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Five: The Pattern Continues

Western Alienation in the 1970s and 1980s

The West’s experience in Confederation has centred on protest, disappointment and constant indications that Canada’s parliamentary system of government is tilted in favour of Ontario and Quebec. The subordination of the West persists and Westerners in the 1980s feel as strongly about it as our parents and grandparents did, possibly the only difference being our increasing determination to affect politics, to be more vocal, to get things changed at last.

The reality of our political system is that Central Canada is where national elections are won or lost. Successive federal governments have thus tended to identify the interests of the voters living in Central Canada with those of all Canadians. In late 1987, Ontario Industry Minister Monte Kwinter, while criticizing Canada’s proposed free trade agreement with the United States, asserted: "…if it’s a bad deal for Ontario, by extension it’s a bad deal for Canada." His quip indicated that little had changed in a century-old attitude held by many Ontarians that what is good for them is also good for Canada as a whole. How can Canadian federalism preserve and protect regional interests and unite Canadians everywhere, if it is constantly undermined by the assertion that what suits one province suits all?

In a speech on "The West in Confederation" last year, I quoted two prominent Westerners to contrast the past and present in our region in terms of expectations, hopes and realities of life. In the mid-1970s, Peter Lougheed described the Western Canada he saw developing: "I think it will be a stronger part of Canada a decade from now, both in terms of population, in terms of distribution of income, in terms of spending in a more balanced industrial economy. I think the West will have more confidence and hopefully more input into decision-making nationally.... Canada will be a stronger nation, because we’ll be a stronger West."

The Edmonton publisher and western nationalist Ted Byfield described our region’s situation in mid-1987 thus: "...something is grievously wrong in Western Canada. Farmers can’t afford to seed their crops, mines are closed, oil rigs lie derelict, shipyards arc idle, food banks are besieged, the savings of many lifetimes have vanished, homes have lost their value, and a host of unemployed burst the welfare rolls of every town and city.

The creation of the Reform Party of Canada in the West under the slogan "The West wants in" reflects the disillusionment of some Westerners with all three traditional parties. It is also another cry of frustration from a forgotten child of Confederation. Earlier efforts to bring the region fully into national decision-making have failed, for some Westerners at least. Central Canadians, they say, will not even try to understand western alienation. There are, and always have been, more important matters of national interest to most residents of Canada’s heartland.

A number of issues arising in the 1970s and 1980s ominously increased western discontent with the federal government. The following is a discussion of some selected policies of governments of different political colours that have particularly intensified alienation in Western Canada. Essential to western objections to all of them was the conviction that each was decided by a central government, centrally controlled, for the benefit of the centre -- Ontario or Quebec or both-- and imposed by Ottawa on the western provinces regardless of the legitimate needs and wishes of Western Canadians.

Energy Blitzkrieg

It is often forgotten now that the national Liberal party was historically strong in Western Canada; as recently as the 1953 election, it won 27 of 59 western seats. Pierre Trudeau and his Just Society and One Canada, blended with his iconoclastic personal style, were attractive to many Westerners during the 1968 election campaign. Trudeaumania in fact won for the Liberals 16 of 23 seats in B.C., 4 of 19 in Alberta, 2 of 13 in Saskatchewan, 5 of 13 in Manitoba and the only seat in the Northwest Territories. Winning eleven seats on the Prairies, which during the previous four elections had voted almost as one with John Diefenbaker, provided an excellent opportunity for Pierre Trudeau to break the existing political mold in the West.

How the Liberals destroyed their political base both federally and provincially in Western Canada between 1968 and 1980, when they won but two of the West’s seventy-seven constituencies, has been well chronicled. More than anything else, their National Energy Policy (NEP) and constitutional package reinforced the western suspicion that Pierre Trudeau and his party regarded our region as a continuing colony of Central Canada.

In 1974, as the Arab and other oil producing countries began to raise oil prices from about $4 (U.S.) a barrel to $11 and later much higher, oil became the focus of western differences with the Trudeau government. Ottawa’s initial response to oil-related events in the world was to impose an export tax on the more than one million barrels of oil a day which Western Canada was selling to the U.S., and to freeze temporarily the domestic price of oil. Alberta premier Peter Lougheed replied that the only reason for exporting oil to the U.S. at all was that, continuously since the 1960’s, successive federal governments had refused permission to extend a western oil pipeline to Montreal on the premise that it was a little cheaper for Canadians east of the Ottawa River to buy oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. A consequence of this myopia in Ottawa, argued Lougheed, was that a number of Canadian-owned oil companies which could not afford to operate at other than full capacity had been forced to sell out, mostly to American oil companies.

Lougheed noted that as recently as January of 1973, the federal Energy Minister, Donald Macdonald, had again refused an Alberta government request to extend the oil pipeline with the usual reasoning that it was cheaper to buy offshore oil. "It is my understanding," wrote Macdonald to the Alberta government, "that the relative cost disadvantage of using Western Canadian crude in lieu of offshore crude at Montreal refineries at the present time, is greater than when this matter was considered by the Borden Commission."

"What the federal government said in effect," concluded the Alberta premier, "was that it had weighed Alberta’s needs for markets against the economic advantages to Eastern Canada, and decided against us."

On the principle of an export tax on oil itself, Westerners wondered why the non-renewable oil of Alberta and Saskatchewan was the sole Canadian export to be subject to a federal tax, when renewable energy exports such as electricity were not similarly taxed. The federal government’s reply was essentially that oil was unique; Westerners, having been discriminated against so often in the past by Ottawa, were mostly unconvinced. At the federal-provincial conference on energy held in Ottawa in January, 1974, the shared scepticism of all three prairie delegations, headed by Peter Lougheed, Edward Schreyer and Allen Blakeney, grew. The federal participants were, among other things, badly prepared. Only Premier Dave Barrett from British Columbia remained apart from the other western premiers. He called, as did the national NDP leader David Lewis, for the gradual nationalization of the Canadian oil industry.

The National Energy Program

The National Energy Program (NEP) was introduced in the House of Commons by Marc Lalonde eight months after the Liberals defeated the Conservatives in the 1980 general election.

The Clark government was thought by many Westerners to have lost the election because of its campaign to move the domestic price of oil and gas toward international levels. Progressive Conservative proposals to soften this by subsidies to farmers and fishermen were doomed from the start by a quixotic proposal in the defeated Crosbie budget to increase taxes on gasoline by 18 cents a gallon at the pump. Most residents of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and some from Western Canada, understandably voted for the more comforting "made-in-Canada" price promised by the Liberals.

The Liberals’ NEP contained both an announced and an undeclared set of objectives. The four public ones seemed the soul of reason: greater energy self-sufficiency, conservation, "nation-building" and Canadianization. The unspoken goal was clearly continued Liberal party hegemony in Central Canada at the expense of Western Canadians generally and Albertans in particular.

The program would achieve energy self-sufficiency partly by incentives intended to redirect exploration and development away from the western provinces toward areas in the North and off our coasts, which were controlled by the federal government. This was hazardous because it requires several years to bring an oil well into production and very few commercially-recoverable discoveries have been made in the Beaufort Sea, the Canadian Arctic and off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. As these tax incentives were unavailable to foreign-owned firms, a number of companies moved approximately 200 drilling rigs (each employing about 200 persons) to the United States. This caused some observers to conclude that the NEP was not concerned with petroleum self-sufficiency at all. The real goal was for Ottawa to continue to purchase off-shore oil at $37 (U.S.) a barrel as of 1980 from sources such as Libya and Venezuela while at the same time refusing to buy it from a good number of capped western wells for $18 a barrel. When the international price of oil fell in 1982, this view became especially plausible in Western Canada.

The NEP’s conservation feature was praised initially in every part of Canada, including the West. Both Western Europe and Japan were demonstrating that nations could reduce their energy consumption without reducing significantly either their manufacturing efficiency or their standard of living. Some of the NEP programs, such as grants for better home insulation and for converting to natural gas heating, were excellent. Unfortunately for the authors of the NEP, price is the major factor determining the amount of oil and gas used by both individuals and commerce. In keeping domestic oil prices across Canada at about half of international levels between 1980 and 1984, the government ensured great waste. A longer term consequence of this cheap energy to both industry and agriculture was that both sectors were able to postpone investing in the more efficient machinery with which competitors around the world were retooling. The future international competitiveness of the exports from every region of Canada was harmed by the NEP.

Defenders of the NEP agree that one of its objectives was to establish the leadership of Ottawa in the energy sector. The means chosen was a bold attempt to create a new community of energy leaders with a primary loyalty to the federal government. This group was to join industrial-financial elites in Toronto and Montreal who have historically identified closely with Ottawa because of various federal measures such as the Bank Act. The NEP was thus profoundly anti-western because until 1980 our energy industry was one of the very few sectors centred in Western Canada. It was, to many Westerners, as if a national government with no elected representation on either coast had told our east- and west-coast fisheries that they should relocate their industry decision-makers to Ottawa.

A major goal of the NEP was the reorganization of energy industry ownership. As other governments of energy-producing nations had done during the 1970’s, the NEP took advantage of the rapid rise in world petroleum prices to buy out some foreign-owned parts of the Canadian energy industry. To persuade those unwilling to sell to do so, the NEP went well beyond what other programs of industrial democracies had done. It created tax incentives and prohibitions which favoured locally-owned oil firms. The best known of these was the 25% "back-in" provision through which Ottawa took an automatic fourth of the revenues from any oil or gas discovery made on lands controlled by Ottawa. Among other things, the government of Canada was accused of legislated theft. Following an avalanche of protests when the back-in was initially applied to expensive discoveries already made, compensation for approximately a quarter of such expenditures was made by the government.

During the first ten months of the NEP, the outright discrimination against foreign-owned firms was so successful that foreign ownership dropped from 74% to about 66%. Canadian companies, such as Dome Petroleum, the Canada Development Corporation and Petro-Canada, made huge buy-outs of foreign-owned oil and gas properties. The means used to achieve this Canadianization were judged by the American and British governments to violate Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) resolutions on investments, which clearly banned member discrimination against foreign-owned companies. As the American academic Charles Doran put it, "The American counter-response was that Canada was now ‘on the varsity’, meaning Canada now had full economic summit membership, and it therefore had to abide by the rules that the majority of the OECD countries observed in investment and trade matters." Many foreigners concluded that the NEP was part of a general campaign against foreign investment of any sort.

In many western minds, the key goal of the NEP was to keep Central Canada on the Liberal side of the political fence by pursuing a consumer-oriented oil strategy. Rather than creating a policy which attempted to balance the interests of both the producing West and the consuming East, Trudeau’s government came down all but entirely on the consumer side. The Liberal party, having learned to govern with virtually no representation from the West, wished to be seen as the defender of Central Canada regardless of economic consequences in Western Canada. Indeed Marc Lalonde in a candid moment later confessed:

"The major factor behind the NEP wasn’t Canadianization or getting more from the industry or even self-sufficiency. The determinant factor was the fiscal imbalance between the provinces and the federal government.... Our proposal was to increase Ottawa’s share appreciably, so that the share of the producing provinces would decline significantly and the industry’s share would decline somewhat." The Calgary economist Robert Mansell has calculated that the artificially low domestic price of oil since the early 1970’s cost Albertans approximately $60 billion.

The results were devastating. The number of oil wells drilled throughout Canada dropped from 9,188 in 1980 to 7,186 in 1981, and the number of drilling rigs in service across Canada fell from 650 to 450 fairly soon after the NEP was introduced. Thousands of jobs in Western Canada were lost, primarily in the drilling and service sectors of the energy industry. Proposed mega-projects such as the Alsands plant at Fort McMurray were cancelled. Numerous western businesses went into bankruptcy. Many careers and families were broken; home mortgages were foreclosed in large numbers. The respected Economist magazine of Britain during the summer of 1982 summed up the NEP in politely brutal language: "The NEP has come close to wrecking an industry that until October, 1980 was drilling like fury finding enormous volumes of gas and much new oil, creating jobs and investment all over Canada and increasingly using Canadian-owned capacity in exploration and management.... The NEP drove Canadian exploration and service companies into the United States until only 150 drilling rigs were left, the lowest number since the 1960’s deCanadianization, in effect. Owners of capped-in gas wells had big debts and no cash flow. Oil serving companies in Alberta withered into bankruptcy."

The NEP was loathed even by Western Canadians who had no direct daily contact with the energy industry. It provided a major impetus to both separation and alienation sentiments in the West. As a federal program which blatantly discriminated against the western provinces, maintained the domestic price of conventional oil and gas resources at about half the world price, and subsidized the consumption of imported oil, it probably dashed for a generation the political hopes of federal Liberals throughout Western Canada. In fact, however, the NEP was in significant respects an intellectual product of the New Democrats, particularly the Canadianization provisions. For a short period after its introduction, the NDP energy spokesman in the House of Commons, Bob Rae, had a difficult time in distinguishing his party’s policy from that of the Liberal government.

James Laxer, the Research Director of the federal NDP, described his party’s dilemma over the NEP in a 1984 report to its federal caucus as follows: "The NDP faced a dilemma. Should it allow a progressive, nationalist policy to become intolerable because it received only criticism and no support? Or should it give the programme critical support and face the renewed Tory charge that the NDP was in bed with the Liberals? Already under fire because of its stand on the constitution, the NDP chose the first option. It attacked the NEP as ‘phoney nationalism’, charging that the programme was simply a corporate giveaway because it included the Petroleum Incentive Programme (PIP) grant to Canadian owned companies."

By the time of the 1984 general election campaign, the NEP had become an orphan to both Liberals and New Democrats, although by 1988 a position paper of the federal New Democrats appeared to some Westerners to call for the resurrection of the NEP.

CF-18 Debacle

The CF-18 aircraft maintenance contract issue today continues to trouble residents of all four western provinces, primarily because most of us placed our confidence in Brian Mulroney at the end of the 1984 election campaign, hoping that justice for all regions would result. Much of a positive nature has been done by his government. The NEP was removed in favour of the Western Accord, the Federal Investment Review Agency was defanged, the problems of western agriculture received new attention, and Western Canada generally for the first time since 1958 enjoyed a place in the political sun.

The CF-18 issue arose during 1986 after the British-owned Ultramar Canada closed a 65-year-old Montreal refinery it had bought from Gulf Canada. The resulting loss of 350 jobs in East Montreal caused an uproar for weeks afterwards in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Mulroney appointed a ministerial committee, headed by Robert de Cotret, to consider ways of fostering growth in the Montreal region. The pending contract to maintain 138 CF-18 jet fighters, which had been purchased from the United States in 1980, became for de Cotret a convenient means of creating future-oriented jobs in Greater Montreal. A major obstacle was the fact that a team of 75 technicians from the three federal departments involved had already decided that the tender by Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg, a 1,500-employee business owned by Rolls Royce, was better in terms of demonstrated expertise and about four million dollars cheaper than the competing bid by Canadair of Montreal.

Westerners know that the aircraft industry in the U.S. is almost entirely located in western states, mostly Washington and California, whereas in Canada most of it is now in Toronto and Montreal. Air Canada, for example, began in 1937 in Winnipeg as the geographical centre of the country but later moved its head office to Montreal. It also moved a maintenance base to Montreal from Winnipeg in the late 1960’s, uprooting several hundred Winnipeg families in the process. That Western Canadian sensitivities about the industry were acute was something many members of the Mulroney cabinet simply never seemed to understand.

In the spring of 1986, following the inter-departmental assessment, de Cotret as president of the Treasury Board overruled the recommendation, and ruled that Canadair would obtain the contract. Almost four months of feverish lobbying by Quebeckers followed. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa met with the prime minister in the early fall about the matter. The full Treasury Board of six ministers, including only one from Western Canada (Frank Oberle), decided finally in October that Canadair should have the contract. The decision was announced by de Cotret.

The reaction in the West was both immediate and uniformly vehement. Had the integrity of the tendering system disappeared? Had Bristol not submitted both a cheaper and technically superior bid? The president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, John Doole, declared: "Winnipeg has a good sense of what’s right and wrong and we have long memories...nothing has changed. The basic political system still heavily favours the mass block of the eastern provinces." Bristol indicated that it would be required to lay off 100 employees in its Winnipeg aircraft maintenance division, and that it would probably sue Ottawa for the $5 million it had spent in preparing its bid in good faith. More bad news came when it was revealed that Canadair, whose competence was in building aircraft rather than maintaining them, would have to spend $30 million to purchase the technology from Bendix-Avelex of Toronto, which itself had been an associate in the Bristol tender. The taxpayer would have to pay for this. Many Westerners concluded that on this issue at least the Mulroney government was indistinguishable from the regime it had succeeded. James Richardson of Winnipeg, a former Liberal Defence Minister, was blunt: "The CF- 18 decision is going to be one of the landmarks leading to a greater degree of independence. Westerners are being prevented by the greed of Ontario and Quebec from building an advanced, industrial and technological society on top of their great agriculture and energy base."

Every indicator of western public opinion on the decision taken afterwards showed overwhelming rejection. An Environics Research Group poll done not long after the CF- 18 decision was announced found that "84 percent of Western Canadians -- the highest of any area of the country -- think the Government does not treat all parts of Canada equally." An Angus Reid poll released in November 1986 showed that in B.C. 71% of those surveyed said it was an unfair decision and in the Alberta and Manitoba-Saskatchewan region, 60 and 67% respectively condemned the decision. Only six percent saw it as fair in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The only national survey indicated that 46% of the people across the country felt the award was unfair, while only 29% said it was fair. The Calgary Herald’s editorial comment indicated the bitterness in the West: "Once again, the West is excluded by the power brokers.... Instead of a national government, we have national decisions made on a selfish regional basis for purely political reasons. There is nothing unusual in that. Just add it to the long catalogue of injustices done to the West."

Peter McCormick and David Elton, Alberta professors of political science and serious spokesmen for the West, singled out the National Energy Policy (1980), and the CF-18 contract decision (1986) as the issues in this decade "which have particularly infuriated Canadians, and which highlighted with unusual clarity the West’s powerless quasi-colonial status within Confederation. For many, they have come to symbolize national unfairness and regional impotence. Both decisions dealt a serious blow to the region’s economic future, and both were made by a federal government to whom other considerations were simply more important than the economic prospects of the West." Additional salt was added to the wound earlier this year when departmental documents indicated that the additional cost to all taxpayers of awarding the contract to Canadair over Bristol was approximately $26 million dollars, not the much smaller amount implied by de Cotret’s comments at the time of his announcement. In early 1988, a $250 million contract for heavy duty military trucks was awarded to Urban Transport Development Corporation of Kingston, Ontario. Another bidder, Bombardier Inc. of Montreal, had committed itself, if successful, to build the vehicles at Cochrane, Alberta. The bidding process functioned cleanly on this occasion, but many Westerners noted that when a western firm had submitted a better and cheaper bid on the CF-18 contract, special considerations were invoked to site the work in Central Canada.

Broadcasting Central Canada

Many Westerners think the English language television service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation should be called the Toronto Broadcasting Corporation. Although the CBC’s overall appropriation from all Canadians for 1986/87 was $782.7 million, approximately 10% of the complete English television programs shown nationally originated from outside Metropolitan Toronto. As of late 1987, CBC president Pierre Juneau conceded to me that only 16% of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation permanent staff lives in the prairie provinces and British Columbia. Based on the corporation’s operating budget, 10.7% of its funds were directly allocated to components west of Ontario.

The corporation’s local stations are permitted only about an hour daily for local news and current affairs in contrast to CBC English radio, which allots seven or eight hours daily in prime time for local programs. The result is that virtually everything appearing on the screen in prime or any other time is chosen by CBC staff in Toronto. "The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has an important and unique task -- guarding our cultural heritage and explaining us to ourselves," observes western historian David Bercuson. "It is difficult to see how this can be done as long as the corporation continues to dictate taste and ideas from Toronto."

The virtual elimination of regional television broadcasting has evolved gradually. Locally planned programs that reflect the real flavour of life in each region and reflect community creativity nationally have all but vanished on our so-called national broadcasting network.

A Committee of Inquiry on the National Broadcasting Service was established by the CRTC in March 1977 to determine how the CBC was fulfilling its mandate, particularly with respect to public affairs, news and information programming. The Chairman of the CRTC at the time, Harry Boyle, concluded: "By overcentralizing production and programming in Toronto and Montreal, and by the orientation of the CBC to events in and around those centres, the CBC has failed to serve ‘the special needs of geographic regions’.... The CBC has thereby, in the Commission’s view, failed in its very important responsibility to ‘contribute to the development of national unity’."

The chapter of Boyle’s report entitled "Cultural Apartheid" includes the line: "The regions of English Canada, from sea to sea, exist chiefly during the summer vacation." The Commission inquiry judged that centralizing the CBC in Montreal and Toronto was one reason for its failure to include adequately all parts of the country. Some letters from citizens across the land were also quoted in Boyle’s report. A British Columbia resident wrote:

"Regional access, at least in the West, has become more limited with each passing year. It is now practically non-existent. Local writers and producers have largely disappeared. Toronto selects, Toronto dictates, Toronto produces, and the talent pool shrinks accordingly." Another voice from British Columbia put his point even more forcefully: "They have sowed alienation, and will reap full-scale separatist movement eventually in every region.,’

More than ten years have passed since the Committee of Inquiry published its report saying clearly that the CBC was failing to foster Canadian unity. Has the Corporation taken the necessary actions to respond to the criticism expressed both by the CRTC and the public? The Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on Broadcasting Policy reported to the Minister of Communications in 1986. "No experience during our year-long work," it said, "touched us as deeply as hearing the submissions on our tours of eastern, western and northern Canada. The notion of regional alienation so often invoked as a bloodless, abstract cliché in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, came alive with passion and visceral reality."

The Task Force spoke of the current concerns of Canadians everywhere who want to be better reflected by the public broadcasting system and who want more opportunity to participate in it. It went on: "There is widespread feeling that our broadcasting system, like so many other Canadian institutions, reflects reality largely as it is understood in Toronto and Montreal. Similarly, there is strong belief it also reflects the mainstream elites of central Canada. As a result, Westerners, Easterners, Northerners, women, natives, ethnic groups and minority groups in general feel that Canadian broadcasting neither belongs to them nor reflects them."

During 1985, Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper supervised five students who during a four-month period monitored four of the corporation’s major AM radio network shows: As It Happens, Sunday Morning, Morningside, and The House. Over 78% of the 1,400 stories examined originated in Central Canada. The obvious solution, notes Cooper, is to allot all regions more input into national shows in both production and broadcast.

Charles Feaver, senior policy advisor to the Manitoba Communications Department, complained to the House of Commons Communications Committee in mid-1987 of excessive CBC program centralization in the two central provinces. According to him, "Ontario and Quebec, with 62% of Canada’s population, spent 81% of CBC-TV ‘s combined network and regional budget. By contrast, Manitoba, with 4.2% of the population, spends 2.6% of the budget, primarily on programs produced for distribution within this region. Manitoba’s weekly contribution of regularly scheduled programming... for the network totals an hour and 15 minutes, with none scheduled in prime time."

Douglas Smith, Associate Deputy Minister of the Saskatchewan Communications Ministry, also confronted the House Committee on regionalism in national broadcasting. "How," he asked, "can we exercise our right to express ourselves to the rest of the country when the CBC, for example, spends 70% of its program production budget in central Canada and a paltry 30% on regional broadcasting in the rest of the country? The CBC’s own budget figures show that Saskatchewan’s taxpayers contribute nearly 3% of CBC’s budget, yet the television program costs by province show that less than 2% of the programming budget is spent in this province."

Canada’s aboriginal peoples voiced concerns about the failure by the CBC to reflect their unique identity. Maria Campbell, a producer and writer with Saskatchewan’s Katip Aim Media Production, said: "We find that as an independent native production house we really are the forgotten people.... A real problem for us as an independent house the availability of developmental moneys, the unavailability in a lot of cases for broadcast time." Northern Canadians had only a slightly different perspective. Ernie Lennie, Vice-President of the Native Communications Society of the Western N.W.T. (serving 28 western Arctic Dene and Métis communities), told the same hearing: "Communications in our region are dominated by forces and agencies that do not reflect the culture and the society of the Dene and Métis people who are in the majority."

The same basic message was heard at hearings at eleven public forums sponsored by the Canadian Association for Adult Education in the Spring of 1987. Audiences in Western Canada evidently returned again and again to the need for our national public broadcasting network to reflect local needs and regional aspirations. Fil Fraser, an Edmonton broadcaster and a member of the Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on Broadcast Policy, spoke of his experience as a CBC broadcaster when Alberta was first made a separate CBC region in 1972-73: "The net result of the whole initiative, which was supposed to bring more programming to this region, was that they built another storey on the building Out there on 75th Street and added another layer of bureaucracy. No more programming was made. In fact some disappeared. So the reality that we face in this country about CBC regions is that it’s a sham. The regions are not producing programming because they have no access to the network’s schedule and they don’t have any money with which to produce."

In December, 1987, the CRTC granted the CBC a three-year licence to provide a national, 24-hour all-news cable television channel. Even as staunch a defender of Toronto interests (if not of the CBC) as The Toronto Sun was moved to call the decision "a massive insult to independent broadcasters, to Westerners and all people whose hunger for round-the-clock news this channel is supposed to satisfy." Edmonton broadcaster Charles Allard, who also applied for the licence but was turned down by the CRTC, spoke for many in the region afterwards: "An historic opportunity to decentralize and diversify electronic news and information has been lost. The CBC now has a stranglehold on television news and public affairs information in Canada and this is not in the best interest of our country."

The CBC’s dominant role in the news and current affairs field of English television broadcasting continues essentially undisturbed and so do its cultural and regional biases. Its mandate to foster a national spirit, to recognize the truly multicultural nature of the country and to contribute to building national unity continues for the most part to be honoured more often in the breach, except for those viewers who live near Highway 401 in southern Ontario. The indifference of senior CBC management to the other regions has encouraged the same attitude toward the corporation among at least some Western Canadians, myself included, who would prefer to be its friends.

1982 Constitutional Cake

It is difficult to isolate the full regional consequences of the 1980-82 constitution-related events, partly because many Westerners concluded that Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional goals were closely allied to those of his detested NEP.

An opinion survey of 1,370 residents of Western Canada in October 1980 at about the time the NEP was introduced indicated that a disturbing 28% of them agreed that "Western Canadians get so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own." By March of 1981, the mood had deteriorated so much that a second survey of Westerners on the same question indicated that 36% agreed. In British Columbia, support for this view had risen from 29% in 1980 to 37%; among Albertans the increase over the same period was from 30% to an ominous 49%. Among Saskatchewan and Manitoba respondents, agreement actually declined a little from 25% in October, 1980, to 23% in March, 1981. Of equal concern, 61% of persons in all four western provinces surveyed in March, 1981 agreed with the statement, "The West has sufficient resources and industry to survive without the rest of Canada." Seventy-nine percent of all Westerners agreed with the companion statement, "The West usually gets ignored in national politics because the political parties depend upon Quebec and Ontario for most of their votes." Between October, 1980 and March, 1981 support for outright western independence grew from five percent to seven percent, and eleven percent in Alberta. Part of the worsening western attitude doubtless came from both the process and the substance of Trudeau’s constitutional package.

What happened between referendum day in Quebec on May 20, 1980 and March, 1981? Almost immediately after the rejection of sovereignty association by a majority of Quebeckers, Liberal Justice Minister Jean Chrétien visited all provincial capitals except Quebec City. All ten premiers and Prime Minister Trudeau agreed the next month on a twelve-item agenda to be studied over the summer. In early July, however, the federal government revealed its new demand for greater powers over the economy if any other powers were to be surrendered to the provinces. A memorandum from Michael Pitfield, clerk of the Privy Council, was leaked in the late summer outlining a federal strategy for unilateral patriation of the constitution by Ottawa.

The atmosphere darkened further a few weeks later when the eleven first ministers met in Ottawa. A confidential memorandum prepared by Michael Kirby, an advisor to the Prime Minister, giving some constitutional options for Ottawa, was also leaked, causing a major uproar both among the premiers and afterwards with the public across the country. Part of it suggested that Alberta might be isolated on the very sensitive western issue of control of natural resources on which the western provinces were otherwise united if the cabinet could strike a deal with Premier Blakeney of Saskatchewan. It also outlined a strategy by which the prime minister might patriate the constitution unilaterally, and attempt to avoid a court challenge as to whether unilateral patriation was constitutional. The Kirby memorandum implied anything but good faith in the process by the federal cabinet. The televised first ministers’ conference, whether in consequence of this, or because of competing visions of the country, or both, ended in a stalemate on all twelve agenda items.

In mid-September, 1981, a caucus meeting of Liberal MPs and senators ended with a declaration by its chairman that the caucus was "ready to go to war." A few weeks later, Prime Minister Trudeau indicated on national television that he would patriate the constitution without provincial consent and simultaneously have enacted by the British Parliament a charter of rights which would apply in both the federal and provincial jurisdictions. Joe Clark on behalf of the Progressive Conservative Opposition denounced the proposal on the same evening; Edward Broadbent of the New Democrats indicated general support for the package, thereby splitting his own caucus on east-west lines. Premier William Davis of Ontario was so enthusiastic about the prime minister’s proposals that he urged Conservative MPs to break with their leader on the issue, a suggestion that would not soon be forgotten by Western Canadians.

In mid-October, all the ten premiers met; five of them, including western premiers William Bennett, Peter Lougheed and Sterling Lyon, said that they would challenge the government’s constitutional proposal in the courts. A Gallup poll released in early December indicated that 58% of Canadians opposed Ottawa’s plan to patriate without first obtaining considerable provincial support.

As 1981 began, Trudeau’s government rewrote part of the charter of rights to strengthen it. The Conservative opposition in the House moved at the end of January that the government’s constitutional resolution before Parliament be amended to specify that the charter would not apply to provincial jurisdiction until the provincial legislatures approved it by means of a new constitutional amendment formula. A committee of the British Parliament considering the issue recommended at about the same date that the Thatcher government reject the package because of the indicated lack of provincial support. In mid-February, four New Democrat MPs from Saskatchewan announced that they would vote against the constitutional resolution, now through public hearings at committee level, for the same reason. Premier Blakeney, whom the federal cabinet had attempted unsuccessfully to win over with an additional natural resources amendment, announced that he too would oppose the resolution.

By mid-March, 1981, the New Democrats dropped four points in the Gallup poll and the PCs were only five points behind the Liberals. When the government introduced a form of closure in the House of Commons in mid-March on its constitutional resolution, Conservative MPs began a filibuster that lasted for two entire weeks. It ended only when the Newfoundland Court of Appeal, differing sharply from the majority view of the Manitoba Appeal Court on the same issues, ruled unanimously that the resolution was unconstitutional. The government immediately agreed to put off a final vote until after the Supreme Court of Canada decided the issue. A Gallup poll published in mid-May indicated that 66% of both prairie and B.C. residents in effect opposed the government’s proposal that the British Parliament should be asked to amend our constitution and add a charter of rights, before sending it to Canada.

In mid-April all of the premiers except for William Davis and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick (the "Gang of Eight") met and produced an agreement calling for patriation alone, the Alberta amendment formula (which required, for constitutional amendments, resolutions passed by Parliament and the legislatures of seven of the provinces containing fifty percent of the national population), and no charter of rights. Under the amendment formula favoured by Pierre Trudeau and Edward Broad-bent, the legislatures of Ontario and Quebec alone would have vetoes on any constitutional amendment, whereas full legislative support in fully three Western and three Atlantic provinces would be required to stop a proposal. The Federal-Provincial Relations Office in Ottawa conceded to me at the time that it knew of no other federal democracy in the world which assigned, as proposed, differing weight to residents of different provinces for constitutional amendment purposes. The notion offended Western Canadians deeply.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled at the end of September, by a majority of seven to two, that the Trudeau package was legal, but six of the nine judges also said that it was contrary to our constitutional conventions. A first-ministers’ conference was set for early November, 1981 to attempt one last time to seek an agreement. During the late night of November 4th, a compromise was reached which was acceptable to all first ministers except René Levesque. This package quickly passed the House of Commons, Senate, and British Parliament and was proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth in mid-April 1982 at a large outdoor ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

The price in terms of national cohesion was painfully high in the West. Even those of us who favoured an entrenched charter of rights, on the premise that some basic rights should not depend on the result of any elections, were deeply troubled. We felt that a so-called national government which held our region in barely concealed contempt had tried to relegate us to second-class status in its preferred amendment formula. Not very many Westerners cheered the proclamation of the new constitution despite the widespread western support at the time for an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The active role of Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow in the final compromise and the insult thrown at them -- "Western Liberals" -- contributed to the overwhelming defeat of the Blakeney government in the April, 1982 Saskatchewan election. A separatist MLA, Gordon Kesler, who campaigned in part on the view that the new constitution would remove Canadians’ right to own property, was actually elected in an Alberta by-election in Olds-Didsbury. Peter Lougheed later recognized that the federal government’s refusal under New Democratic pressure to include a property rights’ provision in the Charter of Rights contributed to Kesler’s victory.

The issue of an "alternative constitutional vision," in Roger Gibbins’s phrase, was probably nowhere a burning western issue during the 1980-82 period because of our severe economic difficulties. The long-standing inability of majoritarian parliamentary government to address the problems of the West had not yet ignited a movement to reform central institutions such as the House of Commons and Senate. A consequence of this was that none of the western premiers sought institutional reforms; nor did either of the opposition parties in the House of Commons. The British Columbia government did push for Senate reform, but won little support from any other quarter. The earliest constitutional proposals of Prime Minister Trudeau, most notably his amendment formula, did nothing but entrench regional conflict. The final amendment formula endorsed by all four western premiers reinforced the perception that provincial governments alone speak for their voters in national affairs because future constitutional amendments became solely the prerogative of the eleven legislatures. Any citizen participation in the process as present in other federal democracies (Australia and Switzerland, for example) was excluded.

In terms of the more fundamental problem of effective western representation in national institutions, the Constitutional Act of 1982 achieved absolutely nothing. The subject was not even on the agenda. Nothing was done to initiate a more effective role for western MPs in policy-making, to weaken party discipline, or to ensure that national institutions became more sensitive to regional concerns. Nor did it set in motion the process of meaningful reform to the Canadian political system. "In the Constitution Act," concludes Gibbins, "we missed the opportunity to organize regional conflict out of the political system, or at least to reorder our institutional life so that regional conflict could be moderated and contained. Instead, the Constitution Act takes a troubled political past and casts it in constitutional cement for an uncertain future." Many Westerners agree.

Meech Lake

The Meech Lake constitutional accord, which achieved the very important goal of bringing Quebec into the constitutional family, represents the loss of another opportunity to reform national institutions so that regional interests can be represented effectively by national politicians within national institutions. As a result, many Western Canadians feel strongly that the 1987 accord does not adequately address our own long-term concerns and aspirations.

A process by which eleven first ministers, relying on party discipline to obtain majority support in their legislatures later on, exercised exclusive control over constitution-making should be unacceptable to all Canadian democrats. Western Canadians who know our own constitutional history can only say "Amen" to the objections raised by the Yukon and Northwest Territories governments and by native leaders. The Report of the Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons examining the Meech Lake proposal, perhaps acknowledging that their public hearings had been little more than a charade, conceded that in future both "legislators and the public must be encouraged to participate in the process of constitutional change before and not after First Ministers meet to make decisions." The constitutional process is too important to be left to first ministers exclusively ever again.

In replacing the seven-province amendment formula of the 1982 agreement- with a unanimity rule for all changes involving institutions like the Senate -- each province now has an absolute veto over Senate reform. In practice, this could freeze the status quo for institutions which Western Canadians want reformed, so that Canadians in all regions will for once feel themselves to be full and equal partners in Confederation. The Meech Lake accord also says that the government of a province "may" submit names to fill Senate vacancies arising in the interval before our first ministers can achieve the Senate reform which is mandated in the accord. The federal government, says the agreement, "shall" appoint new senators from the names submitted by the provinces. What happens if a province refuses to submit any names is left unsaid.

The constitutional reform committee of the Canada West Foundation says that "giving the premiers a share of the Senate pork barrel represents more than just the tragedy of a squandered opportunity: it is the Achilles heel of the Meech Lake Accord, a move that will seriously limit the capacities of Canada’s national government while paralyzing any attempt to repair or contain the damage." The committee thus urged all provincial governments to provide no names of would-be senators until meaningful reforms "have been ratified, and tied to a timetable and a procedure for drawing up those amendments." Others, myself included, have argued that if one province would fill its next senate vacancy by means of a province-wide election, then other provinces would soon be obliged by public opinion to follow suit as proved to be the result when progressive Oregon first began to elect its U.S. Senators in state-wide elections. The momentum toward a fully elected Senate might quickly become unstoppable. Should this occur, one of the major weaknesses of Meech Lake might be overcome.


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