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Assessing Some Forks in the Road

By David Kilgour, M.P. Edmonton Southeast
Published in Canadian Social Studies, Spring 1997, Vol. 31, No. 3

Last year, a United Nations instrument called the Human Development Index (HDI) again ranked Canada as the best country in the world in regard to life expectancy, educational attainment, and income. A 1995 World Bank study named Canada the globe's second wealthiest society after Australia, using calculations that weighed resources and investment in education and other social programs. Canada has a per capita income of $19,570 and the seventh largest industrial economy in the world, a considerable distinction for a country of 30 million people.

Denise Chong, author of The Concubine's Children, a finalist for the Governor General's literary award and a Canadian of origin in China, shares thoughts on what it means to be Canadian: "What sets Canadian society apart from others is that ours is an inclusive society … Canadian citizenship recognizes differences. It praises diversity. It is what we as Canadians choose to have in common with each other. It is a bridge between those who left something to make a new home here and those born here. What keeps the bridge strong is tolerance, fairness and compassion." She adds: "My own sense … of being Canadian is one of belonging. I belong to a community of values … The life I lead begins before and lingers after my time."

Ken Coates, a West Coast academic, wrote: "It means that we can proclaim, proudly, joyously, that we live in one of the finest, most gentle, most caring, prosperous, progressive societies that has ever existed on this earth. Sadly, it also means that we will not proclaim this self evident truth and that we will, instead, focus on our shortcomings and point to our continuing weaknesses. May it ever be thus for it is this ability to find fault that has driven our country to become what it is today."

Mood of Canadians

The pollster Allan Gregg noted at the start of this year that in 20 years of analyzing public opinion results, the Maclean's magazine year-end findings at the end of 1995 were the bleakest he had ever examined. Almost one in three Canadians and every second Quebecer, concluded the survey, felt that by the end of this decade our country as we know it today will cease to exist.

When Gregg's survey was done, Canadians appeared to believe that practically everything about Canada had not only got worse than it was in the past, but that life would deteriorate more or less continually. In Edmonton Southeast, moreover, 60 percent of the sample of constituents surveyed this past summer responded that the overall economic position of their families has deteriorated since the last federal election. Fully 78 percent said that Canadian families are overtaxed. Canadians generally seem convinced that such programs as social assistance, unemployment insurance and old age pensions will be reduced or eliminated altogether (almost 90 percent of the Maclean's poll respondents); more than six out of ten say that free universal access to health care will be curtailed; about four-fifths expect less funding, or outright bankruptcy, for the Canada Pension Plan. I think Canadians are more optimistic about things now than when the Maclean's survey was done a year ago, but there still appears to be a mood of considerable uncertainty across the land.

Perhaps not coincidentally, some English-speaking Canadians seemed to be losing patience with Quebec's aspirations, many stressing that Quebec is entitled to nothing that should not be available to the rest of the country. Giving Quebec special status and powers that would not be available to the other provinces was supported by only 22 percent of those Canadians surveyed across the country in the Maclean's poll. Quite possibly, anything that comes close to satisfying Quebecers' desire to control their destiny more fully would be rejected by most residents of the other provinces. In Allan Gregg's view, "the only political solution that might hold the country together appears to be an overture that would offer to give the rest of the nation precisely what Quebec wants -- a massive devolution of powers to all provinces."

Many Quebecers seemed convinced last fall that sovereignty is inevitable. The Maclean's poll, conducted two weeks after the Quebec referendum, concluded that a solid majority of 64 percent of Quebec respondents expect Quebecers to vote "yes" in any referendum held within five years; in the rest of the country, almost four in ten then shared that view. Moreover, deteriorating federal social programs appear to be another argument for independence to some Quebecers. The only way to maintain programs such as unemployment insurance or old age pensions, the nationalist argument goes, is for Quebec to leave the financially broke Canada and fund its own programs.

Shifting Patterns

British Columbia's approach to a range of current issues in federal-provincial relationships suggests some shifting patterns on the Canadian political scene. As one commentator, Anthony Wilson-Smith, put it in early 1996: "For years at the first ministers' conferences, Alberta has alternately positioned itself as Quebec's biggest ally when it came to the issue of decentralization and its biggest foe on issues relating to special powers for Quebec. Now … British Columbians want to assume that mantle. Consistently, BC residents were the most strongly opposed to such measures as a constitutional veto and distinct-society status for Quebec, and to any form of negotiation in the aftermath of a Yes referendum vote. Similarly, BC residents strongly support the definition of Canada as a union of 10 equal provinces rather than the historical view of Canada as a pact between French and English founding peoples."

BC seems to be adamant on the Quebec issue. If a majority of Quebecers wish to separate, 87 percent of British Columbians said: "Just let them go." Fully 83 percent of BC respondents were against giving Quebec a veto over constitutional changes and 61 percent opposed recognizing Quebec as a distinct society in the constitution (source: 1995 Maclean's poll).

The issue of Quebec partition has also become a hot topic in the post-referendum debate. If Canada's boundaries are negotiable, the argument goes, so are Quebec's. English-speaking enclaves in Western Quebec, west Montreal, and the Eastern Township region might decide to remain with the rest of the country, or even create separate city states of their own.

For many Canadians, especially after the 1995 referendum, the claims of the aboriginal population to territorial self-determination in northern Quebec are fully legitimate. Through long and peaceful political discourse, the First Nations' leadership has succeeded in fundamentally altering the way the rest of Canada perceives its political future.

The Cree people of Quebec argue that no annexation of them or their territory to an independent Quebec should take place without their consent; further, that if Quebec has the right to leave Canada then the Cree have the right to choose to keep their territory within Canada. The Cree have stated that a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec would be a violation of the fundamental principles of human rights and democracy. If secession were to proceed, the Cree argue, they would seek protection through the Canadian courts as well as asserting jurisdiction over their own people and lands. Similarly, the Inuit of Northern Quebec assert their right to self determination, and the choice to remain in the Canadian federation. Published referendum results indicated that more than 95 percent of aboriginal peoples who participated in the referendum voted "No."

One recent poll (Compas 1996) indicated that talk of partitioning a seceding Quebec had rendered 45 percent of Yes voters less likely to vote the same way in the next referendum.

Rebalancing Federation

Change appears badly needed in our federal-provincial legislative practices and the spending habits of our federal government. An overall national consensus now seems to exist that Ottawa should not use its federal spending power to impose its priorities and control ("The Kremlin Complex"). For many, decentralization seems a magical solution to our national unity woes.

Professor Thomas Courchene, recognized as a leading expert in economics and the study of Canadian federalism, offered an interesting contribution here in his recent paper, "Access: A Convention on the Canadian Economic and Social Systems." He argues that our current approach to social programs, in which Ottawa unilaterally enforces national social policy standards, is no longer appropriate. Due to its repeated cuts to social transfers over the last decade, Ottawa is losing its fiscal and moral authority to enforce unilaterally its standards. Courchene adds that the federal government's failure to work in partnership with the provinces has resulted in a less-integrated Canadian economy than is desirable. As an alternative to the current approach, he proposes an accord between Ottawa and the provincial governments that would clarify and redistribute powers between the two orders of government. Access calls for the provinces to resume sole control over the design and delivery of health, welfare and education, as well as over labour-market training. The provinces, in turn, would commit themselves to removing all internal trade barriers, thus fully implementing the agreement on internal trade which they initiated in 1994 and have essentially ignored since.

Fighting its deficit/debt is already forcing Ottawa to reduce its cash transfers to the provinces. Last year, it transferred $18.3 billion; by 1997-98, the figure will decline to $12.5 billion. Courchene argues: "From this perspective Access acquires a quite different rationale, namely, how in the face of this decentralization do we maintain the integrity of our social and economic union?"

Is Canada Overly Centralized?

There is a widespread view that Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. Only because the provinces do not manage decentralization well, proponents of this view often add, the federal government resorts to unilateral measures. Others -- for example, David Elton in his paper, "Canada 1996: The Reconfederation Challenge" -- argue that Canada is institutionally one of the most centralized federations in the world, and this paradox is responsible for many of our political problems over the past three decades. Ottawa's powers, including the declaratory process, the spending power, and the emergency power, have for decades paralyzed meaningful reform of our Parliament. Current discussions over more functional decentralization will not, in Elton's view, produce real solutions as long as the federal government's desire for ultimate control remains.

Elton notes, for example, that our Supreme Court has held that the federal emergency power can be used in peacetime for economic reasons. It recently decided that "peace, order and good government" is not simply an emergency power but can also be used under a "national dimensions" test. And even more recently, it resurrected aspects of the federal trade and commerce power that have been a dead letter for more than a century. As Ottawa loses its fiscal clout, the court seems to be giving it new cards to play with … national supreme courts in federal systems are inevitably centralizing institutions." Germany's Constitution Court, on the other hand, allows its state/lander governments to nominate in effect half the members of that court.

Elton for one emphasizes that many Westerners are frustrated with the current unity initiatives. Fifteen years ago, he wrote an article entitled: "The West Wants In." He's now deeply worried that especially in BC it is beginning to be replaced by another slogan: "The West Doesn't Care." Elton ends his argument with this observation: "The only barrier to change in Canada is a lack of imagination and a failure of political will. The real question for Canadians, therefore, is not so much 'what needs to be done,' but rather 'how do we inject our political leaders with the political will to undertake the necessary changes to Canada's political processes?’"

Canada Seen From Beyond

The various dilemmas of Canadian federalism are certainly generating interest abroad. Only last month, a British parliamentary human rights group launched a study of native sovereignty in an independent Quebec. The group, made up of about 200 members of the House of Commons and Lords from across the political spectrum, believes that Canada's constitutional situation may be a kind of laboratory for other federal systems around the planet.

Last week in Washington, the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations held a hearing on Canada, looking at the possible impact on U.S. interests of Quebec secession. One of the major American concerns was the legal future of NAFTA in the case of Quebec's separation from the rest of Canada.

In the latest issue of the prestigious magazine, Foreign Affairs, Charles Doran of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies warns that Canada came close to falling apart in 1995. If Quebec decides to get out of Confederation, in Doran's view, "The United States must have in place well-considered policies to deal with" the situation. He argues: "Fragmentation of Canada, depending on its nature and extent, would transfer some of the cost of administration from Ottawa to Washington. Washington increasingly would take on the jobs of peacemaker, adjudicator, rule-maker, and police officer. You can well imagine how frostily many Canadians greeted these words!

"No one wants a North America composed of bits and pieces …Yet eventually North America would look more like the former Soviet Union, with one large state at the centre, the United States, edged by a series of small, isolated, weak entities along its northern border," your highly-respected Canadianist colleague concluded.

By way of a conclusion, albeit a tentative one, it would appear to me that the major forks in the road we are rapidly approaching are these: Are we as a people prepared to decentralize legislative authority to a degree that a majority of Quebecers will decide to remain part of Canada? Are we prepared to accommodate on this and other issues the other regions of Canada, including alienated residents of the West? Will we with deliberate speed provide self-government within Canada to those of our First Peoples who want it? If all three questions receive affirmative answers from the Canadian people generally, I think our future as a single great nation will be assured.


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