Rural separatism

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
May 30, 2003

Two clashing cultures cause most of the discord that characterizes our country. Until we reconcile the two, large parts of our economy will continue as cripples, large parts of our environment will continue to be destroyed, and regional movements – some of them separatist – will threaten to tear us apart.

These incompatible cultures are not English v. French Canada, not central Canada v. the West and other regions, not whites v. coloured immigrants. The clash is between a largely expansive free market urban economy that generates most of Canada’s wealth and a largely protectionist government-run rural economy that nurses grievances and demands ever-greater subsidies from the rest of the country.

The threat of separatism, the ultimate expression of regionalism, was once confined to Quebec. Today it bubbles coast to coast. The loss of East Coast fisheries has made separatists of many Newfoundlanders, and in the West, many in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. are aggrieved by everything from failed farm policies to the Kyoto Treaty. In all cases, the aggrieved ally themselves with their provincial governments in common cause against the federal government.

But the real quarrel of the regionalists, and of the separatists within them, isn’t with the federal government so much as with the modern, urbanized world. The federal government they loathe promotes policies that consistently reflect the preferences of the urban majority: socially in favour of abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control; economically in favour of immigration and environmental policies that remove vast tracts of land to protect endangered species or create protected parkland. Regionalists are disproportionately rural folk who fear or resent the social and economic changes swirling around them. To parry the federal government that brings them their upset, they rally around provincial governments. In effect, the regionalists are trying to recreate mini-Canadas of bygone days by wresting powers from the federal government and vesting them at the provincial level.

Quebec separatist have their strongholds in depressed rural Quebec, where government subsidies and government policies protect resource workers from the market economy and other globalizing forces. In contrast, Quebecers from the province’s more entrepreneurial and urbanized south, and especially those in commercial, cosmopolitan Montreal, voted decisively to stay in Canada. “It’s true we have been defeated, but basically by what?” asked Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau after the 1995 referendum. His answer at the time drew widespread outrage but it was right on the mark: “By money and the ethnic vote.”

Those in other parts of Canada who resent federal government policies – East Coast fishermen, Prairie farmers, and B.C. loggers – also disproportionately come from subsidy-dependent communities. Their dislike of Toronto and Ottawa is often matched by residents of Ontario’s own rural communities, who have much more in common with their rural counterparts 3,000 to 4,000 kilometres away than with fellow Ontarians a three to four-hour drive away. Likewise, support for the federal government is often high in the West’s cities. The West’s presumed alienation from central Canada is mostly mischaracterized. The alienation is less deeply felt region to region than across city lines.

Many regionalists especially resent central Canada for undervaluing them and marginalizing them economically. They assert that Canada’s economy would amount to nothing without our vast natural resources and that central Canada appropriates their great wealth. On this premise, they construct much of their case. As put by Western Canada Concept, perhaps the West’s leading separatist organization: “Western Canada produces 52% of Canada’s fishery, forestry, mining and agricultural revenue with 27% of Canada’s population. It produces 90% of Canada’s oil, gas and coal. . . . There are only three provinces in Canada whose exports consistently exceed their imports in value: B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

In truth, Canada’s resource economy doesn’t amount to much. According to Statistics Canada, the nation’s entire resource sector accounts for a mere 5.8% of GDP. Even that 5.8% greatly exaggerates the resource sector’s importance because – aside from energy resources – it mostly operates at a loss. As it’s currently run, our resource economy strips Canada of wealth rather than contributing to it. If the rural economy had to stand on its own, it would shrink dramatically. Prairie farms would mostly revert to wilderness; most of B.C.’s logging towns would either disappear or, when the scenery warranted it, transform themselves into resort towns servicing the recreational needs of urbanites.

Instead of confronting the regionalists and the separatists with the truth of their economic importance, politicians prefer appeasement. To give rural people added say in the federal legislature, the federal government provides rural residents with extra ridings out of all proportion to their numbers – some urban ridings now have 50% more residents than do rural ridings, even within the same province. With these added ridings, rural residents vote themselves benefits unavailable to urbanites: subsidized telephone service, subsidized transportation services, subsidized communications services, regional unemployment benefits, tax preferences of all kinds.

Despite these preferences – and despite the boatloads of other subsidies provided by provinces and rural municipalities – regionalists work themselves into a lather, forever finding new grievances and constructing new rationales to justify ever greater takings. One day, because the Supreme Court of Canada has legitimized a province’s separation from Canada and because provinces that use regionalism to extract concessions from the federal government may come to believe their own rhetoric, a regional political crisis may well arise that leads provinces to actually leave.

Canadian legislators who wish to see Canada survive and thrive should not risk this outcome. Rather than pretending that regionalists have legitimate grievances and cravenly attempting to appease them – an approach that can never succeed for long – parliamentarians should understand that honesty is the best policy. With an honest, even-handed approach, rural discontent would shrink with the number of rural residents on the dole.

For starters, Canada should enforce the principle of one-person/one-vote, a task entirely within the control of Elections Canada, a federal agency. In a decade or two, after new federal censuses redrew ridings on a democratic basis, overrepresented rural ridings would disappear by the bushelful, giving rural residents their fair share of political power and no more.

In the meantime, Canada should cut the resource sector down to size by ending the subsidies that prop resource towns up. Without make-work jobs in the rural areas, coupled by employment benefits that bribe rural residents into staying stagnant in backwaters, rural folk will flock to cities for employment. There, as occurred in past migrations, tradition-bound tendencies will fade, brightening the entrepreneurial spirit.

To further end the appeasement of our protectionist rural regions, the federal government should resume its promotion of open markets. It cannot easily force provinces to accept property rights – provinces vetoed past federal attempts to enshrine property rights in our constitution and they’re likely to again. But the provinces probably couldn’t continue to thwart free trade within Canada, as they have done for decades, if the federal government pandered less to provincial sensitivities and simply asserted its powers. By restricting trade across provincial boundaries, our provinces have weakened ties among Canadians and encouraged more north-south trade than would otherwise occur.

These distortions weaken national unity and the national economy. They would not exist but for the perverse role that governments have played in keeping Canadians on the farm, and in the fishing villages, and in other rural communities that could not support them without subsidies. To reconcile Canada’s urban and rural populations, the historic trek to the city must resume, until city and countryside are rebalanced, each self-supporting and in harmony.

Next: America’s 51st and 52nd states. Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation.

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