Amid all the Canada Day flag-waving, the iconic Snowbirds Peace Tower flypast, the fireworks and the festivities, came a sobering reality check.
Three influential Canadians warned Canada as a nation is sinking under the waves of regionalism, the politics of petty, provincial self-interest and disregard for our history.
“Devolutionist fervor is fast disassembling the civic compact that propelled the country toward greatness for two centuries,” wrote Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Canada Dominion Institute, in the National Post June 19.
“Today, the federal government functions as little more than… an automatic teller machine. Not only does Ottawa now account for the smallest share of national spending by any central government in the world, but almost all its considerable transfers to the provinces are non-conditional,” wrote Richard Gwyn, award-winning political commentator, columnist and author, the Toronto Star June 27.
“Hidden… is the transformation of Canada from a British dominion to a prosperous but nervous sovereign set of nations,” wrote McGill University emeritus professor of history Desmond Morton in the July 3 edition of The Globe and Mail.
Recent events only serve to underline their thesis of a disintegrating Canada.
Attending a St. Jean Baptiste Day barbecue in Montreal, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the crowd: “We (the Conservatives) are the true nationalists… I promised to practise an open federalism, a federalism that respects the autonomy of the provinces…” He boasted about his government’s recognition of Quebec as a nation at Canada Day and Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations.
Appearing on a radio talk show in Saskatoon on June 27, Official Opposition Leader Stephane Dion was repeatedly asked to guarantee that every dollar his proposed “Green Shift” carbon tax raises in Saskatchewan would be spent in Saskatchewan. “It’s a national plan, the Liberal leader kept explaining. “You cannot do that in any province.”
Canada’s plethora of right-wing think tanks preach the gospel of national dismemberment. Every federal state in the world has national wealth redistribution similar to our equalization and federal transfers to provinces for social and economic programs — including and most particularly, the United States. But these think tanks want to abolish Canada’s wealth sharing between and among the national government and its sub-national entities for the betterment of all.
Wealth redistribution isn’t nation-building, they say. It’s welfare. Recipient provinces should be shamed and disgraced into pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Alberta, bailed out of bankruptcy by Ottawa in the Great Depression, is now the wealthiest of them all, so wealthy, that later this year, its surplus will be larger than the surpluses of Ottawa and all the other provinces combined. But Alberta is not prepared to increase its share as Ottawa and other provinces shared with it when it was bankrupt and later, when it needed eastern subsidies to build its oil industry.
Any proposal to give Ottawa direct access to resource wealth sparks instant fury in Edmonton and Calgary and is denounced as a regional wealth transfer that would devastate the province.
This is the new and dangerous politics of provincial selfishness.
After 10 years as co-founder and head of the organization that seeks to instill knowledge and pride of Canada among its citizens, Griffiths says he’s departing with a real sense of concern.
“Is it too late (for Canada)? I certainly hope not,” he said in a telephone interview. “But I worry about the growing sense of regionalization, the degree to which our politics seems to be hardwired to regional mindsets and priorities. In a sense, we’re back to that old question of ‘Who speaks for Canada?'”
Griffiths tries to be positive. Provincialism may be the “froth” of an extraordinary economic boom. The provinces haven’t needed Ottawa for more than two decades. Meanwhile, Ottawa has been preoccupied with addressing the threat of Quebec secession. Growing provincial clout has meant Quebec’s demands for powers are automatically extended to all provinces, unleashing almost unstoppable centrifugal forces.
Simultaneously, provinces have abolished or downgraded the teaching of Canadian history to young Canadians. “They like to focus on regional history and a lot of that history… is grievances,” Griffiths says.
The institute’s July 1 quiz this year, conducted by IpsosReid, found that Canadians were more familiar with U.S. history, heroes, constitution and government than they are with their own.
Nor is Griffiths heartened by the outpouring of patriotism every July 1 on Parliament Hill. “I don’t want to be too pessimistic. But… we’re all immersed in a consumer culture and many people consume Canada like they would any other brand.”
He likens the July 1 flag-waving to the Nike Swoosh. “Like the Swoosh, it (the Maple Leaf flag) evokes emotions… But like any brand, it’s somewhat ephemeral in the messages it conveys…
“(W)e’re so immersed in a brand culture our nationalism has almost become a brand. The Canadian flag is the Nike Swoosh. You don’t need to know much about the country or its founding principles just so long as you’ve got that logo on your sweatshirt.”