Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The Anti-Canada, Part Two

As I mentioned in Part One, a key element in Paul Martin’s “new approach” as Canadian Prime Minister will be taking on western alienation. Martin himself has declared that if western alienation does not lessen during his tenure, he will deem his time at the helm to have been a failure. This is quite a statement, especially as it has the effect of raising hopes quite high. The problem may be, however, that western Canadians perhaps aren’t “alienated.” After all, the notion of alienation with its Marxist and Freudian connotations isn’t that amenable to the westerner’s self-image. This is particularly the case in Calgary, the supposed urban centre of alienation. In fact alienation tends to refer to an economic or psychological sense of being separated from one’s essential self-expression. You won’t find too many Calgary oilmen or ranchers wandering around interrogating themselves on such matters. Rather, what has aggravated western Canadians, and in this case Albertans particularly, has been the lack of input into federal political decisions on the part of western Canadians culminating in the disastrous National Energy Program of the Trudeau years in which Alberta’s economic interests were gutted by a foolish and irresponsible money grab on the part of the Liberal government in Ottawa.

This sentiment is only further aggravated by what many in the West perceive as an obsession with Quebec on the part of the federal government. And, when we consider that Alberta pays more per capita to the federal government than any other province, but has almost no say in federal decisions, it isn’t surprising that Canada’s fastest growing and wealthiest province is a bit ill at ease in the Canadian confederation.

Now, the response to this situation at the federal level was the formation of the national Reform Party – a rather right-wing populist party that did well in rural and suburban western Canada and in Calgary, but went absolutely nowhere outside these areas. Even in western Canada, cities like Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Victoria tended to stick with the Liberals or the left-wing New Democrats. Since its inception, the Reform Party has gone through endless transformations attempting to appeal to conservative voters in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. All attempts have thus far failed. The most recent kick at the can involves merging with the Progressive Conservative Party, the once great party of Confederation, in order to appear more acceptable to eastern voters. There are few indications to date that this strategy will work, especially as many see the merger more as a takeover by the far-right of Canada’s centre-right Progressive Conservatives.

For Paul Martin and the Liberals, it’s unlikely that the new merged Conservatives, at least in the foreseeable future, will pose much of a threat. Still, Martin is attempting to woo conservative western voters, aware that this is the fastest growing region of Canada. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Martin shuffled his cabinet giving two top jobs – Finance and Deputy Prime Minister – to Regina and Edmonton Members of Parliament respectively. This resulted in some Quebec commentators complaining about the loss of Quebec’s influence in cabinet (despite the fact that Paul Martin himself is from Montreal), which could be a foretaste of things to come.

On the whole, Martin is better placed to do well with westerners than his predecessor, Jean Chrétien. But the real wrench in the works here is not so much the newly merged federal conservatives, but the provincial government of Alberta. Headed by the remarkably popular Ralph Klein, the provincial conservatives have ruled Alberta since 1971, and show no signs of losing in the next election, expected in 2005. More importantly, Klein, who himself has been Premier since 1992, far longer than any other provincial premier, is working steadily to increase provincial powers, build up Alberta’s already formidable infrastructure and set out a fairly independent course for his province apart from the positions taken by the federal government in international affairs. While Klein is always careful to proffer his dedication to federalism, his practical actions speak to his determination to carve out an evermore autonomous role for Alberta within Canada. This isn’t to say that he’s doing things not already done by other large provinces like Ontario and Quebec, but it does show that Alberta, perhaps tired of trying to change the federal political dynamic, has decided to go it alone on more and more issues.

It is this threat that Martin hopes to counter with his talk about lessening western alienation. But, as I’ve noted, Albertans aren’t so much alienated as indifferent to the federal government. And, rather than sulk, Alberta is forging ahead with its own agenda. Assuming Klein can continue to sell this agenda to Albertans – despite bungling some recent privatization initiatives on the part of his government – he and his successors could present a formidable problem to Paul Martin.

But Martin has another strategy for attacking provincial self-assertion, and that is his new deal for municipalities. Right now, Martin’s Liberal Party dominates the political scene in most of Canada’s major cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg. Only Calgary, and to some extent Edmonton are outside Liberal control for the time being. In these areas, the main challenge does not come from the merged conservatives but from the left, from the New Democrats who now have a new leader who is making urban issues a central aspect of his party’s platform. The New Democrats are recasting themselves as a more leftist force than they were in the 1990’s, building on issues of urban decay and anti-globalization to highlight the distinction between themselves and the increasingly conservative-appearing Liberals. This is a strategy that may work, because, despite the Canadian pretension for believing that Canada’s cities are so much safer and cleaner than their American counterparts, Canada’s large cities are in fact undergoing a rather substantial crisis. Toronto has a massive problem with the homeless and a decaying infrastructure. Montreal is in even worse condition as far as infrastructure goes. Vancouver is inundated with drugs and has a skyrocketing crime rate. Calgary alone among the large cities once again stands out as it seems able to escape most of these problems, despite being the fastest growing large city in Canada.

So, the strategy of the Martin camp is to undermine the threat from conservative provincial premiers like Klein by bypassing the provinces and going directly to the municipalities. This strategy is similarly designed to fend off the leftist New Democrats by appearing to deal with urban issues. The Liberals, in other words, are trying to stake out a position that appeals to the urban Canadian voter. Now, considering that Canada’s population is primarily living in cities, to a greater extent than in the US, this strategy should work, at least initially, and give Martin a huge win in the 2004 federal election. But, it is a difficult balancing act, one that he may not be able to maintain and one that both Alberta’s Ralph Klein and the federal New Democrats will be looking to upset.

But just as important is another issue. The increasing urbanization of Canada goes hand-in-hand with the issue I first mentioned a few days ago: the anti-political nature of Canadian patriotism. The federal Liberals, since the 1960’s, have attempted to defeat all threats to their power by taking a sort of abstracted middle ground. This ground attempts to unify Canada under Liberal rule by diminishing any form of real political identification on the part of Canadians. Any party, group or political movement that dares challenge this dogma is branded as being opposed to “Canadian values.” So, Canada today is increasingly becoming a detached and self-congratulatory urbanized mass of humanitarian internationalists who are unable to see that their cherished self-perceptions have no real substance. The Canadian nation exists only to advance the cause of the anti-nation. Paul Martin is likely to play on this anti-nationalism in order to build his electoral wins. The deracination of the Canadian nation will proceed apace. The only challenge may come from those remnants of political affiliation, such as Alberta, that would prefer a sense of citizenship over consumerism. But in the Canadian community, the apolitical consumer looks likely to extinguish the citizen in the long run.

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