Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Mystique of Western alienation in Canada

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The Mystique of Western alienation in Canada

By Anna Hendrix
The Daily Magi
August 10, 2062


In Canadian politics, Western alienation is the notion that the Western provinces – British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – have been alienated, and in extreme cases excluded, from mainstream Canadian political affairs in favour of the central provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Western alienation claims that these latter two are politically represented, and economically favoured, more significantly than the former, which has given rise to the sentiment of alienation among many western Canadians. Dr. Roger Gibbins, author and former CEO of Canada West Foundation defines western alienation as “a political ideology of regional discontent rooted in the dissatisfaction of western Canadians with their relationship to and representation within the federal government.

One source of western alienation is the distribution of population in Canada. As of 2011, it was estimated that 23.6% and 38.4% of Canadians reside in Quebec and Ontario respectively, for a total of 62 per cent of the national population; on the other hand, 13.1%, 10.9%, 3.6%, 3.1% live in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 30.7 per cent of the overall population – all together less than half that of Ontario and Quebec. Westerners who feel alienated from the rest of Canada believe that politicians favour areas with larger populations, namely Quebec and Ontario where they can win more seats, and therefore formulate policies that favour them. Such policies may not be directly detrimental to the west, or intentionally discriminatory towards the region, but such perceived "favouritism" can have the effect of alienating the Western Canadians.

Because of this uneven population distribution, Western Canadians are less represented in both the House of Commons and the Senate. While Alberta and B.C. have 607,543 and 733,343 citizens per senator respectively, Quebec and Ontario have 329,292 and 535,493. Because the constitution entitles a province to at least the same number of members of the House of Commons as the province had senators in 1982, some provinces, notably the Maritime Provinces, have more members in the House of Commons than their population would otherwise warrant. The average number of citizens per riding in B.C. and Alberta (124,443 and 132,285 respectively) is somewhat higher than the national average of 109,167. Nonetheless, Ontario also has disproportionately few seats (at 123,767 per citizen) while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have similar levels to the Maritimes.

Another source of Western irritation can be traced to the Quebec sovereignty movement. Many Western Canadians argue that Quebec receives undue attention from the rest of the country due to concerns about its desire to separate from the rest of Canada or obtain sovereignty-association. This has been the case at both domestic and international levels – as evinced by Jean Chrétien's plea to Quebec to vote no in the 1995 Quebec referendum – and at the grassroots level with a pro-Canada demonstration in Montreal attended by thousands of Canadians from across the country. Following the referendum the now infamous sponsorship scandal saw millions of federal dollars being funneled into Quebec in an attempt to bolster Canadian nationalism.

Bloc Québécois (BQ) have nationalist policies and their entry into federal politics in 1991 has further irritated the west, as the party strongly supports policies seen as detrimental to the west including: carbon taxes and other measures specifically aimed at the oil industry; same sex marriage; and the gun registry. During the same sex marriage debate, some Albertan Conservatives suggested that the federal law be amended to make the definition of marriage strictly a provincial issue, believing the Bloc reasonably ought be swayed to support that as opposed to a law compelling the Albertan government to recognize the change.

Economic factors, including equalization payments and other transfer payments, have caused great discontent, especially in Alberta. In 2005, Alberta's share of equalization payments was calculated to be approximately $1.1 billion, less than that provided by, but significantly higher on a per capita basis than, Ontario. Equalization payments are made by the federal government to the six current "have-not" provinces. Unlike social and health transfers, there are no restrictions over how this money is spent at the provincial level. In 2009–2010, Quebec received $8.552 billion, making it the single largest beneficiary, as it has been throughout the program's history. In the 2009–2010 fiscal year, Ontario received an equalization payment of $347 million, the first time in the 51-year history of the program. British Columbia was a "have-not" province for just over five years, ending in 2006–2007, when it received $459 million.

Geographically, the densely populated areas of the four western provinces are separated from Southern Ontario by Northern Ontario, a very sparsely populated region. In particular, Northwestern Ontario borders Manitoba and is almost equal in size to Manitoba, but contains less than one fifth of Manitoba's population. The implications of these facts were recognized as early as the 1880s, when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald attempted to make much of what is now Northwestern Ontario part of Manitoba. Although Macdonald justified this transfer on the basis that it would be easier to administer the region from Winnipeg as opposed to Toronto, Ontario fiercely protested and Macdonald was compelled to back down.

Other than by air, the "all-Canadian" travel links between Eastern and Western Canada are considered poor by modern North American standards. One option is to take The Canadian, a passenger train now operated by Via Rail two or three times weekly depending on the season. By train, it takes roughly 36 hours on average to travel from Winnipeg to Toronto. The only other option by land is to travel on Ontario Highway 17, which is a two lane highway for most of its length. Most Canadians who wish to travel from East to West and/or vice-versa (and for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to fly) reject the all-Canadian routes in favour of travelling through the United States, which is both shorter and less expensive. This preference has persisted even in the face of stricter border controls instituted since the September 11 attacks. Therefore, some commentators have compared the Canadian Shield to an ocean in the way that it physically separates the peoples of Western and Eastern Canada. For the people of Western Canada, this has the potential to create the perception that the West is little more than a colony, ruled from distant Ottawa in much the same way that the British North American colonies were once ruled from distant London.

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