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Making federalism work in a country infected by favouritism

The sense of being marginalized and treated as second-class provinces has long been felt in the West. But opting out won't suit our needs, says Roslyn Kunin.

I was born in Quebec, and raised, married and had my children in Montreal. You might think that makes me a Quebecer but there are those who disagree.

I’m an Anglophone. Some feel that only Francophones with generations of history in the province are ‘real’ Quebecers.

For the past several decades, I’ve lived in B.C. That’s long enough for many to see me as British Columbian but does it make me a Westerner?

Good Prairie people have told me that the real Western provinces are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, while British Columbia is just some far-out fringe.

Am I even a Canadian?

Surely my place of birth, my lifetime residence here and my passport should put that beyond doubt. But, apparently, some of us are more Canadian than others.

Am I even a Canadian?

As a federal civil servant based in B.C., I made frequent trips to Ottawa where the good bureaucrats referred to Inner Canada (Quebec and Ontario) and Outer Canada (all the rest).

Although you’re not likely to hear the term Outer Canada very often, the sense of being marginalized and treated as second-class provinces has long been felt in the West. It often appears in elections, when the West sends few or no members of the governing party to Parliament in Ottawa.

This exacerbates the situation. The West then has no voice in national government.

Such a situation existed 20 years ago. The Reform Party put out the rallying cry: “The West wants in!” Voices were raised and drums beaten to try to convince the federal government to create policies that met the needs of the Western provinces and not just Inner Canada.

The effects were limited.

Since the Oct. 21 federal election, the West again finds itself with little effective voice in the national capital. The Prairies have no government members at all.

But now, instead of saying the West wants in, some Albertans and Saskatchewanites are beginning to say: “The West wants out.”

There are few chanting, flag-waving swarms of separatists marching down the streets of Edmonton or Calgary. Almost all, even those making dramatic statements about leaving Canada, don’t want to tear the country apart.

What Westerners (and probably most Easterners) want is to feel that their provinces are getting a fair shake; that their industries, exports and jobs count as much as those of Quebec and Ontario; that the taxes they pay to the federal government and the benefits they receive are in line with other provinces.

If Canada has any national values, fairness is surely one of them. It doesn’t seem fair that oil tankers can’t operate on the West Coast but can on the East Coast; that the West is denied pipelines to move its oil and gas offshore or even to Central and Eastern Canada while tanker loads of Saudi Arabian oil are allowed to move into the country; that relatively clean oil and gas are vilified as dirty fuels when they could be replacing far dirtier coal.

What Westerners (and probably most Easterners) want is to feel that their provinces are getting a fair shake.

If there’s to be peace in a family, all the children must be treated equally and fairly. The analogy for Canada is that the provinces should be treated equally and fairly. But, as we all know and are frequently reminded, Quebec is a province “pas comme les autres” (unlike the others).

Linguistic differences justify some unique policies for Quebec. However, the gap can become too wide between what Quebec can do and other provinces are allowed.

If parents favour one child at the expense of all the others, that family isn’t stable. In Canada, the federal government must develop greater consideration and flexibility in its policies and practices so all provinces and all citizens feel they’re treated fairly.

To do this, all of us – starting with political leaders – need to start thinking of Canada as one country and work to keep it that way.

Note that I said country and not nation. Quebec sees itself as a nation, as do the many First Nations. That doesn’t mean we can’t all prosper together in one country.

Thinking about political impacts from coast to coast to coast is a good start. Removing interprovincial barriers to professional movement and trade is vital. The Canada West Foundation has just released a paper on this. It shouldn’t be more difficult for goods to move across provincial borders than international ones.

Canada is the envy of almost every other country in the world. All Canadians and their governments need to remember this and work to keep it that way.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.

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