There’s a sure way to tell your friends from life’s assortment of insurance salesmen, camp followers and real estate agents. Bring them all together and give a short, punchy speech on the benefits of an elected Senate. Those who topple their chairs over backward and snore ostentatiously are not your friends.
I developed this test when I became convinced, after living in Alberta for several years, that only an elected Senate will keep the country from choking on its regional poisons. I hear a lot of crashing chairs and loud snores but I keep plugging away, partly because when so many people think you’re a crank it seems cruel to disappoint them.
The other reason is that something must be done to stop the country’s slide toward disintegration. Our regions are like gladiators who are tied together, handed clubs and told to keep slugging until somebody falls. Everybody gets bloody, and when it’s over the winners still have to drag the losers around.
Regional hostility isn’t as overt as it was in 1981 and 1982, when we clubbed each other over oil pricing and the Constitution. It has gone under a rock to wait out the bad times, but it can still jump out and bite, like a lizard determined to keep fit during a hot spell. Items:
• When I appeared on a Calgary talk show recently, I was amazed at how many people have given up on the Tories because they chose Brian Mulroney as leader. These people think the Tories will now be just like the Liberals, run by Central Canada and obsessed with Quebec.
• An Ontario woman visiting relatives in British Columbia was amazed to find herself being blamed for the Liberals. Ontario voted them in, her loving cousins said, and now the whole country has to put up with the fiends. How could she be so stupid?
• A 10-year-old Edmonton boy, watching Toronto’s summer marvels on the tube, exclaimed, “Boy, do I hate the Blue Jays!”
• Several Conservative premiers who might be expected to help Mulroney win are instead driving premature spikes into his casket by assaulting medicare. They leave him an impossible choice: he can offend the voters by supporting the premiers or enrage the premiers by backing the voters. Count on the Lib-
erals to leave this one hanging until they call an election, then use it to whack Mulroney on the head.
The Calgarians should realize that Mulroney will have to listen to the West, because western Tory MPs will go for his throat if he doesn’t. The British Columbians should know that Ontar\ ians don’t vote Liberal to spite the West but because they’re innocents who love to be duped. The boy should learn that the Blue Jays are a great team with the bad luck to be stuck in Toronto. It could happen to anybody.
As for the premiers, they never change. They recall the medieval barons who armed against the king while demanding his protection. Their interests are purely regional, but fate has given them a huge role in the national melodrama. On this stage they cavort like off-Broadway Falstaffs shoved into King Lear’s shoes.
And yet their subjects love them for
‘The premiers cavort in a national melodrama like off-Broadway Falstaffs shoved into King Lear's shoes'
it. Brian Peckford’s halo may be slipping, but Newfoundlanders still enjoy him when he sticks his face into Ottawa’s fist. Peter Lougheed, who once gained eight yards in two seasons of running back kicks for the Edmonton Eskimos, doesn’t do much better against Ottawa. Usually he loses, but he’s an authentic Alberta hero simply because he fights.
Central Canadians rarely realize how much blind support these guys have when they start their holy wars. Lougheed delayed approval of two oil sands megaprojects until they were finally cancelled. The oil companies lost revenue when he cut production during the oil-pricing fight. Then he signed an energy deal that has since proved disastrous. But when Lougheed went to the polls last November, his party won 75 of 79 seats.
That’s power. He and other premiers have it because they’re the only line of defence against Ottawa. They are doing by default the job intended for the Senate, but doing it badly because they don’t have the tools.
They have no forum in which to nego-
tiate, no way to propose legislation, no formal lines into the federal system. Their only recourse is to fight, and the result has been one national tragicomedy after another.
But they’re doomed to keep at it in a country so loaded in favor of Ontario and Quebec. Together those two prov\ inces elect 170 of 282 MPs, a clear majority. They have a total of 48 Senate seats, while all four western provinces get only 24. Six of nine Supreme Court judges are appointed from Ontario and Quebec. Eight provinces and two territories (Rump Canada) are permitted the remaining three.
Canada is the only democratic federation on the planet that bases every key institution, even the allegedly regional Senate, on population alone. This is the cause of the bitterness, the name-calling, the endless fights. It’s the reason the Liberals are bums in 80 per cent of the country even when they do something right. On the rare occasions when the system is fair, hardly anyone believes it.
But miracles happen even in blighted countries. Lougheed now favors an elected Senate, even though it would steal power from his government. Trudeau himself is said to be gung-ho about change, which isn’t surprising because for years he has been trying to earn more respect for the federal government. When he learned that some Liberal MPs weren’t attending meetings of a committee on reform, he had them booted out.
More miraculous still, many MPs and senators on the committee have decided the main issue already. They believe that senators should be elected but they’re still trying to decide how, and how many should come from each province.
The last point is crucial, because reform loses its point if each province doesn’t elect an equal number of senators. Yes, Prince Edward Island should have as many as Ontario, bitter as the pill might seem in Toronto. (Some of us hope the Blue Jays will win the World Series so we can ram this thing through during the party.)
Think of it—a country where differences would be worked out in Ottawa without warfare. A country with weaker premiers and a respected federal government. A country where cranks could stop boring friends.
Don Braid is the Edmonton Journal’s political columnist.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.