Date: Wednesday, June 30 2004
by Paul Harris
Nobody really got what they wanted in this election. But the noise that has been coming out of Alberta since Monday night is deafening. Cries of ‘sell-out’ directed at Ontario; cries for separation from the rest of Canada; complaints that other Canadians, and Ontarians in particular, are too stupid to be trusted with a vote.
Alberta has traditionally been a stronghold for the Conservative party and its various predecessors and this election proved once again how strong that hold is. Two previous Prime Ministers are generally thought to have come from the West — Joe Clark and the Ontario-born John Diefenbaker. In fact, in addition to those two, the following Prime Ministers have represented ridings west of Ontario: John Turner, Kim Campbell, R.B. Bennett, W.L.M. King, Arthur Meighen, John A. MacDonald. It is disingenuous to complain that the West is ‘never’ represented in Ottawa. But Albertans are hopping mad right now because another Ontario-born conservative, Stephen Harper, failed to sell his message to Canadians in any great numbers — except in Alberta. The accusation is that Alberta is left alone, unrepresented or underrepresented, even though they have sent most of their Conservative candidates to Ottawa.
In the Globe and Mail on June 30 there is a quote in Roy MacGregor’s column from Elizabeth Craine, a disgruntled Albertan who has been a conservative supporter back to the Diefenbaker days. “There is no Canada. There's Quebec. There's the Maritimes. There's Ontario. And there's the West. They're all different. Let's wake up to reality -- it's time for us to form our own country.”
With the greatest of respect to Ms Craine, that is churlish and childish in the extreme. Throughout the ‘West’, there are a variety of views and goals and the various parts of the West are also different. Surely no one thinks that Vancouver and Prince George and Wetaskiwin and Calgary and Moosomin and Dauphin have a whole lot in common. And the areas between them elected people from three parties, plus an independent; that’s what a democracy is all about. In Alberta, 26 of 28 seats went to the Conservatives which suggests Albertans are firmly Tory blue and on the side of conservatism. But, in fact, less than 69% of Albertans voted for the Conservatives. Despite that, Alberta gets to plunk 93% of its seats underneath Conservative bums. About 40% of Albertans didn’t bother to vote at all.
One could readily argue that Alberta is sending more Conservatives to Ottawa than the vote warrants and that the rest of Canada is being subjected to Alberta’s whims. Instead, it is much easier to simply say the results of this election are unsatisfactory so Alberta should take its ball and glove and go play somewhere else.
Albertans are complaining that Canadians, Ontarians in particular, have failed to embrace change. In MacGregor’s column there is another quote from an email message he says he received from a reader in North Vancouver which condemns "the tyranny of the majority". The tyranny of the majority? Presumably, this reader thinks that democracy is a bad thing since it has the disastrous result of sometimes actually giving the greatest number of people what they want. He goes on to say: "We are mad, angry and ticked off to no end at the lack of vision and need for change that Ontario is once again subjecting us to."
Well, Canadians outside the West could readily argue that they are being subjected to a strong Conservative opposition because of the pigheadedness of the West. A need for change was evident to all Canadians but change simply for the sake of change is foolish. Albertans may be able to see virtue in a Stephen Harper-style Canada but most other Canadians are unconvinced. In fact, a sizable number see Harper as a villain eager to turn us into ‘USA North’ and are unwilling to oust the devil they know for what they think might be even worse. It is useless to argue whether Albertans are more clearheaded or more addle-pated than the rest of Canadians.
While I hate to equate Canada, in any way, to the United States, look at the results of their last national election. There was a sea of red and a sea of blue on the election results maps. And primarily, the conservative votes (for Bush) went to the states in the middle. Clearly, the United States has polarized election preferences just as we do in Canada but you never hear talk that Oklahoma and Kansas should just pick up and wander off over the next ridge where they can start their own country.
The reality is that our system does not send to Ottawa a reasonable representation of the nation’s voter preferences. The New Democratic Party has been talking about proportional representation as a fairer distribution of votes. For instance, in a proportional system, the results from the June 28 election would have given us this: Liberal – 113 seats, Conservative – 92, NDP – 48, Bloc 38, Other (Greens, Independents, etc.) – 17 seats. That certainly does seem to better represent Canadians but the mechanics of this process is not simple and it is hard to see how the various regions would get proper representation. Such a system would also seriously interfere with the process of voting for a candidate rather than a party, which does not appear to be a positive step forward.
Still it is obvious that something needs to be done with our electoral system to ensure that fairness and practicality give us good government. So here is my first proposal: forget the notion of any part of Canada separating from the rest the country and simply eliminate the provinces. Rather than have ten provincial (and three territory) governments, break the country into smaller bite-sized pieces based on geography and common interest. Even in the hated Ontario, it must be obvious to all that the needs and interests of those in Toronto are very different from those in, say, Ailsa Craig or Sodom, and different again from those north of the Transcanada Highway. It must be obvious that the farmers of southern Saskatchewan have different needs and interests than the trappers and loggers north of Prince Albert.
Again, I have to use the United States as an example. Despite being a somewhat lesser country than Canada (in the sense of land mass), it is broken into 50 pieces where we, despite our large mass, make do with 13. Creating a larger number of smaller entities based on geography and common economic interests, each of which sends delegates based on population to a strong central government would be a more effective choice than what we presently have. But voices would be more easily lost as they often are in the U.S. House of Representatives.
My second proposal is the one I personally favour: eliminate the provinces and replace them with nothing. It is a layer of government which serves no useful purpose, in my view. A strong central government would set up Ministries that were staffed by people from the various geographical areas who catered to and advocated for those regions. People live in our geography, not the arbitrary lines drawn on the map of Canada.
But to get back to my purpose, I have this to say to Albertans: this was a fair fight, played by rules you knew, and you’re simply unhappy with the result. Rather than complain that others across the country aren’t smart enough to embrace change, consider for a moment that change itself isn’t what was rejected; just the change that was proposed. This election was Harper’s for the taking but the rest of the country fails to accept that the new Conservative party is a viable alternative. There are too many unknowns because the party has yet to establish much in the way of policy and because it is clear that there is a large ultra-right radical fringe within the party. The change offered was simply unpalatable to too many people.
To those Albertans who want to separate, I say go if you must. Just make sure you take all of Lloydminster with you.