People don’t want to be governed

Not so long ago, Canada was caught up in a conversation about who wanted Justin Trudeau’s job.

Now, four months since Canadians voted last October, would anyone be surprised if even Trudeau didn’t want his own job?

Large-scale rail shutdowns, Indigenous blockades, a new flutter of western separatism from elected MPs in the House of Commons: A running theme throughout is the idea of governance itself as optional.

“Bluntly put, the status quo is no longer acceptable to people we represent,” four Alberta MPs wrote in a so-called Buffalo Declaration issued late last week.

“Many Albertans are considering their place in Confederation and are done with failed appeasement tactics or temporary measures.”

Throw in the massive teachers’ strikes that have been taking place in Ontario and citizens in large swaths of this country may well be asking: What’s going to be shut down or withdrawn next? And who, if not government, has the power to get things up and running again?

Trudeau held a news conference on Friday to declare — belatedly, his critics would say — that his patience with the rail blockades had expired. His hopes for Indigenous reconciliation have not similarly expired, but they have become unravelled from his patience with their protests.

Grievances and strikes aren’t new in this country; neither are air crashes or disease outbreaks — just a couple of the other issues on which Trudeau offered updates at his “that’s enough” news conference on Friday.

What’s new in the array of issues confronting Trudeau in this early part of 2020 is an emerging set of doubts about whether government can broker differences and come to any kind of middle ground.

Ekos pollster Frank Graves has been doing some major research into populism and whether it exists in Canada in 2020. He told me on Friday, as we were waiting to see what Trudeau would say at his news conference, that some of the indicators he’s seeing are disturbing.

Canadians are increasingly settling into polarized views around education, science, climate change and immigration, for instance.

The poles have deepened and grown further apart in just four years too, between Trudeau’s first election and his recent re-election. But Graves doesn’t think this is a Trudeau problem as much as it is a potential crisis for the very idea of governance.

“We are approaching fundamental legitimacy crisis points on some of these issues,” Graves said.

It’s not quite a tax revolt yet — something I was wondering about as tax time looms in a couple of months. But an opt-out-of-government sentiment is lurking out there, Graves fears.

“We already have people saying they’d like to opt out of some of these systems; people saying ‘I don’t like these rules, this doesn’t work for me.’”

That’s certainly evident in the Buffalo letter, which begins as a long, historic indictment of Alberta’s treatment at the hands of Eastern Canadians.

Much of the language, most likely deliberately, borrows on the grievance lexicon of the Indigenous protesters. Like them, the disaffected Albertans reach back to Canada’s origins. (The four signatories to the letters are MPs Michelle Rempel, Blake Richards, Glen Motz and Arnold Viersen.)

“This land was not bought for its inhabitants — Indigenous and settlers alike — to have an equal partnership with the political and business interests to the East. This land was purchased in order to prevent the territory and the wealth it could create for Canada from being acquired by the Americans,” the Buffalo statement asserts.

“The Eastern political and business class never intended for Alberta to be equal in Confederation. They intended for us to be a colony, providing wealth and raw resources without having an equal share in prosperity and power.”

The declaration also puts the old National Energy Program — a creation of Trudeau’s father, Pierre — in the category of historical injustice.

“Never acknowledged or rectified, this malicious act stands as a reminder of the colonial attitude toward Alberta, and what happens when the political power class of the East turns, with intent against the West.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, while not a western separatist, has been open in his intentions to borrow from the grievance culture of Quebec sovereigntists to further his province’s agenda in the federation.

Now we have another group of Albertans borrowing from Indigenous unrest and oft-cited statements of historical injustice.

Trudeau talked at his news conference about a widespread anxiety in the country, environmental and economic, that has people feeling unsettled about their future.

He did not talk about the prospect of Canadians withdrawing their consent to be governed, but one presumes that blockades and strikes and western separatist talk have him thinking about that possibility.

He didn’t offer anyone his job either — that one he campaigned so hard to get last fall. Probably just as well. Who wants to govern a country that isn’t sure it wants to be governed?

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services

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