Western alienation is the one good-news story to have emerged from the November election, and it is doubtless one of the signs of well-being in the Canadian polity. Much like the low-grade fever a healthy body might develop in response to an ailment, a revival of Western separatism is a sign of vitality.
Judging from public flap over rekindled threats to national unity, however, I’m in a rejoicing minority. Peter Mansbridge of the public broadcaster certainly grew grimmer than usual when broaching the topic with PM, Jean Chrétien, in a year-end interview. Never shy about privileging his own values, the PM repeatedly referred to Westerners during the interview as “they,” doing his utmost to deepen the “us” versus “them” divide. “They think we are too centrist,” he said, “and they like to have right-wing governments.”
Well, here’s a scary thought for Mr. Chrétien: According to the results of an election study published in the Dec. 18 Globe, the PM and his patriciate may not be that different from those rube hicks in the West. In fact, the substantive ideological differences between Westerners and Ontarians are few.
On immigration, tougher juvenile sentencing, the death penalty, and race-based preferential policies, the gap in opinion between the regions is narrow. The right to bear arms is an exception. But, even on this issue, the differences are likely rooted in urban/rural—more than regional— distinctions.
Same thing with the economy: Canadians, West and East, share a penchant for dirigisme. Unaware as they are that government make-work schemes are predicated on taxing, borrowing or inflating the money supply, Canadians believe government has a role in job creation. Neither are tax cuts a top priority.
If Canadians are not divided over The Issues, why the regional fault lines? The Liberals, you recall, won 97 percent of the seats in Ontario and only 16 percent of Western seats. The Canadian Alliance took 73 percent of the seats in the West and only 2 percent in Ontario.
Some Western commentators explained the election outcome by alluding to characteristic Western rugged individualism; a preference for self-government and direct democracy over the administrative leviathan ensconced in Ottawa.
True, there are scattered islands of individualism in the West, predominantly in Alberta and in rural areas. But, in general, the survey doesn’t support this romantic portrayal. Here in B.C., we bleat like any Easterner at the hint that individuals should be permitted to spend their money on purchasing health care. We applaud discriminating affirmative action laws, and we generally frame government inroads into our lives as the mark of a civilized society.
There were the pundits who identified the source of disenfranchisement in our first-past-the-post system of election. The regional gap narrows when votes—not seats—are considered, giving the Liberals 51 percent of the vote in Ontario and 25 percent in the West. Roughly the opposite holds for the Alliance. As one commentator inveighed, the electoral system of ridings is “a disgrace to democracy.”
This tack serves to obscure a more prosaic truth. In as much as democracy is the tyranny of the majority, it is always a disgrace, and it is certainly not the thing that protects individual freedoms. If you belong to the 40.8 percent of Canadian voters who chose the Liberals, then democracy becomes you. If you are among the 59.2 percent of voters who did not elect the Liberals, then majority rule has little to recommend it.
Indeed, democracy can easily descend into tyranny if not accompanied by strict limitations on the power and size of the central government. The American Founding Fathers knew this. Thomas Jefferson viewed extreme decentralization as the bulwark of the liberty and rights of man. Consequently, the United States was created as a pact between sovereign states with which the ultimate power lay. Sadly, it has progressed from a decentralized republic into a highly consolidated one.
Canada, on the other hand, was born of a highly centralized regime, and has always cleaved to an expansionist national policy. Yet, paradoxically, Canada has outstripped the United States in spurring powerful regional movements. This blessing may, in part, be due to the once-sensible courts, which, until 1949, interpreted the Constitution Act, 1867, in a manner favorable to provincial power.
Western welfare states these days have mixed economies, large portions of which are nationalized, regulated, or subject to government monopoly and cartelization. Governments—federal, provincial, and municipal—in the United States, Canada and Britain, now consume half of the national income. Wealth in Alberta is being created despite Mr. Chrétien’s government, not because of it.
Western Canadians sense that the more power bureaucrats subsume, the less power they themselves retain. They ask themselves, how did the PM come to threaten them with “tough love?” Why can he punish their province for making decisions on health care? A Western province elects a senator; The All-Powerful One dismisses him. Above all, the PM gets to handpick the Supreme Court of Canada. Shielded from the popular vote, and with Charter imprimatur, these oligarchs are rapidly usurping the rights of locals to shape their communities.
The discontent Westerners experience lies not in the substance of the issues, but in the process itself. The pathology caused by an overreaching federal government is fueling the low-grade fever of freedom, and all hail to that.
©2001 Ilana Mercer
THE GLOBE AND MAIL