looking at Confederation and wondering if it makes any sense.”
The causes of this widespread discontent are many and complex, but behind them all is a general feeling that whatever Quebec wants, Ottawa grants, while whatever the west wants
is refused. The way western Canada sees it, when Quebec wanted help with Expo 67, it was forthcoming, while a telescope for British Columbia was refused. When it made economic sense to transfer the Air Canada overhaul base from Winnipeg to Montreal, that was done, but when it made economic sense to fold up Man And His World. Expo’s successor, that was not done. W hen Alberta oilmen wanted a crack at C ; Montreal market, they were refused, because it is cheaper to import foreign crude, but when Montreal wanted a new airport, the money was cheerfully pledged. When wheat farmers wanted loans to help dry their damp grain, they were kept waiting two months, but when Montreal wanted help to bail out Man And His World, the response was swift and satisfactory.
In the new mood of the west, the Montreal exhibition has become a sour symbol of inequity. Lewis Brand, former Tory MP for Saskatoon, complained, “Every time Mayor Drapeau weeps, the federal government is there to dry his tears; whenever we ask for something, they ignore us completely." (Brand, incidentally, believes he was frozen out in his bid for the presidency of the Conservative Party earlier this year by “a bloc of eastern power brokers.”)
This view of recent history seems simplistic and unfair, but to the average westerner, the parallels I have cited are simple facts of life pointing to an inevitable conclusion: Ottawa has no time for western Canada because it is totally preoccupied with the problems of Quebec.
There is no incident too large or too small to be squeezed into this pattern of thought, from the Official Languages Act to the denial of a National Hockey League franchise for Vancouver when Toronto and Montreal voted against it. Even the church is getting into the act. When a new Roman Catholic bishop was appointed for the diocese of St. Paul, in northcentral Alberta, he was chosen from Quebec instead of from the west, and 12 priests staged a protest, complete with public meetings and petitions. The Reverend C. W. Poirier, of Barrhead, about 75 miles northwest of Edmonton, told me, "It’s not a French-English thing, it's just that we object to people in Ontario and Quebec thinking we can’t do anything for ourselves because we’re a bunch of bumpkins . . . We’re at a pretty low ebb if we have to turn to Quebec for a bishop.”
Westerners feel that Quebec can not only get what it wants, it can
block what they want. A leading member of the BC bar said, "For 25 years meetings of the Canadian Bar Association passed resolution after resolution on constitutional reform, on divorces, on the Criminal Code, and for 25 years the Quebeckers blocked us . . . There is not one damn thing that Quebec opposed and we wanted that we could get.”
Into this pattern of grievance, every province works regional complaints of its own.
British Columbians are upset over the lost Vancouver hockey franchise, over federal harassment of the longdelayed founding of the Bank of British Columbia, over the scrapping of the Queen Elizabeth telescope, which some BC scientists are sure was brought about by jealous colleagues in Toronto.
In Alberta, the oil industry is operating at well under its rated capacity, while markets east of Ottawa are closed to Canadian crude because the pipeline stops in southern Ontario. The U.S. has imposed both a tariff and a quota on oil imports, and recent Alaskan discoveries suggest that sales prospects across the border will soon be dimmer than ever, so that access to the Montreal market may become crucial.
“And yet.” said Liberal MP Hu Harries, “what we're being told is that we can't sell to Montreal because it would cost a cent more a gallon to use Alberta crude than Venezuelan. What we're being told is that we’re expected to pay for Confederation, while you won't pay a cent a gallon to help us.”
Prime Minister Trudeau ducked public discussion on the oil issue at a Calgary meeting, then told inquiring reporters. “I like to disappoint people sometimes.” No campaign by his political foes could convince Albertans of Trudeau's indifference as effectively as that one glib statement.
In Saskatchewan, wheat farmers face a disastrous year, brought on by a slump in exports and the undermining of the International Grains Agreement price structure. The Saskatchewan Economic Development Board estimates that farm income in the province will drop $100 million this year — more than $1,000 for every farm family. At the same time, unsold stocks of wheat have reached a record 1,024,300.000 bushels. Again, the Prime Minister found the perfect, infuriating remark when he asked farmers at a Winnipeg meeting, "Why should I sell your wheat?"
Dave Steuart, Provincial Treasurer
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“We haven’t minded paying the price of Confederation-but what do we get for it?”
of Saskatchewan, and a Liberal, commented, “We’re convinced that we’ve got a government at Ottawa that is totally preoccupied with Quebec and Ontario, and if it has any time left over, it spends it on the Maritimes.”
In Manitoba, transfer of the Air Canada overhaul base from Winnipeg to Montreal, with the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment, caused the Manitoba Federation of Labor to take full-page ads in local newspapers to ask, “Is The Just Society Just For Quebec?”, and to complain, “Trudeau, the prophet of the Just Society, is responsible for our loss. Six years of faith torpedoed in three days by Quebec pressure.” Art Coulter, executive secretary of the MFL, said, “There is no doubt in my mind that this decision was a political decision made for the benefit of Quebec and against the interests of Manitoba.”
Behind all these regional sore spots are two general grievances shared by every western province: the old issue of Canada’s tariff system, and the new one of the Official Languages Act.
Since the days of Macdonald’s National Policy, Canada has maintained a tariff to protect our “infant industries” against too-direct competition with other nations. In practice, this policy means that Canadians pay more than Americans for most manufactured articles, and Canadian secondary industry, most of it centred in Ontario and Quebec, is assured of a market. There is not much protection for producers of raw material. The wheat farmer, for instance, sells into an open and highly competitive market. The price of No. 1 Northern wheat in 1961 was $1.91 a bushel; since that time, almost everything that goes into the production of wheat has risen in price, while No. 1 Northern has slumped to $1.87.5 when it can be sold at all.
Chris Fahlman, who has been growing grain at Kronau, near Regina, for more than 30 years, reckons that his cash return for every acre of his 700-acre farm should be $17 to break even; this year it will be $8.22 an acre.
Fahlman, a stocky, cheery, greyhaired man of 62, has been farming since he was 24, and has known some fat years and many lean ones. He leaned back in a battered chair, fixed me with a stern look and said, “I’ll bet you think I spend all my winters in Florida, lapping up the sun. That’s the way all wheat farmers live, of course. Well, my wife and I got mar-
ried in 1935, and since then we’ve visited Minnesota, North and South Dakota and British Columbia, one short trip. We never did get to Florida.”
Despite popular myth, few wheat farmers can afford southern vacations. One Regina-area grain-grower opened his accounts to me. They showed that, on a capital investment of $185,000, plus his investment of a year’s hard labor, his net return last year was a little more than $5,000. Farm costs have been rising consistently; by 1967, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, they were 68 percent higher than in 1949, yet farm income was up only 9.7 percent in the same period. On the basis of 1949 dollars, income was down by 33.1 percent.
“We’re all living off capital,” said Bill McGillivray, another Regina-area farmer. “If things don’t improve, there’s nothing we can do but get out or go broke.”
Winnipeg businessman Richard Baxter had a group of economists work out the price differential imposed by the tariff, and came up with a figure of $687 per annum for every Canadian family. “That’s the price of Confederation, and we’ve never minded paying it, but now we're beginning to wonder what we're getting for it. All we can see is an Official Languages Act we don’t need and don't want.”
A great many westerners who were drawn to Trudeau by his one-nation stance during the 1968 election were not prepared to see that stance translated into a two-languages bill. The rejection is especially emphatic among ethnic groups. There are more German Canadians than French Canadians in every western province, more Ukrainians than French in every prairie province, more Chinese than French in British Columbia, yef ojily French is to be given official status, and the other minorities can’t understand why.
Bill Swystun, a Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer in Winnipeg, explained, “We were once very sympathetic to Quebec, but the backlash now is so strong people won’t stand for this act . . . You are going to go into a community where maybe 80 percent of the people speak Ukrainian, and because 10 percent of them speak French, French is to be raised above Ukrainian. Does this make sense? We want to preserve our culture, too. but you’re willing to destroy it to save another one. You're willing to make a shambles of us to save the French, all in the name of unity. What kind of unity is this?”
Implicit in the languages bill is the likelihood that senior civil servants will be drawn only from the ranks of bilingual Canadians. The government version is that anyone who is willing to learn French will qualify, but the west, collectively and flatly, rejects this assurance. The belief here is that henceforth the Canadian civil service will be recruited from east of Toronto, and that administrative decisions, more than ever, will favor Ontario and Quebec.
It was the Official Languages Act more than anything else that led to the founding of the British Columbia Separatist Association in Vancouver by cabaret owner Bob Reeds, the Western Canada Separatist Movement in Edmonton by taxi driver Reg Wheatcroft, and the Dominion of Canada Party in Calgary by Mrs. Flo Frawley, president of a printing firm and a former Conservative Party official.
The BC movement was founded to promote publicity for Reeds' blue-collar nightclub; it has done that, but not much more. When Reeds hired the 2,800-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre to debate separatism with a Vancouver broadcaster, he drew fewer than 100 two-dollar paid admissions and, as the Vancouver Sun gleefully noted, was separated from several hundred dollars for hiring the hall.
The Western Canada Separatist Movement claims to have a substantial secret membership, but they are so secret I couldn’t find any of them in two days of hard looking in Edmonton.
The Dominion of Canada Party is not separatist. Mrs. Frawley indicated her followers would rather stay in Confederation and go on fighting. A sprightly and aggressive 55-year-old grandmother, she would not fell me her party’s membership strength, but did show me an impressive bundle of supporting letters and receipts for donations as well as a map indicating 24 DOC chapters across the west.
None of these parties can be taken seriously now — but neither could the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale when it was founded.
Although anti-French bigotry is certainly one of the wellsprings of passion on the language issue, Mrs. Frawley denied that she was a higot. “I’m in favor of bilingualism,” she said, holding up a foreign - language textbook. “See, I’m studying Spanish.”
Saskatchewan T reasurer Dave Steuart told me, “I have to be careful when I get talking about Quebec. Every time I get on to anything that
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could be remotely construed as antiFrench, you can see the people come lifting out of their seats, shouting for more. It’s a terrible temptation to give it to them.”
In general terms, the federal government is aware of western unrest, but the difficulty central Canada faces in trying to meet the west on such problems as the tariff and the Official Languages Act is that our interests are fundamentally opposed. From Ottawa, the tariff policy and the languages bill appear moderate and sensible; while some tinkering with details may be permitted, the fundamental principles of both are embedded in the self-interest of central Canada. And central Canada is where the decisions are made. Ontario and Quebec control 162 seats in the Flouse of Commons, 120 of them held by the ruling Liberals; all western Canada controls 68 seats, 26 of them Liberal. In such an equation, the west is already beaten before it starts.
That wouldn’t matter so much if the west could have its way on other issues. If, for instance, the federal government were to offer price support for Canadian wheat, as every other major exporting country does, or to apply a two-price system under which Canadian flour mills would pay higher prices than the export market, the west would feel that Ottawa was at least trying to help. Allan Blakeney, NDP MLA for Regina Centre, said, “If the Canadian government did half as much for Canadian wheat growers as the stingiest of our competitors does for theirs, we'd be well off.”
Prairie farmers draw a bitter parallel between the treatment accorded grain growers, who get no direct subsidies, and are located mainly in the west, and dairymen, who receive both price supports and subsidies, and are located mainly in Ontario and Quebec.
More government muscle behind the drive to export Canadian oil, or more attention to dislocation problems posed by shifting the Air Canada overhaul base, or redirection of more grain shipments through the Manitoba port of Churchill would have political impact far outweighing any economic benefits.
“The main question is psychological.” said Senator John Nichol. “The west has to; be convinced that eastern Canada knows we’re here, cares about us and is willing to do something for us.”
Without some sign soon of that knowledge, that care, that willingness, separatism could become a potent force across the Canadian west.n