Hot! The parochialism of Little Canada is killing us

TheGlobeandMail.com  – news/opinions/opinion
Published Friday, Dec.17, 2010.    Jeffrey Simpson

An excellent diplomat, winding up his years in this country, was saying last week that Canada has everything at its command. Huge geographic spaces. Enormous natural resources. A well-educated population. Good governance. Chests were undoubtedly swelling in his audience. He made us all feel very good about being Canadian.

He was talking about Big Canada, and its great prospects. He was kind enough not to speak of Little Canada, and its discontents.

Little Canada, alas, makes its appearance all the time in the parochialism that besets us and prevents Big Canada from fulfilling its potential.

Big Canada, like market-oriented countries everywhere, has an internal market. That’s important for all countries, but especially important for a small country such as Canada. Instead, we have provincial governments that epitomize Little Canada thinking, blocking the creation of a national securities regulator of the kind all other industrialized countries have.

Quebec’s opposition is predictable. The province has already achieved de facto sovereignty association within Canada, and cares little about Canada as a political entity. By voting Bloc Québécois six elections in a row (soon to be seven), French-speaking Quebeckers have withdrawn from the governance of Canada. All they apparently want from the federation is a passport and money. They are almost exclusively interested in Quebec, period.

In the next provincial election, they’re likely to return the Parti Québécois to office. The country will be plunged once again into internal debates that are boring manifestations of the Little Canada syndrome that has dragged down the country for so long.

But outside Quebec, on the securities file, Little Canada is apparent. Alberta wants to protect its small oil and gas firms, Manitoba its mutual fund industry, B.C. its own sectors. Rather than working to make the national regulator sensitive to these particular elements of the Canadian whole, these provinces are only interested in their particularisms – that is, Little Canada.

So here we have the federal government proposing a perimeter around North America to facilitate the flow of goods and services, and prevent further thickening of the Canada-U.S. border, while, inside Canada, manifestations of Little Canada – the securities regulator being only one – are everywhere apparent.

Take energy and the environment. We have energy surpluses galore, but rather than the federal government’s working with provinces to spread that energy around Canada, Ottawa absents itself and the provinces can think of nothing more than how to ship their surpluses south.

Quebec, thinking only of itself, has screwed Newfoundland for 50 years over hydro, resting its case for creaming the profits from Labrador power on contract law. Law is law, as courts have found; but justice is not necessarily law, as Shakespeare (“a pound of flesh”) taught everyone a long time ago.

There’s been no justice in the contemptuous way Quebec has stiffed Newfoundland, then and even today, since Quebec’s hydro regulator won’t let its neighbour’s power flow through Quebec to Ontario. That Newfoundland is asking Ottawa for money to support a cable to Nova Scotia is directly related to Quebec’s screwing of Newfoundland.

A federal government with gumption and money would have at least tried to expedite a three-province (win-win-win) solution, but Little Canada was allowed to prevail.

The same applies to climate change, where the Harper government hasn’t even tried to formulate a national policy. Instead, Little Canadas have gone in different directions, some bringing emissions down, others allowing emissions to rise.

Or take health care. Canada doesn’t have a national health-care plan. Instead, it has some federal dollars to help finance a series of provincial plans that may or may not pay attention to nominal national norms.

Big Canada can be Ottawa acting alone, or Ottawa acting in harmony with provinces, or the provinces working constructively together. There’s no “one size fits all” definition of Big Canada in such a sprawling, diverse country.

Little Canada is easy to define: parochialism working against other parochialisms, or parochialism sharpening itself by working against Ottawa, with provincial politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator of local prejudices.

In a hypercompetitive international world, the internal dynamics of Little Canada are a recipe for a slow, debilitating slide toward complacency, irrelevance and mediocrity. There are, alas, on the political and economic landscape of contemporary Canada, plenty of preachers of Little Canada but no one articulating and defending a vision of Big Canada.

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