As much as anyone, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein seemed to sum up the reaction in Canada’s two westernmost provinces to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s latest national unity gambit. “This is déjà vu,” said Klein, “all over again.” Among many westerners, there was resentment, bitterness and outright anger that Chrétien had reached back to an aborted 24-year-old accord—the so-called Victoria Formula of 1971—to give effective vetoes over future constitutional changes to four regions: Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and the
West. As Klein and many other critics pointed out, Canada has changed greatly over the past quarter century—and nowhere more so than in British Columbia and Alberta, where a period of sustained prosperity and population growth has fostered a determination to never again let Central Canada dictate the terms of Confederation. Declared Klein, of Ottawa’s latest initiative: “This does nothing but give first-class status to two provinces—Ontario and Quebec—and relegates the other provinces to second-class status.” While Klein also expressed concerns that Chrétien’s plans to recognize Quebec as a distinct society could lead to another type of special status for the province, it was the proposed amending formula that drew most of the western ire. And in British Columbia— Canada’s third-largest and fastest-growing province—it was the sheer arithmetic that proved offensive. With 3.8 million people, the province boasts about 43 per cent of the West’s population. Yet under Ottawa’s formula, British Columbia alone could not block a constitutional change favored by
the three other western provinces. Chrétien tried to contain the damage by arguing that once British Columbia comprises 50 per cent of the West’s population—something Statistics Canada predicts will not happen for at least another two decades—it will have an effective veto within the region. But Chrétien did not help his cause by repeatedly overestimating British Columbia’s current share of the region’s population (he kept saying 47 per cent) and by suggesting that, if only the province would abandon its proposed three-month residency require-
ment for welfare recipients, it could quickly achieve the magic 50-per-cent mark. In an interview with Maclean’s last week, B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt lashed out at Chrétien for what the premier called an “ass-backwards” approach to national unity. Added Harcourt: “I think this has been handled very badly.” In its most extreme form, the reaction in Western Canada recalled the bad old days of the early 1980s when the western separatist movement made gains in response to the widely despised National Energy Program. On his popular Vancouver openline radio show, host Rafe Mair declared: “I don’t think there is any hope any more for British Columbia within the Canadian feder-
ation”—a sentiment echoed by some of his callers. Even University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins, normally a voice of moderation on such matters, said that his faith in federalism had been sorely tested by Chrétien’s proposals, which he argued would effectively kill Western initiatives such as Senate reform. “I’m uneasy with the western separatist label,” Gibbins told Maclean’s, “but I really feel that this action has broken my faith in the national government.” In the other two western provinces, the response was much more muted. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon said that the proposed veto was solely a federal matter while Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow actually publicly thanked Chrétien for “an honest effort by an honest individual to try to keep this great country together.” It was a rare moment of praise for a Prime Minister in a week when he had more than his share of critics in Western Canada.
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