BUSINESS WATCH

The West’s urgent cry to be heard

What westerners want is precisely what Quebecers want: more control over their individual lives and collective destiny. Now.

Peter C. Newman January 7 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

The West’s urgent cry to be heard

What westerners want is precisely what Quebecers want: more control over their individual lives and collective destiny. Now.

Peter C. Newman January 7 1991

The West’s urgent cry to be heard

BUSINESS WATCH

What westerners want is precisely what Quebecers want: more control over their individual lives and collective destiny. Now.

PETER C. NEWMAN

As the year turns, it seems almost inevitable that come spring the cauldron of discontent threatening to blow this country apart will explode in Quebec, focusing national concern yet again on how to appease—or reject—French Canada’s galloping aspirations. Western Canadians, who have watched that scenario unfold without their full participation ever since Jean Lesage set off the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, vow that this time it will be different.

Whether they want Quebec to remain in Confederation or not—and most do, though not on any terms—the citizens of Canada’s four western provinces will not stand by and see the country restructured strictly according to French Canada’s values and priorities. The various discontents suffered by the West can no longer be ignored in working out the delicate equation of our national future. What westerners want is precisely what Quebecers want: more control over their individual lives and collective destiny. Now.

For the first two decades after the Second World War, national attention was focused on the Prairies and British Columbia by the discoveries of oil-and-gas reserves, the carving out of an aluminum kingdom at Kitimat, rich mineral strikes and construction of the transCanada pipeline. The focus then shifted to Ontario, where the country’s industrial future was being moulded, and Quebec, where the struggle for national unity was being fought. The West felt left out of both these processes, becoming increasingly isolated from the centres of decisionand news-making, out there on the margin of the Toronto-dominated national media, its advocates ignored except for the occasional trick-turn, like that accorded to witch doctors in old-fashioned documentaries about Africa.

The West had plenty of grievances of its own but there was no political party to push them onto the national agenda. Such historical protest movements as the Progressive party, the United Farmers of Alberta, the Social Credit

League and the revolutionary One Big Union had long vanished or, like the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, had been absorbed. Like Quebec, the West needs its own champions (not just wheat salesmen) inside Ottawa’s power circles, yet recent Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have granted only token consideration to the region’s demands and intentions. There was no feeling of westerners’ being taken seriously, or even listened to.

These frustrations have grown under the Mulroney government because the nature of Canada has been turned on its axis. The country that was so agonizingly settled and developed along east-west lines has been swung around to a north-south orientation. Nearly all of the transnational gravitational pulls—from the railways to the CBC—have been weakened, while everything else—from air traffic to computer hookups, tastes, factories, ideas and ambitions—is now flowing north-south (except for the factories that are flowing only south).

What has transformed the West’s political lassitude is, of course, the success of Preston Manning’s Reform party. Suddenly, there is an effective vehicle for western political protest. With astounding speed, the Reformers have

spanned the Prairie and scaled the Rockies. Even if he looks and sounds like a small-town optician, Manning is a superb organizer whose appeal has seriously eroded the once-impregnable Tory bastion in Alberta, and spread his gospel to the other western provinces. Manning’s absence of charisma or detailed platform has prompted competing politicians to dismiss him as a temporary and overblown phenomenon. What they forget is that Manning doesn’t have to do very much, except be there. By providing western voters with an indigenous alternative—a voice of their own—Manning could sweep the four western provinces. If the next election, as expected, produces no majority mandate, he would hold the balance of power. That would rank the West as a major player in shaping Canada’s future.

Unlike Quebec, where grievances are historical and cultural, western complaints and demands tend to be more specific. Westerners still recall, as if it were yesterday, the $ 1.8billion maintenance contract awarded in November, 1987, to Montreal’s Canadair Ltd., despite the technically and financially superior bid from Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace. Their eyes still roll with disbelief when they remember the Trudeau government’s National Energy Program that obliged them to sell Alberta crude at about half the world price to help subsidize Ontario’s manufacturing sector.

The most important issue is House of Commons underrepresentation. In the current seat distribution, Toronto has three more seats than Alberta, and that’s why demands for an elected, effective and equal Senate are so urgent. If there exists a manifesto outlining western aspirations, it’s the document, written by B.C. Finance Minister Mel Couvelier and agreed to by Alberta Treasurer Dick Johnston, presented to the western premiers at their first post-Meech meeting in Lloydminster, last July. Its radical recommendations amount to a revolution against the way Ottawa has been handling national finances, particularly since the $41.2 billion the federal government will pay in interest on the national debt this year will be more than the combined total budgets of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

What the B.C. finance minister proposed was that Ottawa allow the western provinces to collect most income and corporation taxes, to take back full control over medicare and higher education, to impose a cap on federal budget deficits and to inaugurate a regionally administered western tax to be used for social as well as regional economic purposes. “For too many years, the federal government has cajoled and bribed its way into areas of provincial jurisdiction,” Couvelier declared. “The provinces have been lured into the trap of shared-cost programs by a federal government currying favor with its voters and special interests. This has created demands for services we can’t afford to provide. We propose a new relationship between the provinces and the federal government that parallels the emerging worldwide search for more local autonomy, evidenced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe.”

That’s the tough new language of the West for the 1990s. Stay tuned.