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Regionalism and nationalism in Canada – Part One

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 16, 2007

The ongoing mediation between the interests of the different regions is one of the most important tasks of the Prime Minister of Canada. The Prime Minister's mettle is often tested in regard to how well he or she can balance the competing interests of Quebec, Ontario, Western Canada (the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) and the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland [1]). There is also the very sparsely populated Far North, which remains under direct federal jurisdiction, to consider. It consists of Yukon, the North-West Territories, and, since 1999, the semi-sovereign Nunavut (the Inuit homeland).

It could be argued that the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from 1984 to 1993, Brian Mulroney, singularly failed to strike a helpful balance between the regions. Indeed, Mulroney seemed to show excessive partiality to Quebec and Ontario (which are sometimes together called Central Canada), and contempt for Western and Maritime Canada.

However , it is quite obvious to observers of Canadian politics that Quebec, for numerous salient reasons, cannot simply be treated as "just another province" or even as a very major region. Quebec is a nation. However, this does not necessarily mean that Quebec must constitute a country independent from Canada. In today's world, it is possible to come to calculatedly ambiguous social and political arrangements that may maintain, in reasonable stability, political units larger than single nations. For example, the European Community (as it was then called) was once conceived as a "union of sovereign states" – rather than the "super-state" that the European Union is tending to become now.

The endeavours to accommodate Quebec in Canada, especially after the 1960s, have, indeed, absorbed vast political energies and resources in English-speaking Canada. Nevertheless, Quebec in Canada may truly be a matter of a higher order than a "region".

However, as far as the relations between the three main regions of English-speaking Canada, Mulroney clearly lacked deftness and subtlety.

However earnestly loyal they have been as Canadians, persons living in Western Canada (especially in Alberta) are frequently characterized by something approaching a pronounced loathing of Ontario (and especially Toronto). And it is often semi-facetiously argued that one of the "glues" holding Canada together is hatred of Toronto.

At the same time, it is easy to see that today's typical Toronto "art cliques" have a very pronounced loathing of Alberta. Their understanding of Alberta is driven by various exaggerations and misrepresentations that not infrequently reach the level of "demonization". The recent economic boom in Alberta has generated enormous resentment on the part of some of the cultural elites in Toronto. One sometimes wonders if, among some people in Toronto, their embrace of the current environmentalist surge, is simply driven by a desire to punish Alberta.

It should also be remembered that the city itself has undergone a massive "identity shift". In the 1950s and before, the city was considered as so conservative and British-oriented that it was nicknamed "Tory Toronto". In the 1960s and later a vast roaring tide of change engulfed and massively transformed the city.

Certainly, the city almost from the beginning had the reputation of being a very wealthy centre of commercial power, as one of its other nicknames "Hogtown" points to. However, it was also sometimes called "Toronto the Good." Some years ago, it was also characterized as a "New York City run by the Swiss."

Ironically, much earlier in Canada's history, during the 1920s and 1930s, there was the opposition between "Tory Toronto" and the Prairie provinces, where there was the electoral insurgency of the Progressive Party. In 1942, the Conservative Party was renamed "Progressive Conservative" – in the hopes of attracting many supporters of the former Progressives. However, it was also a highly convenient name in a society that was becoming increasingly liberal-tending.

In the post-1960s period, "Tory Toronto" was annihilated, and the former strongholds of the Western-based Progressive Party (which had in fact existed well within the pre-1960s "traditionalist-centrist consensus") mostly became bastions of "small-c conservatism".

Indeed, it could be argued that since the 1980s, the tide of change has increasingly overwhelmed the city of Toronto and its surrounding suburbs and environs.

What is now called the City of Toronto (which is coterminous with what was formerly called Metropolitan Toronto) clearly does not represent the totality of the urban conurbation which has been termed the G.T.A. (Greater Toronto Area) – whose informal boundaries are ever expanding with urban sprawl.

Ontario, the most populous province in Canada, is also clearly the wealthiest. Ontario now holds around a third of the seats in the federal Parliament -- with its vast megapolitan node and power-centre for all of Canada, Greater Toronto, with all its endless suburbs and environs. It may be noted that in one of the 1987 Statistics Canada reports, Metropolitan Toronto had an unemployment rate of 3.9% -- while most economists consider a rate of 4% as full employment. During the 1980s, Ontario consistently had unemployment rates at least 2 percentage points below the national average.

It may be noted that considerable parts of Ontario itself tend to hate Toronto, and that the Toronto "art cliques" also loathe what is called "small-town and rural Ontario." The so-called rural Ontario is seen as the main base of the Conservatives both federally and provincially – the core areas where both Stephen Harper and Mike Harris have drawn their support.

Indeed, at the height of the conflict between Mike Harris' Tories – who were frequently characterized as "hard right" – and the larger urban centres of Ontario – especially Metropolitan Toronto – there were some tendencies afoot that wanted Metropolitan Toronto to secede from the province of Ontario. It was thought that the interests and needs of Ontario and Metropolitan Toronto were so divergent that only the creation of an "eleventh province" in Metropolitan Toronto could assuage them. Of course, it is not surprising that some of the most powerful infrastructures of the New Democratic Party (and, to some extent, of the Liberal Party) exist in the municipal bureaucracies of large-urban centres – most especially in the new City of Toronto (formerly Metropolitan Toronto). What is of some interest is that in the elections that brought Mike Harris to power in 1995 and 1999 – the so-called suburbs of Toronto – an area characterized as the "905" zone [2] tended to vote for Mike Harris. This certainly signified a considerable breakthrough to voters who were frequently visible minorities [3] – as some of the areas in the "905" zone are easily as multicultural as in the "416" zone. Ironically, what weakened Harris the most in the "416" zone was probably powerful cadres of highly motivated and effective WASP opponents in the media, intellectual, and cultural elites – who energized the vote of the various "recognized minorities" against him.

The frequently more "progressive" nature of large-urban centres is also seen in the nickname of Edmonton – "Redmonton". In Alberta, it is usually deployed as a term of criticism. ESR


[1] Newfoundland is now frequently referred to as "Newfoundland and Labrador". It was a Crown Colony of the British Empire until 1949.

[2] Because of increasing telephone line congestion, the former 416 area code was split in two – a new 416 area embracing only Metropolitan Toronto, and the entirely new 905 area for all the suburbs, smaller cities, and rural areas beyond Metropolitan Toronto.

[3] This is a term officially used in Canada at various levels of government.

To be continued next week.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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