The decline of trust and sociability in the United States is also evident…in the rise in violent crime and civil litigation, the breakdown of the family structure; the decline of…neighbourhoods, churches, unions, clubs, and charities; and the general sense among Americans of the lack of shared values and community with those around them.

Francis Fukuyama, Trust (1995)

The total stock of social capital in Britain…has been declining at a bewildering rate since the 1960s…A combination of individual atomization, state overbearance, and market monopoly has displaced the traditional repositories of civic association.

Philip Blond, The New Civic Settlement (2009)

The practice of federalism is an unnatural act. It is a socialist abomination. It forces the transfer of power and therefore wealth from the strong to the weak, from the people who earn it to the people who spend it. It is simply a national political welfare cheque. It leads to out-of-control spending by the weak — mostly on welfare stuff like health care, subsidized education and rent subsidies. It encourages local governments who depend on this cash to hide their real wealth to keep the money flowing. Federalism also means waste and duplication by governments. It’s inefficient because it means constant conflict between governments, politicians and bureaucrats. Worst of all, it undermines national security, patriotism and national identity by creating competing loyalties at the local level.

In private conversation with conservative Germans reflecting on the European Union’s transfer of billions to their southern neighbours, or among Christian Nigerians rueing the flow of money from their rich south to the impoverished Muslim north, or even people in modern Shanghai irritated about renminbi flowing from their booming economy to the impoverished West, this is the jumble of conflicting angers that is often the person on the street’s view of federalism. Until recently, in Canada, it was a view held privately by only a few on the hard right, and perhaps by a few late-night patrons of Calgary bars.

The competing narrative was that Canada is built on the foundation stones of co-operation, solidarity with one’s neighbours and support for the weakest in the community. Unlike Americans, who have a fascination with individual rights and liberties, Canadians are supposed to have always understood that survival in the frozen North was necessarily a collective project. Our commitment to federalism is built on this foundation, as is our conviction that every Canadian deserves access to the same opportunity for a good education, the best health care and a good job. We have believed in transfer payments within our cities and across our nation to ensure that we deliver on this vision. Our faith resides in a mixed economy, governed by strong regulation and the rule of law. For our size, we welcome more immigrants than any nation in the world.

This second narrative was the consensus view of historians about Canadian values. From the analysis of John Porter’s Vertical Mosaic, through Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, through Trudeau’s “Just Society” and Mulroney’s immigration reforms to the McGuinty government’s full-day learning for all the province’s children, this egalitarian federalism thread runs through half a century of Canadian public policy, at all levels, and in every province. But it’s not clear how strong that thread is today, and whether the federalist narrative can survive the new battles looming between Ottawa and the provinces.

It is a cliché among historians that revolutions are sparked by rising expectations. Starving peasants don’t start street riots, ambitious and frustrated students do. Intertribal tensions peak when the shared pie is growing. Some veteran observers of our tribal tensions believe Canada is headed down this path in the decade ahead. By the time this century hits its teens, new resource riches and new tensions will once again create powerful regional frictions.

In the previous constitutional wars, the era that ran for a generation from the 1960s to the collapse of the Charlottetown Accord 30 years later, the most threatening traditional axis of conflict was Quebec/Ottawa; the second was Alberta/Saskatchewan versus Ottawa; and then, usually beneath the radar but occasionally explosive, came Alberta/Quebec. Today Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada are all potentially battlegrounds for conflicts with Ottawa and with their neighbours. The new tensions in Canadian federalism reflect the most challenging shift in any nation’s history, a transfer of power and wealth from one region to another.

It is a cliché among historians that revolutions are sparked by rising expectations. Starving peasants don’t start street riots, ambitious and frustrated students do. Intertribal tensions peak when the shared pie is growing. Some veteran observers of our tribal tensions believe Canada is headed down this path in the decade ahead.

Making a virtue of our years of constitutional struggle, we have become a global exporter of the merits of a federal system of power-sharing to democracies new and old. We counsel Iraqis on how to copy our achievements in subtle power balancing; we fund long-term assistance to African states on the unique wisdoms of federalist power-sharing in mixed societies. Some uncharitable recipients of our federalist pieties and largesse could be forgiven for asking rude questions about just how durable the Canadian constitutional compromises are.

Here’s why. First, the federal government is determined to constrain the part it plays in areas of shared or exclusive jurisdiction, respecting the role assigned to Ottawa, in Stephen Harper’s view, by the Fathers of Confederation and the British North America Act. Ottawa has signalled, for example, that it does not intend to continue the massive health transfers launched by the Martin government beyond their expiry in three years.

This is seen as the “neocon North” agenda by many Canadians to the left of the Conservative Party, a deliberate attempt to cut back the role of the federal government for ideological reasons. It is merely the Harper version of American neocon guru Grover Norquist’s claim that conservatives’ goal for government should be to shrink it sufficiently so that “we can drown it in a bathtub,” an ideological project disguised as constitutional propriety. Thoughtful conservative economists like Jack Mintz herald the move, pointing out that most of the growth areas of expenditure — health, education and infrastructure — fall within provincial jurisdiction anyway, so they should do the taxing. This is probably politically naive, since politicians’ mania for photo ops at ribbon cuttings knows no ideological boundaries.

This incredible shrinking federal bureaucracy vision so far remains a distant fantasy. Debt, deficits and program-spending all continue to rise faster than inflation, while the federal government has given up two points of GST, or more than $12 billion in revenue, tempting others to fill the tax vacuum. Quebec and Nova Scotia have announced their intention to do so this year, and other provinces are sure to follow with higher provincial sales taxes. It seems unlikely, however, that if a future Harper government had to choose between reducing its debt yoke and raising taxes, it would refuse to reoccupy its GST terrain or slow down the reduction in corporate tax, no matter what the provinces had done in the interval. If survival required reducing deficits and buying off voter anger, it seems unlikely that this would be the first democratic government in history to put fiscal responsibility ahead of power.

Nonetheless, whatever the motive, federal tax cuts and debt do seriously complicate the challenge of managing federal-provincial relations without big changes to social transfer payments and equalization.

Allan Blakeney, the western sage on constitutional issues and a veteran of two generations of political arm wrestling, remarks dryly that Canada is the only nation in the world where more than 70 percent of the people believe they are a disempowered, discriminated minority, abused by the national government and its allies. Apart from the arithmetic problem with such a “minority,” he’s probably right. Historically, only southern Ontarians believed themselves to be at the centre of power and privilege, and rightly so. Blakeney chuckles at the current political narrative that the centre of Canadian wealth is now impoverished, but concedes its political importance.

Ontario voters have joined the self-defined minority. They will not be happy about a tougher federal tax regime in their deficit-battered province, only to see about $5 billion a year pass from their hands to Quebecers, thanks to Ottawa. They will be even less happy as Quebec’s booming hydro power export business generates billions of American dollars in new revenue, while Ontario’s declining manufacturing sector gets hammered by new carbon taxes.

That new friction — widening differences over federal-provincial transfer payments — is bad enough. Worse is a new time bomb, courtesy of
the climate change advocates, about to be dropped on the delicate framework of federal-provincial relations. Washington and Ottawa will eventually decide how to set up a continental cap-and-trade or carbon tax regime. It will generate serious new cross-pressures for Canadian federalism. Whatever regime is implemented, there will be regional losers.

It’s not clear how one can reconcile the intrinsic unfairness of Quebec getting huge green credits for its production of electricity by trapping water behind a dam, while Alberta gets financially whacked for its production of fuel for electrical production and automobile and industry use in Ontario and Quebec, based on natural gas, coal and the oil sands. What is clear is that it would be politically dangerous for any petroleum-producing provincial premier — and that is now a much longer list, including Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — to accede to any of the schemes currently being debated.

And then there is the flywheel of Confederation, now officially a have-not province, sliding down all the league tables of achievement in education, job creation and personal income. Ontario is a greenhouse gas emissions villain because its industry, its electrical sector and its millions of automobiles generate very high volumes of emissions. The province has adopted a holier-than-thou stance on all manner of things green, chastising Ottawa, local Conservatives and even its own industrial sector on their pale green political complexions. Again, it is not clear how long their stance would survive politically if Quebec were seen to be a winner on both equalization payments and carbon taxation.

The longer it takes Ottawa and Washington to agree on an acceptable continent-wide carbon emissions tax regime, the more likely it is that several provinces and American states will move independently. It seems probable, for example, that a Pacific Coast alliance of governments will move to harmonize their carbon tax regimes, in defiance of whatever their national governments might decide. The policy, revenue and constitutional impacts could be dramatic.

If British Columbia and California, for example, were to apply a carbon tax to every business and corporation generating revenue in their jurisdictions — irrespective of nationality — it could trigger a series of governmental collisions, not to mention the rage of the corporate sector. It might not make good policy for a variety of reasons, but it would be seductive politics for politicians of a certain type, north and south. Unless blocked by referendums this fall, California and several state and provincial partners are due to launch their carbon system in less than two years.

It plays into our shaky federalprovincial structure as a result of a series of court decisions in the 1970s and ‘80s concerning resource taxation, and the political battle in the patriation battle over the Constitution that resulted. As a result of Saskatchewan’s defeat by the Supreme Court in the Cigol decision, the Blakeney government fought for and won section 92A(4) of the 1982 Constitution Act. It says in part: [T]he legislature may make laws…by any mode or system of taxation in respect of (a) nonrenewable natural resources…in the province…and (b)…the generation of electrical energy…whether or not such production is exported in whole or in part from the province.”

Such a provincial tax based on carbon is as yet untested. It would almost certainly go to the Supreme Court before the dust settled. And it is hard, from a common sense perspective, to see how carbon differs from gas, coal or potash for provincial resource taxation purposes.

There are a variety of ironies here. Alberta, the only province with a carbon tax regime currently in place, might decide to keep its rate low, even offering subsidies against a federal tax, in an attempt to shield its heavy emitters in the oil sands sector. Quebec, better at rhetoric than action on carbon tax to date, might set higher rates, as it has such a huge advantage in emission levels given the green advantage conferred by hydro power. Ontario, politically committed to a green agenda, would be heavily pressured in either direction. The threat of a confusing and business-unfriendly patchwork of tax regimes could very quickly develop across Canada and many American states.

Only a commitment between premiers may be able to halt such a downward spiral, and carbon would be only one of several complex trade-offs among the players at that level.

To this list of looming federal-provincial horrors we need to add the mother of all government expenditure nightmares: the health budget. The Martin “health care solution for a generation” will last less than a decade, as Ottawa and the provinces begin jockeying for position in advance of its end in 2013/14. The Martin deal pumped an extra 6 percent of federal tax revenues into provincial health budgets, in an effort to solve the most pressing policy issue of our time: hip replacement wait times. One might quibble that global hunger or Canadian child poverty might have been more worthy candidates for such an unheard-of gusher of cash, but wait times were the pressing political irritant of the day.

Where this hits the federal-provincial file is in the outcomes at the hospital and community level. As Geoff Norquay details eloquently elsewhere in this issue, there are already big differences in the number of family doctors per capita on a province-by-province basis. There are wide and growing differences in per capita spending on social programs. Most galling of all is the wide variation in the percentage of provincial revenues that flow from the federal government. These federal transfers are, after all, made up significantly of funds flowing from the richest provinces, with Ottawa merely laundering the billions as they pass through to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

So pity the poor British Columbia politician attempting to explain why his voters have fewer doctors, more crowded schools and worse roads than Prince Edward Island, whose better services are funded, in part, by their tax dollars. One could forgive those voters for being more sympathetic to the “parasitic federalism” narrative than to the traditional Canadian one.

Pity the poor British Columbia politician attempting to explain why his voters have fewer doctors, more crowded schools and worse roads than Prince Edward Island, whose better services are funded, in part, by their tax dollars. One could forgive those voters for being more sympathetic to the “parasitic federalism” narrative than to the traditional Canadian one.

Another deadly spice in this toxic stew is population. It is an irritant at the level of the value of a vote in Atlantic Canada versus a vote in Ontario or British Columbia, another gap that is widening inexorably. The federal government will add 30 seats to Ontario and the West under its redistribution bill, but that will merely trim the disparities. When one adds internal migration shifts — mostly east to west in the past generation and unlikely to change — to the impact of international immigration, the irritants surrounding booming and declining cities may rise to the level of the unacceptable. Canada admits roughly a quarter of a million immigrants annually, the highest number, per capita, in the developed world. A large majority of those immigrants flock to Ontario, more than 50 percent to the Greater Toronto Area and its sprawling suburbs. Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec — the other Big Four provinces — get the remainder.

So Atlantic Canada shrinks as its ambitious young seek careers in Ontario and the West. Ontario bulges with natural growth and waves of new immigrants. It is increasingly clear that at least some of those immigrants — especially those with brown skins — are finding it harder to climb the ladder of social and financial success than did generations of immigrants before them. This places serious financial burdens, in the form of immigrant integration expenditures, on the province and its big cities. One can only hope that the miracle of postwar Canada’s immigrant integration success — the marvel of the developed world — does not collapse into the kind of social dysfunction now plaguing parts of Europe and the United States.

It is hard, on this file as well as all the others, to see how Ontario can avoid demanding some form of greater financial recognition and assistance for its contribution to this national dream. A more even distribution of immigrants is unlikely, for a variety of social and economic reasons: forced residency requirements, for example, are not politically saleable. A reduction in the flow is also not in the cards while native-born Canadian birth rates continue to slip. But it is hard to see how Alberta politicians would explain why their tax dollars were going to Toronto to help integrate Somali refugees.

It seems strange to cite the traditional centrepiece of federal-provincial conflict — the threat of Quebec separation — at the end of this litany. In the spring of 2010 it does seem almost like an afterthought, not a centrepiece. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, on the verge of retirement, has completed a curious tour of English Canada explaining how much he loves Canada. That his enthusiasm to divide Canada is simply a product of his greater love for Quebec, is his pretzel logic. Bloc founder Lucien Bouchard publicly flails his former colleagues and declares that there is no prospect of a separate Quebec in the foreseeable future. Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois may be competitive in Quebec provincial politics, but her increasingly desperate defence of the separatist vision appears to flirt dangerously with racial/religious identity.

Astonishingly, former PQ minister Jean-François Simard goes so far as to say, “Unable to make Quebec an independent country, the PQ is today gambling on making it a strong province within Canada. The BQ and the PQ will deny it to the last gasp, but they have entered…into a new era of economic, social and constitutional accommodation with Canada.” Canada will never be able to pronounce the separatist virus extinct; it merely lies dormant until provoked by the next political clanger in Ottawa or some attention-seeking English-Canadian populist’s faux pas. Nonetheless, the extortionist’s leverage that a generation of separatist politicians have been able to exert in federal-provincial relations seems today to be at its weakest since the sixties.

Therefore, in addition to the traditional regional tensions and federal-provincial agenda items we now have to add a crisis in health care funding, widening gaps in government services, the impact of competing carbon tax regimes and the prospect of an ugly row, with racial overtones, on education and immigration funding.

All these tensions are coming together at a time when the federal government will be at its poorest in a generation, and therefore not able to adopt the traditional solution of easing the frictions with the grease of cash. And this is also a time when the province normally able to be counted on to act as the rational governor in this bargaining, Ontario, is facing breathtaking levels of deficit and debt servicing and is therefore not able, never mind willing, to trim its demands for greater fiscal balance.

Now Canada is not Brazil, where federal-provincial tensions threatened the survival of the state following the collapse of the military dictatorship. Nor are we Nigeria, where the combination of religious and tribal hatreds leads to federal-provincial conflicts that result in the death of hundreds of people every year. Sadly, I fear, nor are we the Canada of the era of Blakeney, Lougheed, Levesque or Davis, all tough, pragmatic provincial leaders capable always of stitching together closely fought bargains when required. Some rue the difference in the calibre of leadership between then and now, but more blame should probably rest with the changes in the culture and in the communities their successors govern.

Several of tomorrow’s policy challenges had predecessors with similar potential for political damage in the previous rounds of battle. The National Energy Program and the divisions over provincial resource taxation in the 1970s and 1980s could have been explosive. The political elites of those days deserve credit for having steered their communities away from collision. But they had an asset that is missing today — broad belief in the power and responsibility of governments to make and deliver on such complex bargains.

Today’s voters are far more skeptical about the capacity of any big institutions to deliver solutions or change. Glenn Beck and his Canadian talk radio cousins foment a distrust of government — and of corporations, universities, churches and unions. United Kingdom progressive conservative Philip Blond’s critique of left and right for having together destroyed much of the social fabric of British society resonates in Canada as well.

He argues in Red Tory that only a combination of economic egalitarianism and social conservatism, and a breakup of the monopoly of the state and the market, can deliver hope of real democratic change and social equality. Perhaps naively, he appeals for stronger local community and local economies, a shakeup of tax regimes and restoration of the nuclear family.

More convincingly, he argues that the impact of the rights revolution of the ‘60s helped shatter the bonds of family, hierarchy, continuity and social responsibility. The market revolution of the right, he observes, undermined the powers of local government and the nation state, weakened small business and wrecked Main Street in communities across the Anglosphere. He cites the bitter irony that this shared failure has created both more powerful central bureaucracies, public and private, at one end of the nationstate and atomized, disempowered, embittered individuals at the other. Such an environment is not one in which it is easy to sell political bargains that appear to reward “others” and have meaning or deliver proof only across generations and geography.

Critiques of globalization, such as Joseph Stiglitz, the former World Bank economist, say these local impacts are the result of, among other failures, our inability to establish appropriate governance mechanisms on a global level. Critics in more nationalist cultures such as China and France point to the disproportionate power those gaps grant Washington and American multinationals. Even champions of globalization concede that one consequence of a world where economic and political decisions are made thousands of miles away, by unknown and untouchable politicians and executives, is that faith in democracy and the national compromises, which are essential to its success, are undermined.

Across human history, the political impact of rapid destabilizing change and embittered powerlessness is predictable: powerful local chauvinism, suspicion of “the foreign,” the rise of populist fantasy, and the decline or collapse of national and international social and political institutions. Canada is not going to collapse like the Shah’s Iran or the Soviet Union — but it will take unusual courage and an even rarer quality of statesmanship for Canada to avoid some very unpleasant and damaging battles.

There are, of course, bargains to be made, deals to be struck. The Atlantic provinces could speak with greater unanimity on their economic development challenges, their declining populations and the expensive government service costs they dictate. Alberta and British Columbia could continue to show the way toward a more barrier-free economic union, as they did with their historic Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreements. The four western provinces, historically all pioneers in several areas of health delivery, could plot an outline of how to bend the proverbial cost curve in health care spending.

But it is the historic centre of the federation that remains the key to the resolution of the next rounds of federal-provincial strife, a role that Canada East and Canada West, Upper and Lower Canada, have played since the 1830s. Without a new deal between Ontario and Quebec on at least some of these flashpoints, no new national bargain is possible. Quebec’s rhetorical alignment with British Columbia on carbon issues is ironic and ultimately silly. Ontario casting itself as the poor man of Confederation is not persuasive, even to Ontarians, let alone Albertans — Ontario still generates more than 40 cents out of every dollar of Canadian GDP, after all. There is a reason that immigrants flock to its southern metropolises — it’s where the largest number of good jobs are found.

Quebec will need to find a way of giving up some of its equalization entitlement before the province is forced to do so in a gang-up not seen since the patriation fight in 1980, where eight provinces and the federal government imposed a constitutional deal that still festers. To do so, it will need a partner capable of giving something in return. In different times, that might have been an Ottawa-led deal. Today, given the players and the partisanship involved, this seems less likely.

Quebec will also need to find a way of maximizing its hydro export potential, as it has few other economic assets that have anything near its scale and potential contribution to provincial GDP. Now that it has lost its deal with New Brunswick and alienated Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the process, it’s hard to see who Quebec’s new partner will be — unless it is Ontario. Ontario may be incented to pay a small premium for Quebec power now that its nuclear dreams seem to have once again evaporated.

Ontario needs to get serious about its deficit sooner rather than later. There are very few levers available to help right its floundering fiscal ship. Dramatic cuts in spending mean cuts in the provincial public service head count. Just the threat of freezing pay levels, let alone cutting personnel, has already provoked fears of a year of angry public sector strikes. Tax increases are not an easy option for a government about to face voters already hostile over the HST hike.

Quebec will also need to find a way of maximizing its hydro export potential, as it has few other economic assets that have anything near its scale and potential contribution to provincial GDP. Now that it has lost its deal with New Brunswick and alienated Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the process, it’s hard to see who Quebec’s new partner will be — unless it is Ontario.

One of the sages of federal-provincial squabbles over more than 40 years is journalist Jeffrey Simpson. He has thrashed Ontario for its complacent approach to provincial debt and is a regular nag to governments of all stripes about the death spiral that is the relentless path of our health care spending. Along with Tom Courchene and many other seasoned observers of our national soap opera, he argues that Ontario and Quebec need to reexert their traditional leadership role. Though power and wealth have shifted irreversibly west, even now no new national deal can be struck on any of these issues without Ontario and Quebec as partners.

Such a partnership has a venerable history: Jean Lesage, Daniel Johnson and John Robarts did it in the 1960s; Bill Davis and later David Peterson and Bob Rae did it with Robert Bourassa. They partnered over federal-provincial deals that neither side could have risked championing alone — and it might be argued that they were following the path blazed by Robert Baldwin, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, John A. Macdonald and Wilfred Laurier, leaders whose careers were built on finding the negotiated path between two often hostile electorates.

A small group of Ontario- and Quebec-wise persons, nominated by their respective governments, could begin private discussions on many of these new irritants. This was the foundation of the “Confederation of Tomorrow” conference convened by John Robarts in 1967, similarly frustrated by stalled federal leadership on national issues. Fewer than a half a dozen senior civil servants, supported by external academic advisers, laid the table for the two decades of constitutional debate that followed. Now shrouded in the golden mists of history, the conference was acknowledged to have revived a partnership that helped Ontario and Quebec avoid an even more damaging rupture during the 1980-81 patriation battle.

We seem to have outgrown the era of massive multithemed intergovernmental conferences, with premiers and prime ministers playing to their home audiences for days on end. The conventional wisdom is that this is a good thing; the price is that we have lost the intensity and attention those forums required of government leaders and officials. So it is unlikely that we will have a “Confederation of Tomorrow” again. But a seasoned, postpartisan team of senior Ontario and Quebec citizens might once again be able to find sufficient common ground to lay the next table of federal-provincial negotiation.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, at the centre of every round of constitutional battle for more than two decades, points out another missing ingredient, however: the players are mostly unknown to each other. The collapse of the perennial federal-provincial conferences of the era that ran from the Victoria conference to Charlottetown has meant that the premiers and their federal colleagues see each other less and spend many fewer boozy nights sharing war stories together. Their officials meet through email, not in hotel corridors; their families, their private triumphs and their defeats remain unknown to each other.

This matters a great deal at every level in politics in ways that cynical journalists and skeptical voters might dismiss. Politics at the top is often a lonely, isolating and frequently painful craft; there are few who have not been there with whom you can share its strange culture. Asked who could be a core team of negotiators in the next federal provincial tug-of-war, who could replace the camaraderie and sense of mission he shared with Peter Lougheed, Bill Davis or Jean Chrétien, for example, today Blakeney is not optimistic. A somewhat gloomy “perhaps” is as far as he will go in response to the suggestion that Liberal Premiers Gordon Campbell, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest, could form the new front line.

Even an optimistic view of a possible new bargain between the political elites does not address a deeper unravelling among us — our intense cynicism about government, our populist skepticism about Ottawa in particular and the frayed bonds of community everywhere. These block acceptance of a new set of national compromises as profoundly as any dissatisfaction with fiscal fairness. British conservative Blond has found a disturbing threat rooted in the rhetoric of left and right that undermines democratic engagement. Francis Fukuyama earlier demonstrated clearly the albatross worn by any nation not bound by the values of trust and shared conviction among its peoples. We had a cautionary lesson about how distant many Canadians feel from elite opinion in the outcome of the Charlottetown process. Virtual unanimity among Canada’s business and political elites was not enough to save that carefully balanced set of compromises from massive popular rejection, and that was in a far more tolerant era.

Rebuilding faith in the project of federal nationhood — the compromises that are essential to its success, and the role of governments as guarantors of its future — is greatly more complex than agreeing on the terms of any new bargain between Ottawa and the provinces. This national ennui is often mistaken as the product of political excess or partisan incitement, and can therefore be fixed by better-behaving political leaders. And rebuilding faith in the ability of our institutions to help innovate and then execute this century’s vision of what it means to be Canadian — how to secure for a new generation our forefathers’ improbable experiment with federalism across boundaries of language, religion and geography — is not merely a task for ministers’ after-dinner remarks.

It is fashionable among dyspeptic Liberals and many other critics of the Harper government to moan that there are “no new national projects!” Fuelled by frustration over the Harperites’ seizure of the economic centre of Canadian politics, if not its social values, the complaint in progressive political salons is “Daycare, shmaycare! It’s not medicare or the CPR! We’re not going to motivate a new generation to throw them out over subsidized day care centres.”

This is nonsense. Decent access to child care is probably a vote motivator for a large slice of younger, poorer, new immigrant Canadians. But there are several important national projects beyond: a postindustrial future with good jobs for a new generation, a new national energy/environment/technology-driven strategy, a productivity agenda that actually works, a resourcebased economy that adds value to the extraction of rocks and logs. Former bureaucrat, politician and business leader David Emerson, in a cri de coeur recently, said, “We continue to be a country without a national approach to the twin issues of energy and environmental stewardship…[In an] interdependent carbon-dependent world…a national energy strategy…would factor in efforts by government and industry to promote energy efficiency through improvements in transportation, building codes, agricultural technologies [and] appliance standards.”

Discussion of the essential role that energy plays in Canadian economic life has been a third rail in our politics ever since the ham-fisted efforts by the Trudeau government to seize some western oil producer revenues to reward central Canadian voters and reduce Ottawa’s debt burden, hilariously marketed as the National Energy Program. As Emerson rightly observes, it is a taboo we can no longer afford, and one that poisons any hope of new federal-provincial accord.

The leaders in academia, business, the professions, media and religion, who in another era saw the definition and defence of Canadian values as part of their core responsibilities, may once again step up to the task of defining and defending new national goals. High school history teachers could draw the line between Lord Durham’s compromise and a negotiated approach to carbon taxation. Parents could help their children to see the power of family, community and Canadian and global networks. Student leaders could defend nondiscriminatory tuition fees for “foreign” Canadian students from other provinces as preparation for national citizenship. Leaders in new Canadian ethnic communities could explain with pride to their young partisans why “cross-cultural is Canadian.”

Conservatives could be more honest about the essential role of the state in conserving traditional values and the ethos that is the pan-Canadian bargain; Liberals could be more courageous and defend the importance of family and traditional values in a functional and progressive federalist society; and New Democrats could blush and then explain the essential role of business/governmental partnership in federalist nation building. Politicians of every stripe could reach across partisan and regional boundaries to defend their partners from other tribes and other places, in a shared vision of a new Canadian federalism.

Or we could continue to slide into a sullen acceptance that federalism in the frozen North is, after all, unnatural.


Photo: Shutterstock

Robin V. Sears
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years.

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