We live within a divided country, separated through politics and economics. Quebec separatism and Western alienation are familiar issues to us. We can see the partition of Canada through the regional groupings of our political parties, highlighting the sentiments of the aforementioned issues. Less obvious are the economic divisions that are entwined within this national drama, highlighting the growth of regionalism and of inter-provincial discord, as each province pursues its own economic agenda. What seems germane to all of this is the lack of a national ideal for Canada.
As an ever-evolving country, Canada has continually struggled to create a true sense of nationhood and this may be rooted throughout its constitutional history. In 1867, John A. MacDonald wanted to create a centralized country, with provinces having little more than municipal powers, which meant they were no longer sovereign. They, of course, refused to accept such concentrated powers, and so they maintained their sovereign powers as governments, though economic powers were still consolidated in Ottawa. The Pearson government would devolve some of these powers to provinces during the period of Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, but Pierre Trudeau, ever wary of the growing powers of provinces, would re-invigorate a centralized federal government through the introduction of the Charter (1982). And so our sense of Canada has been seen as Ottawa-based.
In reality, the concept of Canada is esoteric. We, as people, are more connected to the physical constructs of our cities and provinces. These are the places where we live and work, where we see the more tangible aspects of government, and thus, Canada becomes a more abstract concept, difficult to relate to as a whole, lending itself to the divisions that plague our country.
It is beholden upon the federal government to foster a sense of national identity, and when they were controlling the purse-strings, this was an easier task. In the last two decades, however, as provinces have become less economically dependent upon Ottawa, especially here in the west, we have seen tensions between provinces grow.
It is not possible for the current Trudeau government to turn back the clock and try to be a centralizing force; that ship has sailed. But it is imperative that it begins to adapt to this new reality. It is time that the federal government recognizes that it represents all the provinces and regions of Canada and that it should be a uniting force in a decentralized country, helping to bring us together. This means that the current government must address the economic interdependence of provinces and regions and not continue to be a divisive influence, looking to shore up party interests solely to stay in power. To ignore this is to risk the entrenchment of a divided Canada, which will suffer the economic consequences. There is always hope that these attitudes can always change; they just require a leader to take a stand for all of us.
John Kennair is an international consultant and doctor of laws who lives in St. Albert.