An urban coup

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
June 12, 2003

The great majority of Canadians – 70%, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll released earlier this week – favour NAFTA, Canada’s free trade pact with the United States and Mexico. Supporters of the major national political parties show even greater support: Tory voters come in at 75%, Liberal voters at 77%, Canadian Alliance voters at 79%.

Not surprisingly, all three of these federal parties, on this, the defining economic issue of the day, represent the great majority of their constituents. Canadians, and their federal parties, speak as one in strongly backing free trade.

The provinces, in contrast, don’t represent their citizens’ desire for free trade. Provinces threw spanners into the works in the 1980s and ’90s when the federal government negotiated free trade pacts with our southern neighbours, and the provinces are still throwing spanners today as the federal government tries to broaden free trade to include trade in services. Provinces are so hostile to free trade that they won’t even permit free trade among Canadians. The competition that free trade brings upsets the insular worlds of provincial politicians and weakens their power to distribute largesse to those they favour.

To protect their private fiefs, each provincial legislature has erected trade barriers to block Canadian businesses that try to come in from other provinces. The barriers cover financial services, they cover construction. They cover electricity, gas distribution, transportation, health, education and architecture. Most of all, they cover the resource industries. The provinces’ agricultural marketing boards, for example, eliminate competition in dairy products and eggs, poultry and other products, raising the cost of basic foodstuffs and hurting Canada’s poorest. No sector is too small, no interest too petty, to escape the notice of provincial protectionists. Quebec bans coloured margarine at the behest of its dairy industry forcing Unilever, which makes Fleischmann’s, Monarch, and Becel margarines, to maintain separate production runs and inventories at its Ontario plant for the margarine shipped to Quebec. The annual price-tag for Unilever alone – about $1-million – is passed on to Quebecers.

The provinces’ inward outlook, and their failure to speak for their citizens, survives in a globalizing world because of one factor: Rural resource ridings are grossly overrepresented in provincial legislatures. In Alberta, the residents in the rural riding of Dunvegan (population 24,202 and falling) rates a legislator; in Calgary and Edmonton, populous ridings exceed 40,000 or 50,000 residents and one riding exceeds 80,000. Yet fast-growing Edmonton is actually slated to lose a representative in order to artificially sustain the political power of Alberta backwaters. Four northern Alberta ridings more resemble a territory: This wilderness occupies 49% of the province’s land mass and supports just 3% of the population. Yet, like the tail that wags the dog, its votes in the provincial legislature, like those of other wilderness ridings, often save the day for protectionists.

The clash between the economic powerhouse that is Alberta’s urban economy and the economic stagnation in its rural resource towns creates “rural alienation,” in the words of the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission. To address rural alienation, the commission has decided to trash the principle of “one person, one vote” in favour of a more scientific “matrix”: a hodgepodge of factors – from the number of dependent children and seniors in a riding to its geographic distance from the provincial capital – each scored through a complex mechanism involving deviations from the mean. Through this effort at inclusion, the commission hopes to appease rural citizen’s alienation from Calgarians and Edmontonians. To help vent the major rural seething it forecasts for the future, as people continue to flock to Alberta’s cities, the commission recommends more draconian forms of appeasement.

In fact, appeasement never works: The more dependent people become, the more resentful they become. As seen in a study released by the Canada West Foundation earlier this week, rural Westerners have become more and more wards of the state, less and less able to stand on their own two feet. Rural Westerners, and rural people everywhere, would be best off if the rest of society, including well meaning urbanites, stopped coddling them. And that can only come by breaking the cycle of dependency between the disempowered resource workers and provincial politicians that support them from cradle to grave.

In an ideal world, the provincial level of government would be abolished to let free enterprise prosper. But because the abolition of provinces is not about to occur – provincial politicians control that decision – Canadians must do what’s next best: Weaken the power of provinces to undermine free trade. This weakening is inevitable, and will occur as soon as a provincial political party realigns itself to appeal to the urbanized majority: The 80% of the Canadian population that lives in urban areas and the 75% of Canada’s rural population – in the rural commuting lands adjacent to cities, in cottage country and in other rural playgrounds – that depends on urbanites.

Here is a revolutionary political plank for this new, free-market-focused urban party:

– One-person, one vote. After rural people count for no and no less than urbanites, many resource ridings, stripped of subsidies, will become progressively depopulated as rural workers move to municipalities that need their talents. Both cities and countryside will benefit from the exchange.

– Protection of provincial resources. Instead of privatizing their natural resources, provinces socialized them, leading to their destruction: Most of the logging in B.C.’s coastal forest occurs at a loss to extend the life of a few logging towns, most mining in recent decades has only occurred because of subsidies, most of the destruction of prairie wilderness came courtesy of subsidies that permit farming on marginal agricultural lands. Even the oil and gas industry – the only resource sector that still turns a profit – has been depleted by uneconomic exploitation that prematurely brought hydrocarbons into production.

– Protection of Canada’s wilderness. Because many remote farming, logging and mining operations will cease, our remaining wilderness will be protected from future uneconomic exploitation. And as resource towns become ghost towns, Canada will reclaim its lost wilderness.

– Protection of the farm belt around cities. Unlike the low-value, commodity farms on marginal lands that the government brought into production to produce export crops, the quality lands in the farm belts around cities are inherently economic: They are best equipped to supply local markets with high-quality, high-value fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh milk, and niche crops for the cities’ diverse communities. The farm belt around Toronto, despite the land already lost to uneconomic sprawl, produces 67% more farm produce than all of P.E.I.

Under this realignment the provinces will cease to dominate their cities. Instead, the cities will effectively be taking over their provinces, and running the rural areas as their territories, much as the federal government runs its three northern territories. In Alberta, the prosperous city region between Calgary and Edmonton – the only region in Canada more affluent than the United States – would become more prosperous still when relieved of the burden of supporting benighted resource towns. So, too, for Vancouver and the lower mainland in B.C. and Canada’s other city regions.

Our economy will be protected, our environment will be protected, our resources will be protected, and rural alienation – once it fails to extract concessions – will dissipate. The province as we now know it – an inefficient middleman that does little more than redistribute grants collected from city residents and the federal government – will end, too.

Last in a series; Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. www.urban.probeinternational.org,

E-mail: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

Related articles:
Rural separatism
Alberta: Who needs it?
America’s 51st and 52nd states

Readers respond

Some months ago, the City of Toronto council passed a motion urging senior governments to strengthen the political rights of urban voters compared to their rural counterparts. They then made representations to the provincial re-districting commission to narrow variances between Ontario’s electoral district populations to plus or minus 5%.

The commission’s report acknowledged the representations of the city, but proceeded to leave the city’s 22-and-a-fraction electoral districts with an average of 13.4% more people per riding than for the whole country, and a whopping 31.7% more population than the 10 Northern Ontario ridings.

Going into the current redistribution, the 22 least-populated ridings in the national Parliament serve 1,155,122 people, the 22 MPs for the Toronto ridings serve 2,481,494 people.

Lawrence Solomon‘s two articles on a proposed urban party are the first, vital leadership among Toronto newspapers to remind indifferent provincial and federal politicians that one person one vote has immense acceptance with the unwashed electorate.

The beating up of urban voters in Ontario and across the country will continue indefinitely unless our voices, the National Post and others raise a lot more hell on this neglected issue.

Alan Heisey, Toronto.

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