The west is in. Now what?

Can the West shape the national agenda? A Maclean’s debate.

The west is in. Now what?The rise of Western Canada was the topic of a round table discussion last week in Calgary, broadcast live by CPAC. Joining Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne were Fort McMurray’s Mayor Melissa Blake, Alberta’s Minister of Culture Lindsay Blackett, Saskatchewan’s Environment Minister Nancy Heppner, Lloyd Axworthy, the University of Winnipeg’s president, and the Wildrose Alliance’s Rob Anderson. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen moderated the event.

Coyne: How do we define the West beyond geography? Is there such a thing as a kind of western agenda, a western political culture?

Blackett: We have a spirit of collaboration amongst governments. We’ve had joint cabinet meetings with Alberta and Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. We have the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) with B.C. that we want to extend to Saskatchewan. Independently, we haven’t had a lot of clout, but when we band together—not just economically but politically, and with commonality on issues—we have a lot more success, and that’s not something the other provinces really have.

Anderson: People come here for the opportunities. It’s a great place for a fresh start, to accomplish something important. I think the culture is kind of based around that.

We are a self-reliant region and we need to quit looking out to the federal government, and other places, to solve our problems.

Coyne: And yet it’s a paradox, isn’t it? This region that votes so robustly Conservative federally is also the region that has consistently returned NDP governments provincially. What is it about the West’s political culture that it can vote for both of those types of parties—sometimes at the same time?

Axworthy: If you go back into the history, whether it’s Social Credit or the rise of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, they were both populist movements really fighting against eastern establishments.

One thing that is really affecting Western Canada, as much as the rest of country, is that what we are dealing with is now so much outside our borders, we’re somewhat vulnerable to external trade patterns, to climate-change issues, to issues of disease. We’re having to come to grips with issues that are not of our own making but we have to find our own solutions. That’s causing a lot of confusion in the political system right now because the old, conventional wisdoms don’t apply.

Coyne: But isn’t that one of the things that defines the West: it’s always been exposed to the elements, exposed to resource crises, it’s always had to adapt to change, and part of the culture of the West is a receptivity to change, one manifestation of which is it keeps throwing up these new parties. But there’s a willingness to experiment that perhaps the rest of Canada has not been as known for.

Blackett: That’s true, but in terms of commonalities, we’re not beholden to somebody else. And hard work is not a dirty word here, and that sense of entitlement is not as pervasive as it is back East.

Wells: The strains of any complex society have always been a little starker in the West, partly for geographic reasons. Harsher challenges, bigger distances, but also more opportunity, money just popping out of the ground. And there’s two reactions to that: “Leave me alone so I can make a stand on my own,” or “Let’s band together for protection.”

Anderson: There’s no doubt we have a wealth of resources in the West. Unfortunately, one of the things that has hurt us in the last few years is this idea that maybe we’re not as friendly as a province as we were once to do business in. We’ve got to get back to that spirit of entrepreneurship, that pro-business attitude that we had here in the West that you still see in Saskatchewan and that you even see in B.C.

Coyne: Lindsay, is he right that Alberta’s losing that sense of entrepreneurship and friendliness to business?

Blackett: Our premier stated last week that we want to be the most competitive region in the country to do business, not just in oil and gas. That means a lot of work reducing red tape and making sure we have the same low tax regime, that we’re attractive. Maybe that’s something that had slid over the last 10 to 15 years. But we’ve got to reinvent ourselves. I think we’re more than capable.

Coyne: Talking of reinvention, probably the most striking change in the West is what’s been happening in Saskatchewan, going from being a have-not to a have, going from a shrinking to a growing province. How is that changing Saskatchewan in terms of its sense of itself, in terms of its political culture?

Heppner: [Premier Brad Wall] is the biggest promoter of our province I have ever seen. We are pioneers and entrepreneurs and hard-working people and have always had a quiet pride in our province. I don’t think our pride is quite so quiet anymore, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We stood up and realized we don’t have our hand out to Ottawa, we don’t have to yell and scream at Ottawa to get things done, we can stand on our own two feet. That goes hand in hand with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Saskatchewan Party.

WESTERN-BRED solutions are needed for oil sands problems
WESTERN-BRED solutions are needed for oil sands problems

Coyne: I’ve heard Saskatchewan and Alberta now are much more similar than they were.

Heppner: We have a lot of the same resources, same issues, same opportunities, same challenges. Out of the provinces, the greatest similarities are between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Axworthy: We shouldn’t get too carried away that somehow there’s going to be this congeries of regional conglomerates who can do their own thing in their own way. There is the vision that somehow we can build up walls because we’ve got gas and oil and potash. Commodities are going to be increasingly in demand, but they also bring costs. There’s a lot more sense of self-sufficiency, pride and confidence, but can you convert that into a much stronger sense of how you shape a national agenda.

Van Dusen: How happy is the West seeing a lot of its hard-earned money going to auto plants in Ontario and Quebec?
Anderson: The West has always been pan-Canadian. Look at the contribution we make every year—between $10 and $20 billion. We do this because we care about the country. That’s why we haven’t put up very much of a fight or a stink. However, there has to be a recognition and fairness.

Van Dusen: So how understanding is the West of current economic policies you’re seeing from Ottawa?

Blackett: Last year, we gave $21.1 billion to Canada [in] net equalization payments, and $131 billion over the last 10 years. When times are tough, people start to ask tough questions: “What do we get back in return for that money?” In terms of health care transfers we get, I think, $545 per Albertan. Every other province gets $746. We are giving the most, but we’re getting the least.

Wells: Mayor Blake, every new diplomat that lands in Ottawa makes a beeline to Fort McMurray. And yet, during federal election campaigns there’s not a federal party that figures there’s any point wasting a campaign day in Fort McMurray because it’s a settled question. Do you sometimes feel a little ignored by the Canadian government?

Blake: I feel a lot ignored. When you get that kind of international attention, you would like to have more inclusion when it comes to the considerations. Contemplating all the discussion related to the environment, I’m quite concerned. What is this going to mean in terms of our community growth perspective, and long term? I don’t have an answer because we’re not well engaged.

Coyne: Supposing the Harper government decides it’s tired of taking a beating internationally, and there are votes to be had in Quebec and parts east by beating up on the oil sands? Does the West go, “We’re not in. We thought we got the government we wanted and it turns out they’ve been Ottawashed”?

Axworthy: Rather than falling back on, “It’s those damned bastards in Ottawa or Toronto who are at fault,” a lot of the responsibility rests on us to come up with solutions. Think tanks in the West have talked about the importance of a clean energy grid.

Blackett: Our premier decided to commit $2 billion to carbon sequestration because he wanted to be a leader—not just in Canada but the world.

Heppner: In our province, we have legislation that’s going to be passed this spring that will have a tech fund that large emitters can access to implement low-carbon technologies. We’re not sitting back waiting for the federal government to dictate. We’re moving ahead with real solutions.

Coyne: If the numbers are right, and the population continues to shift to the West, you’re going to see dozens of seats moving into the West, the balance of power fundamentally shifting in Parliament, and, at some point, it’s going to dawn on people: “Wait a minute, we’re not facing that big, bad Ottawa anymore, we’re running the place.” So what’s going to be the West’s agenda?

Anderson: What makes Canada so wonderful is that it has such diverse regions. There needs to be respect for that diversity. That means letting provinces, as much as possible, govern themselves, and taking, as a national government, the best ideas in health care, education, and trying to implement those as much as possible on a national stage.

Axworthy: I don’t think diversity is necessarily measured by provincial autonomy. I think boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant—the issues, the crises, the risks and the opportunities transcend boundaries. We have to learn how to act better as a country, and I would start with political reform. I think that’s where we’re weakest. There’s a lot of ways of changing Parliament, changing the way the executive works, and changing how we do relations between regions.

We should be, as westerners, because we’re closer to it, really putting an effort into how to deal with the fundamental changes going on in the Canadian North. The opening of water gives us new transportation and trade routes, if we’re smart about it. On the other side, the impact upon the people and the animals and the flora of the North is becoming tragic. Those are, to me, our national issues: we can’t do them from Alberta, or from Manitoba, or from P.E.I. They’ve got to be done in a collective, collaborative, co-operative way.

Coyne: Senate reform has been a traditional hot-button issue in the West. But if the West becomes more powerful in the House, does the impetus for Senate reform lessen?

Blackett: If we have a bigger say in decision-making on a national perspective, if we feel that we have a seat at that table–which we don’t feel now—I think the overwhelming desire will lessen somewhat.

Coyne: In a strange way, the upside of being out of power for the West was that it never got into the trap of taking all the government largesse. As you start to have more control over the levers of power, is there going to be a temptation for the West to fall into the same traps and start directing the lolly to its own direction and corrupting itself?

Blackett: There’s always a danger in that, but I think what the West has going for it and what we could contribute, if you’re looking forward 20 or 30 years, is that ability to use innovation and technology.
Coyne: Nancy, having been on both sides of this divide [Heppner was formerly a staffer with the federal Tories], how do you keep them focused on a western agenda and western interests, when they seem to be changing quite a bit once they get into power?

Heppner: I would hope that we don’t change our attitude. When you look at provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta, if the price of oil goes down there’s no bailout for us. The provincial coffers suffer—nobody is stepping up to help us out. We’re not used to having things like that in our province. I think there would be a resistance for the largesse. I think what we would expect is not entitlement, but fair share.

Coyne: Melissa, what’s your perspective from a municipal level of government?

Blake: We’re in such a predicament in terms of our financial sustainability we would take assistance from anybody willing to give it to us. That said, I think my ties are much more strong with the province than they ever would be with the federal government. I would welcome anything that I could get, and so it counters what you’re hearing as probably a more provincial perspective, which would be where may heart would lie, it’s just not what my reality is in my community.

Wells: So you’re not clamouring for governments to get out of your way. You think that other levels of government are altogether too much out of your way already.

Blake: I feel neglected, yeah.

Anderson: We have this vision that in order to have a unified country, we have to have a centralized government that appeals to everyone, to every region. And so you get this kind of bland policy, and frankly the needs aren’t often met. One of the big challenges moving forward is decentralizing, getting the money, getting the resources from the bureaucracy down to the ground to the people that need it, so that includes decentralizing to the provinces and decentralizing from the provinces to the communities as much as possible.

Axworthy: If you give up on national standards then you are going to have uneven standards. But why not move the headquarters of Indian Affairs to Regina or Winnipeg or Calgary? Have more governance here so that it’s reflective. Having spent a lot of years in Ottawa as a westerner, there is an entitlement, too often, to have all those institutions in one area. That’s part of the government reform that has to take place.