Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Division Within Canada

Over the past month, my reading wandered into the more recent years of Canadian history. It was weird to read about things that happened while I was alive, but too young to know or care. I had always assumed that Canada was a happy family where we all basically got along and liked each other. As I learned about the Trudeau and Mulroney years, I was struck by how much division there is.

To begin with, there is the vocal separatist movement in Quebec, and Alberta has grumbled about separating, too. The Rocky Mountains stand as a physical and psychological divide between British Columbia and the rest of the country. And the provinces of the east and west generally resent the arrogance that comes out of ‘central’ Canada. Where does regional division come from? It seems to me that one of the main causes is economic.

Sir John A. on the campaign trail
In the years following confederation, Sir John A. developed the “National Policy” – a broad economic strategy for the new country. It had three points: high tariffs, settlement of the west, and a transnational railway. The tariffs would protect industry in Ontario and Quebec, the west would become Canada’s breadbasket, and the railroad would carry goods back and forth. With strong east-west trade, Canada would protect itself against economic imperialism from the United States.

Sounds like a great plan, right? I agree, but then I live in Ontario. Sir John's policy led to a boom time in the Laurier years, but most of the profits came from Ontario were re-invested in Ontario. Critics complained that the National Policy restricted development in the West and stunted the Maritimes.

A political cartoon showing the National Policy and the alternative
In defense of Sir John, economic reality led naturally to developing an industrial heartland in Ontario and Quebec. These were the major centers of population. The prairies were only in the settlement stage. BC was too remote to support a diversified economy. And the Maritimes were struggling with the loss of shipbuilding and threats to the fisheries. Even though there are sound reasons behind it, the National Policy led to lasting resentment between the ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ provinces.

Economics is just one cause of regional division in Canada; language and geography are others. Seeing all of this has made me grateful that we have persevered for this long as a nation. For that, I think we have to thank sports among other things. Just think of the national pride that comes out in the Olympics. When Quebecker Alexandre Despatie represents Canada on the 10M platform, we all rally behind him. Albertan Sanya Richard-Ross brought Canadians to their feet with her gold in the 400m at the London Olympics. And do you remember the final matches of men’s and women’s hockey in the Vancouver Olympics? The Canadian teams did us proud and brought in a haul of gold. For all the tremors and divisions, we have great shared pride in our athletes, who are, perhaps, our greatest source of unity.

Garfield Newman. Canada: A Nation Unfolding. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2000.

Sir John A. Macdonald: ActiveHistory.ca

Political Cartoon: Library and Archives Canada

Canadian Women's Hockey: The Peterborough Examiner

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