Dissatisfied Ontario no longer happy camper of Confederation

TheStar.com – Opinion –  Ontarians once thought the country worked fairly well for them but a new survey reveals a growing sense that the province is not getting its fair share
Published On Wed Feb 24 201.  Matthew Mendelsohn

Two of the defining features of Canada’s federal makeup since World War II have been Ontarians’ lack of provincial identity, along with a sentiment among Ontarians that the federation generally worked in Ontario’s interests. New public opinion data suggest that some of these attitudes are shifting.

In our postwar history, premiers elsewhere in the country were often ready to fan the flames of regional grievance by highlighting federal mistreatment – both real and exaggerated – of their provinces.

Premiers from other parts of Canada could count on a sympathetic ear among their populations because of a strong sense of provincial identity and a common belief that the federal government was in fact governing in the interests of the “centre” – namely Ontario.

People in Ontario felt the country worked fairly well for them, that the federal government had Ontario’s best interests at heart and that speaking out in favour of one’s provincial interest was, well, “provincial.”

The presence of strong regional identities and various grievances in other provinces, and the comparative lack of such narratives in Ontario, was one of the defining elements of Canadian political culture.

The Mowat Centre conducted new polling to determine whether these features of Canadian political culture are changing. They are, and if they continue to change, the implications for the federation could be far-reaching.

Our survey tracks the evolution of Ontarians’ views on a number of key polling questions that were asked in the late ’90s through until 2004. Those surveys asked Canadians whether their province received its fair share of respect in the federation, fair share of federal spending and fair share of influence on national decisions. From 1998 to 2004, Ontarians were unique among Canadians in being satisfied that their home province was well-treated on all three of these dimensions: respect, money and influence.

Today, however, Ontarians resemble other Canadians in believing that there are inequities in the federation that must be addressed.

Our poll found that 63 per cent of Ontarians say that their province does not receive its fair share of transfers from the federal government. When this same question was asked in 1998, just 37 per cent of Ontarians felt the province received less than it deserved in federal spending.

In 2004, just 27 per cent of Ontarians believed the province was not treated with the respect it deserved in the country; today that number has risen to 51 per cent. And today, 50 per cent of Ontarians say their province’s influence on national decisions is decreasing, while only 8 per cent say that it is increasing.

On some of these questions, Ontarians are still somewhat more satisfied with their province’s status than residents of other provinces, but whereas a decade ago Ontarians were uniquely satisfied, today they resemble other Canadians in their assessments of the federation. Ontario may not lead the country in regional dissatisfaction, but it has seen the highest growth in dissatisfaction in recent years.

The implications for our national politics of this important change in Ontarians’ attitudes may soon be apparent.

Governments across Canada confront fiscal challenges. Most provinces have large and structural deficits. Federal transfers that help provinces fund programs as diverse as social housing, immigrant settlement and health care are being renegotiated at this time. The costs of battling climate change will soon be divvied up across the country.

These issues may be lightning rods for inter-regional tensions. They all involve federal distribution of money and, in the past, Ontario was always ready to accept less than its share in order to produce inter-regional harmony.

In many provinces, there is an expectation that Ontario will eventually compromise its own interests for the sake of national unity. There is likely to be a good deal of surprise in some parts of the country that Ontarians are no longer willing to play this role. On an issue like climate change, Ontarians are not going to be willing to pay the bill while other provinces get an easier ride.

Through much of Canada’s postwar period, when inter-regional divisions were most pronounced, Ontario acted as a calming presence, forgoing provincial interest in the name of a national consensus – in part because “national consensus” was in Ontario’s larger interest.

The Ontario public may no longer be supportive of such a posture, instead preferring a more interest-based posture toward the federation. This could make divisive issues even more volatile. Responding to the “New Ontario” will require a new approach at the federal level, one that reflects a positive agenda for Ontario and one that recognizes that Ontario – like all regions of the country – has interests too.

The New Ontario: The Shifting Attitudes of Ontarians toward the Federation is a new research report released by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto. Matthew Mendelsohn is the centre’s director. To read the full report, visit

www.mowatcentre.ca

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