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WAGNER: Are Westerners really Canadians?

Many Westerners have a strong regional identity and therefore feel a closer bond with the West than with Canada as a whole.

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What is a Canadian? One answer would be, any person with Canadian citizenship. That is probably a sufficient answer for most people. On that basis, almost every Western Canadian qualifies as a real Canadian. 

But what if the question – “What is a Canadian?” – was asked, instead, about the country’s national identity? Do Westerners qualify as Canadians under the criteria of Canadian national identity? The answer to this question is more problematic.

A nation’s identity refers to the way in which its citizens see themselves as being distinct from citizens of other countries. In his book about America’s national identity entitled “Who Are We?”, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote, “Identity is an individual’s or a group’s sense of self. It is a product of self-consciousness, that I or we possess distinct qualities as an entity that differentiates me from you and us from them.” He adds that, “Identities are imagined selves: they are what we think we are and what we want to be.” 

Identity, in other words, is how we think of ourselves in relation to others.

It should not just be assumed that since Westerners live in a geographical part of Canada that they automatically embrace Canada’s national identity, or national myths. Instead, this matter requires careful analysis. The person who has done the most thinking on this question is political scientist Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary. As it turns out, he believes that the political identity of Westerners is different from that of Eastern Canadians. In his view, what is commonly referred to as “Canadian identity” is actually a concept that is primarily derived from – and relevant for – southern Ontario.

In 1984, Cooper wrote a groundbreaking academic article addressing this issue – “Western Political Consciousness” – that was published in the book “Political Thought in Canada” edited by Stephen Brooks. In my opinion, this article should be required reading for all serious students of Canadian politics.

To understand the question of national identity, it is essential to look at Canadian history. The first major wave of English-speaking settlement into Canada consisted of colonists who had supported British imperial authority in the American War of Independence. These colonials wanted to continue to live under British rule and therefore migrated to southern Ontario (formerly Upper Canada) and the Maritimes. They were known as “Loyalists.”

A generation later, these same people and their children had to defend themselves against American incursions during the War of 1812. Because of their conflicts with and hostility towards the United States, the Loyalists of southern Ontario developed what Cooper calls a “garrison mentality”, whereby they saw themselves as a beleaguered community, constantly on guard. This concept of the garrison became their “imaginative reality,” or how they understood their community in relation to the rest of the world.

The experience of these early residents of Ontario, first as refugees from hostile Americans, then as defenders of their land against American invasion, explains the origin and prevalence of anti-American sentiment in Canada. 

Due to the demographic and political preeminence of southern Ontario within Canada, its own identity became the basis for Canadian national identity. As Cooper writes, “Canada, the imaginative reality centred in the Loyalist heartland, became Canada the political reality.” In other words, “there is indeed a Canadian identity, but it is restricted to the Loyalist heartland.”

However, the garrison mentality of southern Ontario did not take hold in the West. The people of the western provinces had different historical experiences than those of southern Ontario and therefore developed a different imaginative reality: “Western regional identity, to the extent that it is distinct from ‘Canadian’ identity, refers to distinct experiences expressed by way of distinct symbols and themes.”

The stories of the West are different from those of Ontario, and that is important according to Cooper: “Stories, including the systematic stories we call history, reveal meanings, local and particular ones first of all, and through them general and universal ones. History, too, is a source of identity; historical literature also shows who we are and where is here because it recounts what was done and said.”

Consequently, since the West does not see itself as a transplanted Ontario garrison, it is not imaginatively part of Canada. That is, because the historical experiences of Westerners were so different from those of southern Ontario, Westerners don’t share with Ontarians the same understanding of what it means to be Canadian.

This has implications for the idea of national unity. As Cooper puts it, “national unity is a symbol expressing ‘Canadian’ identity, the identity of the Loyalist heartland.” That is to say, it’s not truly “national” at all. Instead, it largely involves advancing the regional interest of a certain part of Canada (i.e. Ontario) under the guise of what’s best for all of Canada.

Many Westerners have a strong regional identity and therefore feel a closer bond with the West than with Canada as a whole. This is fundamental to Western imaginative reality. Cooper explains as follows: “Regional identity is at the heart of Western political consciousness. For many Westerners, as for many francophone Quebecers, the significant public realm is not Canada, but the region or province. Canada for them is, first and perhaps last, a legal structure that performs certain administrative functions. It is not first of all a collective political reality, nor an important source of meaning or pride, save under exceptional circumstances. In contrast, the region, the West, carries a constant and positive emotional valence: it is here and us.”

Of course, not all Westerners identify more closely with the West than with Canada as a whole – but many of us do. For us, Cooper’s analysis explains something that we have sensed but were previously unable to clearly understand and articulate. That is, the idea of Canadian identity presented to us expresses a different understanding of the country than the one we actually experience ourselves. 

Westerners have long felt left out of important political and economic decisions in Canada. Historically, many federal policies were enacted at the expense of the West – with the National Energy Program being the quintessential example. But according to Cooper’s analysis, Westerners have also been left out of the common meaning of Canadian identity. Looked at from this perspective – that is, the perspective of national identity – it is not too much to ask, are Westerners really Canadians?

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include 'Alberta: Separatism Then and Now' and 'True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.'

Opinion

ROYER: Alberta & Saskatchewan have got enemies, but more friends than we might think

3-in-10 Quebecers views their province as getting a raw deal in confederation.

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Albertans are seeking solutions to the mounting difficulties. Policies of the federal government hurt our economy and we seem to have few friends. However, Alberta is viewed more positively in most of Canada than the media portrays. That positive view of the province may mean that it can lead the country to a much needed change of direction.

Alberta champions change like nowhere else. It comes together, throws out the old and builds something new.  Homegrown solutions from new parties such as the United Farmers of Alberta, the Social Credit, the Progressives, the CCF and Reform all had roots in the province. 

Political reform – unconstrained by old partisanship – is part of Alberta’s DNA and much of the country is poised to listen

Saskatchewan, BC, Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces all chose Alberta as the province most friendly to their own in a recent Angus Reid survey (Fractured Federation, Jan 2019). Manitoba ranked Alberta close behind Saskatchewan. 

Alberta was seen by respondents in each of these provinces plus Manitoba as the province – other than their own – that contributes the most and benefits the least in confederation. 

Rather than Alberta, it is Quebec that is seen in English Canada as the outlier.  None of those provinces thought Quebec to be close or friendly toward it. Ontario was the highest where only 1-in-10 respondents see Quebec as a friend. In Alberta, that response was an astonishing 1-in-100.  

In fact, significant majorities in all English provinces but BC, view Quebec as unfriendly toward their province. BC was just under a majority with 4-in-10 seeing Quebec as hostile. 

Only 3-in-100 in the nine English provinces saw Quebec getting a raw deal. Significant majorities in those provinces thought that Quebec receives the most advantage from confederation.  

Quebec on the other hand, sees things a bit differently. To Quebec, Alberta is deemed the antagonist. A majority of Quebecers see Alberta as being unfriendly to it. No other province is considered anywhere near as unfriendly. And they do not see that Alberta is over-contributing. 

3-in-10 Quebecers views their province as getting a raw deal in confederation. No other is close. 

The country is of two very distinct perspectives. Nine provinces view Quebec as unfriendly, isolated and receiving disproportionate benefits from confederation, while Alberta is friendly and gets a raw deal. Quebec however views Alberta as an adversary and itself as getting the worst deal. The media and the national government generally assume the perspective of Quebec. Why?

There are two simple reasons; votes from Quebec are thought to largely determine electoral success and the national political structure leans in its direction. Both of these can and should change.

The nine other provinces are not divided. They don’t see Alberta as the antagonist. They see the excess contribution that Alberta makes. They see an isolated, unfriendly Quebec receiving undue preference and benefit. 

The chance to champion broad and positive political change is in Alberta’s court. There is more sympathy waiting in the country than the media and the political elite would lead us to believe. 

Alberta can propose a renewed country where all people are treated fairly; all voices are heard equally. We can offer a strong, unified country with one economy, free and open internal borders and a Canada first policy. We can propose a cohesive nation with wealth and power enough to stand up to China, and an increasingly xenophobic United States. 

It is possible to build a prosperous, united and independent Canada. If that isn’t acceptable, then Alberta needs to go its own way with whatever friends share its vision.

Randy Royer is a Columnist for the Western Standard, a Calgary businessman, and the author of ‘Alberta Doesn’t Fit.’

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Opinion

MORGAN: The new kid on the Alberta political block is off to a good start

The UCP is vulnerable on its right flank and the WIP is already taking up that slack.

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While they haven’t even officially formed as a party yet, the Wildrose Independence Party (WIP) has already moved into a solid third place on the Alberta political landscape. In a poll of 1,100 Albertans commissioned by the Western Standard, the nascent WIP was the electoral choice of 10 per cent of Albertans. That is a significant base for a brand new party to start with.

When I got involved with the Alberta Alliance Party in 2004, we tended to poll at around 4 percent, if pollsters asked about us at all. By 2012, we had merged to form the Wildrose and became the official opposition. By 2019, the final incarnation of the party was folded into the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta to create the UCP, which of course forms the government today. It took multiple elections, mergers, and compromises, but that little party holding 4 percent support ended up leaving a very major mark on Alberta’s history. It would be foolhardy to dismiss the WIP, which is currently supported by 10 per cent before they even have a leader.

While pretty much every premier in Canada has been enjoying a surge in support numbers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Kenney has been slumping in the polls. Kenney’s response to the pandemic has been solid for the most part and in line with other provinces. The drop in support for the UCP isn’t directly related to the pandemic.

It’s hardly a revelation that Albertans have been feeling economically abused and vulnerable within confederation. We are milked of our revenues by Ottawa when times are good, and are treated as confederation’s red-headed stepchild when times are bad. Our energy sector is under constant attack from ideologues in Ottawa and we are called selfish rednecks when we dare speak up about it. Albertans are sick of it and want to see some action to protect our province from further federal incursions. This is where Kenney’s UCP falls short.

The Wildrose Independence Party is little more than a concept at this time. There is no leader and there are no policies. It is rather inherent in the WIP name though that the interests of Alberta will be paramount in the party’s priorities. The term “independence” is clear in its intention of distancing Alberta from Ottawa, yet ambiguous in just how far that distance may be. This creates a broad tent to gather those who are fed up with the status quo in confederation, whether these are outright sovereigntists or folks who want to seek more autonomy within confederation. It creates a sizeable and motivated support base with a common cause to bind them.

Jason Kenney and the UCP have always talked a great game when it comes to standing up to Ottawa, but with a year in power behind them, they have appeared so far to be all talk. With the refusal to even release the “Fair Deal” panel report, it begins to look like the exercise of the panel and its tour was simply to provide lip service to Albertans in hopes of quelling their discontent. Kenney very vocally promised to make citizen’s initiated referendum legislation a top priority in this legislative session, and his promise vanished within days. Albertans are losing faith in the UCP’s will and ability to stand up for them against an increasingly hostile federal government. The WIP is already eating a good part of the UCP’s lunch. If the new party gets a good leader, they will be a formidable player on the provincial scene in the coming years.

Momentum is everything and right now, an unfounded party with no leader is holding it. NDP support remains flatlined, and the Alberta Party’s ongoing campaign of standing for nothing is garnering it the support such a stance deserves. The UCP is vulnerable on its right flank and the WIP is already taking up that slack. The WIP is clear in what it stands for and Albertans are seeking confident clarity and leadership on the issue of standing up to Ottawa.

Polls are indeed snapshots in time and there are countless variables to take into account when trying to predict the political future. There can be no doubt though that the Wildrose 2.0 is coming out of the gates fast and gaining steam already though. If the UCP doesn’t find a way to stop bleeding support to the WIP, this new party could evolve into a true gamechanger in the next provincial election.

Cory Morgan and a columnist for the Western Standard and a business owner in Priddis, Alberta.

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Opinion

FILDEBRANDT: The Singh-Trudeau deal is an unconstitutional attack on provincial rights

If the Buffalo provinces are at all serious about getting a “fair deal”, they will draw a line in the sand here.

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When Canadian voters reduced Justin Trudeau’s majority government to a minority in October of 2019, they could be forgiven for believing that they had curtailed his powers and put him on a leash. Having a minority of seats in Parliament, the prime minister would be forced to work with other parties to pass legislation. But – my sweet summer child – that would require Parliament to have much in the way of power to exercise. In reality, the House of Commons has devolved into an electoral college for selecting the prime minister, and which gets to ask questions from time-to-time.

The concentration of most power in the executive has left the legislative branch of government with little role other than for show. This allowed the Liberals to impose their sweeping gun confiscation without even bringing it before parliament. It was done without legislation, but through a simple “order in council” (cabinet decree).

Not content with already anemic legislative oversight, the Liberals moved to shut down parliament for nearly two years, and relieve MPs of the burden of passing budgets. The move was designed to concentrate all powers over spending and taxes in the cabinet. No Westminster parliamentary system has concentrated this much power in the executive since Magna Carta in 1215 England.

This was a bridge too far even for Trudeau’s Bloc Quebecois and NDP allies in Parliament, and he was forced to back off. Since that time, the prime minister has been trying to strike a bargain to shut down Parliament and reduce oversight to a politically acceptable minimum. On Monday, he got that.

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP agreed to back the Liberal plan to effectively shut down Parliament until the fall in exchange for a commitment from Trudeau for a federal sick leave program.

In its usual deferential manner, the Toronto Star’s headline ran, “Liberals, NDP work on sick leave to secure deal on future of Parliament”. One could be forgiven for believing that the Liberals and NDP had struck a bargain to save democracy.

The Trudeau-Singh deal will see Ottawa try to rope the provinces into an additional 10 days guaranteed sick leave, ostensibly due to Covid-19. With a majority of workers either covered by their employers, unemployed, or working from home, the urgency of the policy escapes me.

More importantly though, it would see Ottawa blow its way into another area of exclusive provincial jurisdiction: labour law.

Outside of a few federally regulated industries, sick leave, union laws, and minimum wage, all belong exclusively to the provinces. The Singh-Trudeau agreement seeks to bring them in line with federal oversights, as Ottawa already has done with healthcare and social policy.

While the Liberals have traditionally paid lip service to constitutionally protected provincial jurisdiction, the NDP has, since its inception, disregarded it as a needless barrier to socialism on a national scale. That is, except in Quebec.

To do this, Ottawa has several tools at its disposal, all of which violate the spirit of the division of powers set out in the British North America Act, 1867. The most likely tool, is with money. As it does with the Canada Health Transfer ($42 billion) and Canada Social Transfer ($15 billion), it can collect taxes from Canadians, and recycle some of that money back to provinces that agree to fall in line with its policy directives.

This means that if Ottawa cannot convince the provinces to go along with its policy voluntarily, it has the option of imposing major fiscal penalties on the taxpayers in the less cooperative provinces. If for instance, all provinces agree to fall in line except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, the federal government will continue to collect taxes from all 10 provinces, but only transfer some of it back to provinces that comply. In short, Alberta and Saskatchewan taxpayers would pay into the program, but receive nothing back; not unlike Equalization.

The result would be to accentuate the already acute fiscal gap between what Ottawa collects in taxes from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and what it sends back.

But this doesn’t mean that provinces should surrender their exclusive constitutional jurisdiction to avoid being further shortchanged. On the contrary, the provinces should refuse to even discuss areas under their jurisdiction with Ottawa. Ottawa has no more right to impose its labour policies on Alberta, than Alberta has the right to dictate naval defence policy to Ottawa.

If Ottawa opts to use the fiscal carrot and stick approach, its a good bet that poorer, “have-not” provinces will quickly fall in line. Quebec and the Maritimes are simply too reliant on federal largess to say “No” when push comes to shove. But provinces that pay the bill – BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and sometimes Ontario – must draw a line in the sand.

While BC Premier John Horgan will feel a partisan and ideological obligation to follow Singh’s lead, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe have more freedom of action. They have an easy opportunity to give an unshakable “No” to any additional federal intrusion.

This will further the gap between what Albertans and Saskatchewanians send to Ottawa and what they get back, but the blame will rest with Trudeau, not Kenney and Moe.

The federal NDP’s sick leave-for-Parliament trade won’t be the last of its kind. So long as this minority government lasts, the NDP will be in a position to trade its support for trinkets, most of which involve provincial jurisdiction.

If the Buffalo provinces are at all serious about getting a “fair deal”, they will not give an inch.

Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and President of Wildrose Media Corp. dfildebrandt@westernstandardonline.com

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