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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

BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

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Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

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Opinion

LETTER: Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East

A reader says that Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East.

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In this ‘Era of Wokeness” along with the ascension of Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, I believe that it would be detrimental to the Conservative Party of Canada to have Erin O’Toole as
it’s leader.

Mr O’Toole recently refused to use the word ‘racism’ and did not answer clearly when pressed on whether he believes it even exists. Erin O’Toole will hand the Trudeau Liberals an easy victory during the next election, should he become Tory leader. Canada cannot afford another four years of Justin Trudeau. 

Like it or not, most people in Ontario and Quebec (where all federal elections are ultimately decided owing to their number of allotted seats), are very much ‘woke’ on the issue of racism, as well as
sexism, homophobia, ect. In my experience, this also includes most Conservative Party of Canada voters in Eastern Canada.

Right-wing populism and social conservatism does well in Western Canada – but centrist Red Toryism is all they are prepared to accept in most of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. CPC members in Western Canada need to keep this in mind when voting for their next leader. 

CPC members need to be sensible and realistic if they want to win the next federal election. 

Gila Kibner 
Edmonton, Alberta

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Opinion

LETTER: While Trudeau mislabels regular guns “military-style”, he is handing real assault weapons to the police

A reader says that Trudeau is militarizing the police while disarming Canadians.

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RE: Canada’s cops worried Liberal gun ban will hamper training

I enjoyed your article on the gun ban and how it will affect cops. A point of view the CBC would never share.

Perhaps another topic should be brought to the public is this: Although Justin Trudeau said there is no place for these weapons in Canada and Bill Blair said these  weapons have only one purpose – and that is for one soldier to kill another soldier – they gifted more deadly weapons to our local police forces through the Canadian Armed Forces., as was done recently in my hometown of St Thomas, Ontario.

What is the government’s agenda in giving true military assault weapons to the police and banning “military-style” (no legal definition) weapons from civilians. 

John Siberry
St. Thomas, ON

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