Since the beginning of Canadian history, regionalism has had a prominent effect on the country`s political system. The concept of regionalism can be defined as a political ideology grounded on a shared sense of place or attachment and is discussed in terms of Canadian society, culture, economy and politics. 1 From the days of confederation, Canada has developed into regional cleavages and identities based on various geographical characteristics, traditional lifestyles and economic interests.
Two of Canada`s greatest regionally distinct political cultures are known as Western alienation and Quebec nationalism. 2 Historically, the lack of regional awareness and accommodation within Canada’s central government has given rise to a great deal of regional discontent. Much of this discontent comes from the uneven distribution of economic activity amongst Canada`s provinces. Also, federal policies made in favour of central Canada, Ontario and Quebec, are consequently placing the West, the East and the North at an even greater disadvantage.
Thus, in this paper I am going to argue that regionalism is weakening the Canadian state and at its worst, is pulling the country apart. Due to major differences in geography, population and ethnicity, the federal government’s response to Canadian demands differs from region to region. Quebec nationalism is a great example of a distinct regional culture setting back Canadian unity. The historical English vs. French cleavage has been a significant and very influential feature within Canadian politics.
Ever since the division of Lower and Upper Canada took place in 1791, French Canadians have been concerned with finding their own independence. 2 This became a principal political issue as English Canadians saw this as a threat to the country’s national identity and togetherness. Several constitutional reforms have been made in response to Quebec separatism such as the Notwithstanding Clause, allowing the province to maintain its French language, Catholic religion and Civil law.
For other provinces, the special status given to Quebec was seen as unjust and resulted in many regional conflicts and complaints. Another distinct regional culture affecting Canadian Politics is well known as Western alienation which is defined as the following: A regionally distinct political culture through and within which are expressed economic discontent, the rejection of a semi-colonial status within the Canadian State, antipathy towards Quebec and French-Canadian influence within the ational government, the irritation of the West’s partisan weakness within a succession of Liberal national governments, and the demand from provincial political elites for greater jurisdictional autonomy. 3 For the reason that Canada’s regional identities are based on conflicting interests and demands from the federal government, Canada is fundamentally made difficult to govern. The disintegration of the Canadian political life is greatly caused by the federal partiality presented in Canada’s national political institutions.
Criticism of the lack of regional representation in Canada’s federal system has been mainly directed to Parliament and both the electoral and party systems. Effectively, the central government’s failure to increase the role of regions within its political institutions has left the underrepresented provinces of Canada with little to no confidence in their government whatsoever. A major contribution to regional complaints comes from one of Canada’s most unsatisfactory and ineffective national political institutions, the Senate.
Established by the British North American Act in 1867, the Canadian Senate was formed as an equivalent to the British House of Lords. 4 Also known as the upper house, the Senate was created as a way of including the representation of under populated provinces into the operation of the federal government. At the time, the Canadian Senate consisted of 72 senators with 24 members appointed from Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes each. As new provinces and territories were added to the federation, they later became a part of the Senate which presently holds a total of 105 seats.
Today, Ontario and Quebec have maintained their 24 member senatorial status. The four Western provinces have 6 members each. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both have 10 seats. Prince Edward Island was given 4 out of the original 24 Maritime senators. Together, Newfoundland and Labrador have a total of 6 members. Finally, Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories stand in the equation with 1 senator apiece. Along with the Senate`s original intentions, the principle of equality between the provinces is evidently lost.
The Senate primarily fails because it was formerly created to balance out the representation by population which lies in the House of Commons however currently only seems to reinforce it. In fact, Canada’s central provinces, Ontario and Quebec, account for 60 percent of the seats in the House of Commons and almost half of the seats in the Senate at 46 percent. 5 The inadequacy of regional representation is emphasized as the Canada West Foundation clearly states: “Canada is the only democratic federal system in the world in which the regions with the largest populations dominate both houses of the national legislature. 6 With an unelected Senate that no longer fulfills its role of equal regional representation and a House of Commons grounded on the representation of provinces proportional to their population, the legitimacy of Parliament has become a great political concern and is a major factor attributing to the state’s existing regional tensions. A second political institution adding to the growth of regional grievances is the design of the electoral system. Canadian elections are based on an electoral system most commonly known as the “first-past-the-post” system. This system is constructed in a way where citizens of numerous geographical regions or constituencies are allowed to elect a single candidate as their own political party representation. Basically, the candidate with the most votes in a given constituency wins a seat in the House of Commons. However, this type of electoral system raises many questions about whether election outcomes are truly and justly representing party preference on the national scale.
The main reason for this criticism relates to the fact that candidates are able to win an election in a constituency regardless of whether they won over 50 percent of the total popular vote. Consequently, the number of seats a party wins in the House of Commons will very unlikely be in proportion with their actual share of the popular vote. Therefore, the system has the tendency to punish minor parties with widespread provincial support while benefiting the leading parties with rather concentrated central support.
A great example of the misrepresentation of the electoral system was seen during the 1979 elections when Joe Clark of the Conservative party was elected as Prime Minister, despite the Liberals receiving at least 4 percent more of the country’s popular vote. 8 Not only is the electoral system a distortion of public opinion, it causes many voters to feel insignificant and uncared for which greatly contributes to the existing low voter turnout and even as to why Canadians are so indifferent about politics altogether.
A third way wherein the federal government fails to accommodate regional interests is among the political parties themselves. The party system is an essential aspect of the operation of a democratic government but given that most political parties depend on central Canada for the majority of their votes, the party system has become meaningless and once again regional interests are overshadowed. The lack of a nationwide connection between political parties and Canadian citizens is evident as the party system becomes more and more regionally concentrated.
Since the first Canadian elections, the Liberals and the Conservatives have been the most dominant political parties to date. 9 Because Ontario and Quebec are appointed the most seats in the House of Commons, both the Liberal and Conservative parties rely on the votes of the central Canadian population. In doing so, it is impossible for other parties to achieve a majority in the House even if they win the combined seats of Western, Atlantic and Northern Canada.
Thus, in 1993 Canada’s party system became a lot more regionally based. For examples, le Bloc Quebecois only runs candidates in Quebec as its sole purpose is to find Quebec sovereignty and the Reform party based in Alberta was created as a way of expressing how regional alienation is overwhelmingly felt by Western Canadians. All in all, Canada’s national political institutions are far from being representative of Canadian society which results in the devaluation of political activity and is greatly weakening the Canadian state.
Historically, support for central Canada’s economic development has always been a priority on the political agenda. For the reason that Canada’s national policies are strongly biased towards Ontario and Quebec, economic success is not evenly dispersed throughout the Canadian State. An example wherein central Canada was at an advantage over other provinces was when John A. Macdonald implemented the “National Policy” in 1879. This policy consisted of the establishment of a transcontinental railway and placed a tariff on imported manufactured goods in order to allow domestic goods to be sold at a lower price. In doing so, U. S. manufacturers invested in the vast exploitation of Western Canada’s natural resources in which countless jobs and recruiting opportunities were made possible for many Canadians. The purpose of the policy was to help advance the development of the Canadian economy, however while Ontario benefited enormously, the Western and Eastern provinces were placed at a significant disadvantage.
Not only did the federal government have jurisdiction over West Canada’s natural resources, farmers in the Prairies had to buy Canadian agricultural equipment that was at a much higher price than the American agricultural equipment they had bought prior to the policy. This enabled many regional complaints and demands from the West and it was not until 1930 when the Prairie provinces finally gained control of their natural resources. Another example of federal government discrimination is known as the National Energy Program.
Introduced in 1980, the NEP was meant to increase federal control and ownership of the oil industry so that Canadians were protected from the negative effects of rising and falling world energy prices. In order to accomplish this goal, price controls and federal taxes on oil and gas production were implemented. However, while Canada’s consumers and heartland industries benefited from Alberta’s energy resources, great opposition from Western Canada was met. Albertans were mainly upset for the reason that the federal government was going against their provincial rights, despite Alberta having control over their resources.
This feeling of alienation augmented as oil companies moved toward central Canada, leaving Albertans with a tremendous loss of wealth and a great deal of unemployment. Thus, the abuse and discrimination of Western Canada in was a major factor in fuelling Canadian regionalism. As many Prime Ministers have said, Canada is one of the most difficult countries to govern effectively. 10 Regionalism is continually weakening the Canadian state and at its worst, is pulling the country apart.
Politicians must realize that Canada’s differences in geography, culture and economic demands are a daily fact and will forever influence Canadian politics. In order to restore public confidence in our central government, regional tensions, conflicts and demands must be addressed. A great way in tackling the negative effects of regionalism is by strengthening the role of Canada’s provinces within our national political institutions. Changing the Senate to an elected one where every province is represented by an equal number of senators is a preferable solution in dealing with regional disparities. Thereby, national policies can be made without having the interests of a province over other provinces and important national issues can be dealt with based on the viewpoints of all of Canada and not merely focusing on those of Ontario and Quebec. Moreover, political parties can also play an important role in improving the Canadian political life. 11 In establishing a more meaningful relationship between political parties and Canadian citizens, people in society can elect a more favourable political leader who can efficiently respond to their personal needs and suggestions.
Ultimately, public trust and public involvement within the federal government can be restored. By including a provincial dimension to Canada’s national political institutions, politicians will have a much better understanding of how significant regional opinion truly is and how regionalism can essentially be changed to strengthen the Canadian state and to re-establish Canada’s unified identify. References 1. Stephen, Brooks. Canadian Democracy: An Introduction, fifth edition. Canada: Oxford University Press, 2007. 2. Henderson, Ailsa. Regional Political Cultures in Canada.
Canadian Journal of Political Science, 37(3), 2004. 3. Kerstetter, Steven. Rags and Riches. Wealth Inequality in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2002. 4. Stilborn, Jack. Senate Reform: Issues and Recent Developments. Ottawa: Parliamentary Information and Research Service, 2008. 5. D’Aquino, Thomas, G. Bruce Doern, and Cassandra Blair. Parliamentary Democracy in Canada: Issues for Reform. Methuen: Business Council on National Issues, 1983. 6. Canada West Foundation. Regional Representation: The Canadian Partnership.
Calgary: The Canada West Foundation, 1981 7. Milner, Henry. First Past the Post? Progress Report on Electoral Reform Initiatives in Canadian Provinces. Institute for Research and Public Policy, 2004. 8. Dyck, Rand. Canadian Politics, fourth edition. Nelson Education, 2008. 9. Savoie, J, Donald. All things Canadian are now regional. Journal of Canadian Studies, 2000. 10. Lewis, J. P. Canadian Government and Politics. Lecture, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Mar. 18, 2010. 11. Fox, Graham. Rethinking Political Parties. Public Policy Forum, 2006.