By Thomas Falcone
Hardly a day passes nowadays without the business sections of the major Canadian newspapers being lit up with good-news stories about the roaring economies of the western provinces: the sudden emergence of a bustling manufacturing industry around Edmonton, massive labour shortages across Alberta and Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall flying to economically-devastated Ireland pleading for Irish workers to cross the Atlantic where they will be able to cherry-pick high-paying jobs. Between the black-gold flowing from the oilsands, the potash produced by the prairies and a host of other resource-driven economic sectors, the new reality is clear: Western Canada is set to dominate economically.
But if all indicators clearly suggest that the western provinces are on the ups economically, it is not so clear what the consequences of this national gravitational shift will have for Canadian political culture.
Canada has long been beset by entrenched regionalism. Chief among these has been the perceived divide between the once-thriving eastern provinces (mainly, Ontario and Quebec) and the West. “Western alienation” was on the receiving end of a lot of lip-service from (eastern) politicians, yet the money and the votes were forever locked in the east. So the West continued to feel left out.
Things are undoubtedly starting to change.
As the West gains financial capital over the East, soon to follow will be political capital as demographics shift. It is likely inevitable, therefore, that issues that are near-and-dear to the hearts of Western Canadians—Senate reform, the monarchy, provincial authority over immigration—will gain traction in a political culture no longer dominated by Eastern elites long disinterested in these subjects. Indeed, the recent abolition of the Western-loathed long-gun registry by a sympathetic Conservative federal government can be seen as a bellwether of changes in political discourse to come.
What receives less attention but is of greater magnitude, is the implications for the perennial question of national unity the emergence of the West will cause.
For decades, Canadian politics have been viewed through the lenses of various national unity battles: fights over language, disputes about recognition, arguments surrounding Quebec’s place—or lack thereof—in Canada.
The rise of the West may just be the medicine that this country has long needed to put this troubling issue to rest. On the surface, the economic absurdity of an independent Quebec is now clear as day. The continuing financial uncertainty emanating from Europe and siphoning of capital and skilled labour by the western provinces means that Quebec will becoming increasingly reliant on the economic prowess of the West.
On a less obvious but more profound plane, however, the rise of the West means a strengthening of an individualistic ethos across the country. A robust liberal individualism has long been engrained in the essence of Western Canada, and the rise of the West will likely result in the completion of a individualization-process begun by the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1981. A political culture animated by the inviolability of the individual offers little space to the old collectivist narratives of Quebec nationalists from yesteryear. Those who find hope in a united Canada should look West to seek solace.
Join the Political Science Society of Kwantlen on Thursday, March 29 at 10:00 a.m. for a round-table discussion on the rise of Western Canada. For more information, email PSSK president Andrea Harvey at email@example.com.