Regionalism and nationalism in Canada – another reassessment (Part Six)
By Mark Wegierski
The relationship between the Atlantic provinces and the federal government has taken some curious turns. On the one hand, there are people in the Maritime provinces who believe that Confederation has been largely an unmitigated disaster for the region. It is often thought that in Confederation, the interests of Ontario and Quebec were paramount, and that the Maritimes have tended to become a so-called backwater precisely because of the impact of Confederation. (An example of this is the decline of the once-robust nineteenth-century shipbuilding industry.) Strictly-speaking, the term “Maritimes” refers only to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were part of the original Confederation in 1867, while Prince Edward Island joined in 1873. Newfoundland entered Confederation only in 1949.The province of Newfoundland and Labrador (as it is officially called today), along with the other three provinces, can be called the Atlantic provinces, or the Atlantic region of Canada, or Atlantic Canada.
At the same time, support for an expansive federal government is very marked in the Atlantic provinces, as these have almost continuously been considered as so-called “have-not” provinces under the more recent federal system of equalization – which has meant that they receive considerable financial support from the federal government. When, during the Harper era, a threat became perceived to ever-higher levels of federal support, there was a revolt among the Atlantic provinces, even though the government of, for example, Newfoundland, was nominally Conservative at that time. Interestingly enough, in none of those provinces, has the name of the provincial parties been officially changed from “Progressive Conservative” to “Conservative”. (Although the name also hasn’t been changed in any other provinces where there are Progressive Conservative parties.)
At the same time, the Atlantic provinces have undeniably some of the most rooted and authentic cultures of any part of Canada. It is also an area where the post-Sixties’ immigration has been considerably sparse. If there is anything of a more authentic Canadian culture left anywhere in Canada today, it would almost certainly be in the Celtic-tinged identities of the diverse local cultures of the Atlantic provinces.
The role of Atlantic Canada and Atlantic-Canadian writing in the more authentic-seeming elements of the “official” Canadian culture, is also very significant.
In such a situation, the electoral contests in the Atlantic provinces do not usually have the “knife’s-edge” feel of electoral contests in some other provinces such as Ontario, or at the federal level. Such contests are not usually redolent of impending massive social and cultural transformation and deconstruction. This may explain why provinces that are comparatively socially-conservative may feel relatively comfortable voting for the Liberal Party or the New Democratic Party in certain elections.
It is true, nevertheless, that Western Canadians and most people in Ontario have little feel for Atlantic Canadians.
Such feelings that most of the population of the Atlantic provinces should simply leave in order to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere, is probably repellent to many Atlantic-Canadians who would wish to remain in the land of their forefathers. Even when they do leave, many Atlantic-Canadians try to return at least for large family get-togethers or re-unions, usually around the time of major holidays or in the summer.
It may perhaps be a bit of an irony that some of the happiest moments for Atlantic Canada could have been delivered through the lost opportunities of the Progressive Conservative party. Robert Stanfield was a long-time Premier of Nova Scotia, who could have been a credible Prime Minister. It is not especially remembered that in 1972, had the allocation of a few hundred votes country-wide been different, Stanfield could have possibly won more seats than the Liberals – which would have made at least a Stanfield minority government unavoidable. There were considerable “dirty tricks” deployed against Stanfield in that election, such as the massively circulated “football fumble” photograph. Had the 1972 election gone differently, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s aura of invincibility would have possibly been shattered, and Canada might have gone on to a considerably different future.
Also, in the 1983 federal Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Newfoundland candidate John Crosbie had a chance of winning. As seen on Canadian television at that time, the dynamic of the convention, which proceeded through the candidate’s speeches and in the successive rounds of delegate voting, was amazing. Joe Clark (possibly guided by his wife, who was sometimes nicknamed “Lady Macbeth”) refused to release his delegates in the decisive round, clinging to the illusion that he still had a chance of winning the convention. Had he won the convention, and the upcoming federal election, John Crosbie would have been the first Canadian Prime Minister from Newfoundland. While this is fairly speculative, John Crosbie probably would have won a less massive majority than Brian Mulroney, but would probably not have squandered his years in power in the fashion of Mulroney. As Finance Minister, Crosbie had been a real fighter, and he would have presumably not allowed himself to be as browbeaten by the Canadian media, as had been the case with Mulroney. The Prime Ministership of John Crosbie would have presumably been good for Atlantic Canada as well as for the country as a whole.
What might be some of the possible futures for Atlantic Canada?
In the event of a threatened break-up of Canada in the wake of a vote for Quebec separation, the Atlantic region has a number of possible options – one of which would be to try to join the E.U. Indeed, the introduction of the four Atlantic provinces (as well as possibly Quebec) to the E.U. might have a salutary decentralizing effect on the E.U. structures. It might possibly move the E.U. back to its more original conception as a “union of sovereign states” – rather than the “super-state” it is tending towards now.
It may also be possible to consider that Atlantic Canada – while remaining in a Canada where the threat of Quebec separatism has tended to recede -- will eventually move along a path similar to that of Ireland in the 1990s.
The comparative cultural unity and less exposure to the excesses of multiculturalism and left-liberalism in Atlantic Canada might eventually create the basis for ever-increasing, ever more dynamic, economic prosperity in the region. It would be interesting to speculate as to the comparative situation of a large-urban centre like Toronto twenty years from now, as opposed to the more rural Atlantic Canada. Indeed, looking at various events of the last several years in Toronto (such as the massive, looming fiscal crisis) the city’s future does not appear especially bright. So, it may be possible that there will indeed be some radical shifts in the future between what are the “have” and “have-not” regions and provinces in Canada.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.