Opinion: Repair regional relations in Canada before it’s too late

Canada is a big and diverse place. People, power, economic opportunities, pubic policy priorities, language and cultural nuances are not evenly spread from sea-to-sea-to-sea.

It’s always been a struggle to make sure the various regions are working together, treated fairly and adequately represented at the national level.

Lately, however, serious efforts to address regional issues have largely fallen by the wayside of Canadian politics. The issues remain but efforts to resolve them have fallen prey to fatigue and cynicism. If we think of Canada as a machine with lots of moving parts, we’ve been ignoring the regular maintenance needed to keep it from breaking down.

We need look no further than the anger and misunderstanding surrounding the effort to expand Canada’s pipeline infrastructure. Instead of an informed and respectful national debate, the discussion has deteriorated into acrimony and parochialism.

With regard to the failed Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal, B.C.’s premier at the time, Christy Clark, asked: “What’s in this for B.C.?” She should have asked: “Is this a good project for Canadians?”

Denis Coderre, then mayor of Montreal, cheered the demise of the Energy East Pipeline proposal as a victory for Quebec, rather than lamenting the lost economic opportunities for Canadians.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan recently declared war on Kinder Morgan, which hopes to build the Trans Mountain pipeline to carry Canadian oil to the West Coast.

Regardless of whether you are for or against more pipeline capacity, the combative way we’ve been going about deciding what to do points to increasing regional tensions and a lack of effective mechanisms for addressing them.

Regional bickering in Canada is, of course, far from new. In 1982, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gave some folks in Salmon Arm, B.C., the middle finger from the back of a rail car.

Bumper stickers announcing that Albertans should “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark” were once popular in that province.

He was not prime minister at the time, but Justin Trudeau blamed Canada’s perceived woes in 2012 on the fact that Albertans were in power in Ottawa.

And it’s not just a West-versus-East affair: that same year, the premiers of Alberta and B.C. publicly described their meeting about the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline as “frosty.”

There is no longer much effort made to keep Canada’s regional gears from gumming up.

We can come together as a country during the Olympics and cheer each other on, but when it comes to something like economic development, it’s as if we’re sworn enemies.

Beneath this like a dormant – but far from dead – volcano is Quebec nationalism. Talk of separation has been relatively quiet in recent years but it could erupt at any moment.

Canada is not about to slip into chaos because of regional tensions. But if we continue to let it build, harmful political earthquakes become more likely.

And the tensions are slowly but surely undermining Canada’s economic prosperity. Infrastructure, internal trade, external bargaining power, the movement of labour and the attractiveness of Canada to foreign investors all suffer in the wake of rancorous regional relations and tepid interregional co-operation.

So what can we do?

First, we need to admit we have a problem and get serious about solving it. Commentators, academics, community leaders, business groups, think-tanks and politicians need to look at the problem, and either dust off old solutions or come up with new ones.

The longer we keep trying to convince ourselves that what we’re seeing are just the usual jibes and wrangling of a diverse country, the greater the damage to our society and economy.

Second, we have to move beyond short-term solutions and start the hard work of actually improving the regional effectiveness and validity of our governmental institutions.

The eye-rolling will begin in earnest if someone mentions Senate reform but it, along with an overhaul of the House of Commons, federal-provincial meetings, the Council of the Federation, the civil service, internal trade and anything else that will grease the gears of regional co-operation needs to be on table.

Cabinet appointments based on geography, photo-ops and rhetoric are not enough. If we want Canada to add up to more than the sum of its regions, and lead the world in prosperity and good government, we need to get our regional house in order.

Troy Media columnist Robert Roach is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

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