The Walrus

A Very Civil War

by Ken Alexander
Sightings · From the January 2005 magazine
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Clinging perilously to a minority government, Prime Minister Paul Martin is trying to articulate a vision that will knit Canadians together and push the Liberals to majority status in the next election. The trouble is, by parceling out forty-one billion health care dollars (over ten years) to the provinces and territories without significant federal strings attached and insisting only on progress reports, he has made regional autonomy real, turned Ottawa into a simple cash-redistribution house and raised a key question: what do we want our federation to do?

Returning from September’s health care conference, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein wasted no time providing an answer: Nothing, or as little as possible, and stay out of our backyard oil patch. Premier Jean Charest, flush with separate deals for his newly distinct society, went home giving the impression that the sovereigntist Parti Québécois was no longer necessary, and that a precedent had been set for future negotiations. Maître chez nous. While Charest’s Liberals lost three of four September by-elections (two to the Parti Québécois—not nationalist enough, I suppose), Klein welcomed Imperial Oil’s head office move to Calgary as perfectly natural: power moves where power lies.

Notwithstanding the Throne Speech and parliamentary rhetoric, after caving in to the feudal provincial chieftains on health care, Martin doesn’t have much of a Canadian job description left. The die has been cast. Indeed, his September performance in New York speaking to the United Nations member states suggests that the prime minister is most at home when he is away. Canada, he proclaimed, is committed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan outside of Kabul, committed to solving the disastrous situation in Sudan, and committed to UN reform. Martin in foreign cities of influence is a very different man and orator than Martin in Ottawa addressing the incessant health care and equalization demands of provincial premiers.

In truth, Martin’s UN speech succeeded mainly in putting Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Minister of Defence Bill Graham in a bind. You can hear the Liberal cabinet trembling: “Paul, you were superb at the UN, but, after the health-care deal, Finance says there’s little left in the kitty for foreign adventures. Besides, with federal and Quebec culture ministers describing themselves as interchangeable parts, no one is quite sure who speaks for Canada.” One can also imagine Secretary of State for Infrastructure and Communities John Godfrey saying, “Apparently, there’s no money left for your cities initiative, Paul, and municipalities are going to remain constitutionally mired between brothels and saloons.”

“Asymmetric federalism” is a charitable description for what is happening on the domestic front. Decentralization toward dissolution is more to the point, and more concordant with Canadian history. (To schoolchildren, word battles over centralization versus decentralization of power may be yawn-inducing, but it is Canada’s ongoing, very civil war, and the balance has now shifted to the provinces.) How inspiring it would be to hear echoes of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: “Quebecers, Albertans, English, French, Hindu, they all have the same rights. No one is special.” Instead, in his rush to placate the premiers over health care, Martin has ceded the point: Quebec blood is different, Alberta’s case exceptional, and the federation can become a series of “sovereignty associations.” On child care, the environment, aboriginal issues, etc., expect the provinces to report dutifully, fudge the numbers or claim special status, and for federal atm machines to keep churning.

If Mr. Martin refuses to learn from his Liberal brethren—i.e., from Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau, who both believed that prime ministerial leadership meant keeping the baying premiers at bay—perhaps he would consider leafing through the policies of Canada’s now discredited red Tory tradition. He might even begin with John A. Macdonald.

Canadians bristle anytime anyone suggests that our actions are simply a reflex of America’s actions. But it is no coincidence that Canada was formed just two short years after the US Civil War. Having watched this brutal attempt to stand up to a big and oppressive faraway government (the South versus Washington), Macdonald believed that for Canada to work, it must establish power in the centre, strictly limit regional autonomy, and preach the virtues of civic nationalism.

I’m left wondering if a true federalist still exists in Ottawa? Perhaps, between brokering more give-aways, the prime minister might find time to read or re-read James M. McPherson’s Is Blood Thicker Than Water?, a short book detailing the parallels between the Southern secession movement (which led to the US Civil War) and Quebec “ethnic nationalism.” He might also have another look at Stephen Harper’s infamous Alberta “firewall” letter.