Regionalism and Nationalism in Canada

Regionalism and Nationalism in Canada

The third of a series of articles by Mark Wegierski to mark the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation

The historical context

The problem of centre-periphery relations in a society, and of how a geographically extensive country extending beyond the confines of a city-state, can be effectively governed, are two of the most pressing problems in political theory.

One failure of the Ancient Greeks was that they found it difficult to extend their political units beyond the city-state. The surrounding area, Attica, had been forged into a unified entity, a solid home base for the empire. However, the Athenian Empire did not meet the challenge of governing divergent cities beyond Attica. Some political thinkers, notably Rousseau, believed that democracy outside of a small city of tens of thousands of citizens, was virtually impossible, and mostly meaningless. Certainly, the ancient empires ruled geographically extensive areas through various kinds of governors, with little popular consultation.

As more republican as well as (eventually) democratic societies arose in the West, representative rather than direct democracy became more widely practiced. With the establishment of what eventually became continent-wide polities such as the United States of America, and the Dominion of Canada, there arose the necessity of federalism. Such continent-wide polities have had to balance the interests of the various states or provinces, against the general national interest, not always successfully. Indeed, the fratricidal American Civil War arose out of many factors, not the least of which were the different conceptions of the balance between federal and states’ interests. The Dominion of Canada arose in the wake of the American Civil War, and its Constitution (the British North America Act of 1867) consciously sought to avoid some of the constitutional problems which were seen to have led to the American Civil War.

Ironically, the two polities may have moved in somewhat opposite directions in subsequent decades. While America, which was founded with a largely decentralist focus, has moved towards a powerful federal government, Canada, which had been founded with a somewhat centralizing focus, moved towards a polity with relatively powerful provinces. In the BNA Act, the federal and provincial powers have been explicitly separated and listed, thus allowing for less ambiguity between what are “properly” the federal or provincial spheres.

However, the Canadian Constitution also had the effect of allowing a successful Prime Minister to become a virtual “dictator”. One of the reasons for this is that executive and legislative powers are conjoined in the Canadian system, in the House of Commons. Also, if a Prime Minister is able to win continuous majorities in the federal Parliament over several elections, his power far exceeds that of an American President. (There are no term limits in the Canadian constitutional system.)

The highly-determined Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980), was able to impose his transformational vision of Canada. Indeed, he capped his career with the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) into the Canadian constitutional structure, which essentially enshrined almost his entire agenda as the highest law of the land. The Charter was characterized by both its supporters and opponents as a virtual coup d’état.

At the same time, however, the fact that most of the Canadian provinces are territorially far larger than most U.S. states, and hold a much larger share of the population than most U.S. states in relation to the American polity, means that they constitute something like “regions. This has meant greater power for the provinces. Indeed, one province, Québec, may be something close to a “nation” itself.

The regions of Canada – is Québec a nation?

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 Québec; Ontario; Western Canada (the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia); and the Atlantic 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 1998, the semi-sovereign Nunavut (the Inuit homeland). Nevertheless, this Far North has been considered as very important to Canadian identity, and, indeed, a great deal of attention was given to it by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

However, it is clear to observers of Canadian politics that Québec cannot simply be treated as “just another province” or even as a major region. Québec may be a nation. However, this does not necessarily mean that Québec must constitute a country independent from Canada. In today’s world, it is possible to have 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 of as a “union of sovereign states” – rather than the “super-state” that some elements would like it to become.

The endeavors to accommodate Québec in Canada, especially after the 1960s, have, indeed, absorbed vast political energies and resources in English-speaking Canada. Nevertheless, Québec in Canada may truly be a matter of a higher order than a “region”. (Indeed, the author intends to devote in the future, a long, separate essay to Quebec alone.)

Brian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister from 1984 to 1993, singularly failed to strike a healthy balance between the regions. Indeed, Mulroney showed excessive partiality to Québec and Ontario (which are sometimes together called Central Canada), and contempt for Western and Atlantic Canada. However, as far as the relations between the three main regions of English-speaking Canada, Mulroney clearly lacked deftness and subtlety. However loyal they have been as Canadians, many persons living in Western Canada (especially in Alberta) evince a pronounced loathing of Ontario (and especially Toronto). It is often semi-facetiously argued that one of the “glues” holding Canada together is hatred of Toronto.

At the same time, Toronto’s “arts cliques” have a pronounced loathing of Alberta. Their conception of the latter is driven by various exaggerations and misrepresentations that not infrequently reach the level of “demonization”. The earlier 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 driven by a desire to punish Alberta


Toronto has undergone a massive “identity shift” over the last five decades of Canadian history. In the 1950s and before, the city was considered as so conservative and British-oriented that it was nicknamed “Tory Toronto”. Indeed, it was said of those times, that on Sunday, you could fire a cannon down Toronto’s main street and not hit anyone because everybody was at church! From the 1960s, however, a 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 another of its nicknames “Hogtown” testifies. However, it was also sometimes called “Toronto the Good.” Some years ago, it was characterized as a “New York City run by the Swiss.”

Ironically, much earlier in Canada’s history, during the 1920s and 1930s, there was 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 suitable name in a society that was becoming increasingly liberal.

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”.

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. With its vast megapolitan node and power-centre for all of Canada, Greater Toronto, with all its endless suburbs and environs, it now holds around a third of the seats in the federal Parliament. 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.

Note also that large parts of Ontario itself tend to hate Toronto, and that the Toronto “arts cliques” also loathe “small-town and rural Ontario.” The latter is seen as the main base of the Conservatives both federally and provincially – the core areas from which 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 centers of Ontario – especially Metropolitan Toronto – some 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 left-wing New Democratic Party (and, to some extent, of the Liberal Party) exist in the municipal bureaucracies of large-urban centers – most especially in the new City of Toronto (formerly Metropolitan Toronto).

In the elections that brought Mike Harris to power in 1995 and 1999 – the suburbs of Toronto – an area characterized as the “905” zone [2] tended to vote for him. This certainly signified a considerable breakthrough to voters who were frequently visible minorities [3] – as some of the areas in the “905” zone are as multicultural as those 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.

In the 2010 municipal election, other “neighborhood cleavages” appeared within the new City of Toronto — reflecting the former divisions within the old Metropolitan Toronto. What was the former, smaller “City of Toronto” within Metropolitan Toronto – mostly the downtown areas – voted against the right-leaning Rob Ford – whereas the outlying areas – notably, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough, voted for him. Rob Ford won the municipal election. The Toronto intelligentsia now directed some of their resentment at the outlying neighborhoods of the old Metropolitan Toronto.

However, in the 2014 provincial election, virtually the entire GTA elected Liberals – thus giving Premier Wynne a majority of seats in the provincial parliament. In that election, it is was somewhat disconcerting to see the territorial imbalance between the Liberal- and Tory-held ridings in Ontario – the Liberals elected virtually no one outside the GTA and Ottawa.

The frequently more “progressive” nature of large-urban centers is also seen in the nickname of Edmonton, to wit, “Redmonton”. In Alberta, it is usually deployed as a term of derision. 

Ottawa vs. Western Canada

Toronto, the capital of the province of Ontario, is not the political capital of Canada. Around the time of Confederation, Ottawa was deliberately chosen– in a pattern seen in such instances as Washington D.C., Canberra, and Brasilia – as the political capital. Ottawa lies on the border between Ontario and Quebec, in the heart of Central Canada. Much of the so-called “political nationality” of Canadian identity (such as it remains today) focuses on the magnificent buildings and interiors on Parliament Hill, which can be seen as “sacred” political spaces. However, most of Ottawa consists of architecturally uninspiring administrative buildings that extend out in all directions beyond Parliament Hill. The political capital could be typified more as a town of civil-service “mandarins” and bureaucrats – the so-called “permanent government” – rather than elected Members of Parliament.

Ottawa Parliament Buildings

When Western Canadian politicians such as Preston Manning referred to “Ottawa”, it was with disdain. What he was probably objecting to was the notion that the federal government was “owned by” the Liberal Party (who increasingly called themselves “the natural governing party of Canada”). “Ottawa” was the nexus of the vast federal bureaucracy, that believed itself to be bringing “progress” to the “benighted” corners of the country, and most especially to the highly recalcitrant province of Alberta. In November 1987, simmering Western Canadian alienation resulted in a coming together of various Western Canadian political activists, in the founding assembly of what was to become the Reform Party. They were led by Preston Manning, the son of former, long time Alberta Premier Ernest C. Manning. One of the Reform Party’s main planks was the so-called “Triple-E Senate” — elected, equal, and effective. (By “equal” was meant that each province or region would have the same number of seats in the Senate.)

Between 1993 and 2003, the Liberal Party of Jean Chretien was “Ontario-centric”. Indeed, in the federal elections of 1993, 1997, and 2000, Ontario delivered virtually 100% of its seats to the Liberal Party. It must have been frustrating for Preston Manning that the Reform Party was permanently tagged with the “regional party” label – and that no conciliatory gestures or professions of moderation could persuade a considerable percentage of the Ontario electorate to vote for it. Indeed, a substantial percentage of the Ontario electorate was easily persuaded by Liberal stereotypes about the Reform Party – considering Preston Manning “scary” or “creepy”. In an attempt at “re-branding”, Manning initiated the United Alternative movement, which led to the creation of the Canadian Alliance (whose full official name was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). Stockwell Day, the former Treasurer of Alberta, defeated Preston Manning for the leadership of the newly-formed Canadian Alliance. However, in the November 2000 federal election, Stockwell Day — while ostensibly far more “telegenic” than Manning – was written off as a “Christian fundamentalist extremist” by most Ontario voters.

In the early 1980s, Western Canadians (and especially Albertans) were traumatized  by Trudeau’s “National Energy Program” (NEP) which they saw as a naked power-grab at Alberta’s oil wealth. Trudeau’s NEP, geared to Central Canadian interests, had prevented the development of Western Canadian oil reserves at a time when it was fortuitous to do so, because of the booming oil market. Their full development was delayed for decades.

Spokespersons for Western Canadian regionalist tendencies often complained that there are no constitutional mechanisms (like the Senate in the United States, to which every U.S. state elects the same number of Senators), to prevent the less populous regions (i.e., the West and the Atlantic region), from being dominated and ruled in the interests of Central Canada.

It is noteworthy that Australia, which is also a Commonwealth country with a federal system, has comparable tensions between the central government in Canberra, and the regions. Coincidentally, there was a grab for the resources of Western Australia, which was scotched by the different constitutional structures of Australia. Later, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation movement obtained most of its electoral support from Queensland (in the north-east).

The Canadian Senate is currently made up of persons appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, with some degree of consultation with the provinces. While it is considered a house of “sober, second thought”, its powers are residual, and much of its authority has been undermined by the blatant partisanship of most of the appointments. There is now a mandatory retirement age of 75 for Canadian Senators. Stephen Harper made headlines when he appointed a supposedly “elected” Senator from Alberta. Since provinces have a consultative role in the selection of Senators, they can stage an informal selection process including a province-wide vote on a short-list of candidates, to choose which person they want to represent them in the Senate. However, such procedures are not, strictly-speaking, legally binding on the Prime Minister. The length of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s years in office from 1993 to 2003 meant that he was able to appoint a huge number of Senators.

The callousness with which Mulroney treated Atlantic, and especially Western Canada, showed both basic ignorance, and a narrow, self-serving, parochial vision, rather than one of truly national unity and purpose. One remembers the awarding of the huge federal aircraft maintenance contract to Québec firm Bombardier, rather than the Winnipeg firm whose tender was apparently markedly superior. The effect of Mulroney’s government was to play up and exacerbate existing economic and power disparities. However, his attempts to gain Western Canadian favor by the quick cancellation of the NEP, by some major “industrial strategy”-type government support programs, as well as by the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, allowed him to hold on to much of Western Canadian support in the 1988 federal election. However, when the Reform Party became more firmly established, by the time of the 1993 federal election, they swept most of Western Canada, especially Alberta. Some of the cultural issues being raised by the Reform Party (such as its support for some tempering of multiculturalism and high immigration), possessed far greater appeal for many in Western Canada, than the putative, purely economic benefits being offered by the federal P.C.s. 

Western Canada

There have been throughout Western Canada’s history a number of regionalist or out rightly separatist parties that are usually considered on the fringe. These have included, among others, the Western Canada Concept, West-Fed, and so forth. The Social Credit Party (based loosely on the ideas of C. H. Douglas) was a right-wing populist party that arose in response to the Great Depression. It held the governments of Alberta and British Columbia at various times. Preston Manning’s father, Ernest C. Manning, was the long-time Social Credit Premier of Alberta. The term “retread Socreds” was one of the labels circulated about Preston Manning’s Reform Party. Nevertheless, Manning was in some ways more of a successor to the Progressive Party of the 1920s to 1940s. The remarkable electoral insurgency of the Progressive Party was able at one point to win the largest number of seats in the federal Parliament, but they squandered their opportunity, and were never able to establish themselves as a permanent presence on the Canadian political scene.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – the precursor to today’s New Democratic Party (NDP) – also arose in Western Canada. The CCF, while socialist in economics, was, to a large extent, socially conservative – and especially so in Western Canada. The left, especially in the Prairie provinces, was usually considerably more sensible than that in Toronto after the 1960s – which has tended to become a city filled with a hyper-urban, socially ultra-liberal, left.

Despite all the pejorative media comments about Preston Manning and the Reform Party, their battle-cry was “The West wants in!” and not “The West wants out!” Thus, Preston Manning was manifestly willing to work within the federal system, hoping actually to eventually be elected with a majority government in Ottawa. Indeed, the Reform Party formally existed solely at the federal level – with Preston Manning frowning on attempts to form provincial branches of the Reform Party that could run candidates in provincial elections. Had he won his hoped-for majority in the federal Parliament, presumably the federal government would then have undertaken considerable decentralization initiatives.

However, given the past of various periodic so-called “regional revolt” movements (such as the Progressives) it would have seemed unlikely – even in better circumstances — that the Reform Party would have been left as the sole centre-right party at the federal level. In 1996, it had looked like the Progressive Conservative party remnants (with their two seats in the federal Parliament) were close to dissolution – but the Reform Party marched blindly into an ambush over gay-rights – which gave new life to the P.C.s – but of course served mainly the interests of the Liberal Party.

In the 1997 federal election, the Liberal Party won a considerable majority in Parliament with 38% of vote; while the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives each received 19% of the vote, i.e., a total of 38%. The unified Reform Party and Progressive Conservative vote would have probably put such a hypothetical party within striking distance of winning a majority government. It was suggested around that time that there should have been a coalition between the two parties along the lines of the Reform Party running candidates only in Western Canada, and the Progressive Conservative party running candidates in Ontario, Québec, and the Atlantic provinces. Had the P.C.s actually won enough seats to form a majority government in coalition with the Reform Party, the latter would have clearly been the junior partners (thus presumably assuaging many Canadians’ fears about the possible “right-wing extremism” of the Reform Party). The political analogy was the stable coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) in Germany. (The more conservative CSU is based entirely in Bavaria, a more conservative region of the country.)

The United Alternative movement (1998-2000) eventually led to the creation of the Canadian Alliance (officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). The federal P.C.s really should have folded in 1998, but Joe Clark won the party’s leadership in that year. It was only in late 2003, after Joe Clark had resigned from the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party (thus ending his long years as a “spoiler” of various, possibly more successful center-right initiatives) – and Peter MacKay won the leadership — that there finally occurred the merger of the two parties into the new Conservative Party. Just the willingness of the party to call itself “conservative” without the adjective was politically electrifying. The embrace of the term “conservative” was important, as Preston Manning had undertaken considerable (and almost silly) semantic maneuvers to mostly avoid using that term in Reform Party circles.

Ironically, in the 1997 to 2003 period, the federal Progressive Conservative party could easily have been considered a regional party – of the Atlantic provinces. However, Joe Clark persisted in his illusion that the unreconstructed federal P.C.s under his leadership could again constitute a country-wide force.

The merger into the new Conservative Party convinced many people in Ontario, Québec, and the Atlantic provinces that this new centre-right party could be “safely” voted for. The Liberals endeavored to put into circulation the notion that the Conservative Party was nothing but “the Reform Party – Version Three.” And the mere mention of the Reform Party was supposed to bring, at least some people in Ontario, into a sense of feared panic about alleged “right-wing extremism.” Those kinds of persons had never understood – and indeed, preferred not to understand – what “small-c conservatism” actually represents.

Stephen Harper and Western Canada

Western Canada has waited for a long time for a “place at the table” in Ottawa. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won minority governments (a plurality of seats in Parliament) in Ottawa in 2006 and 2008, and a majority government in 2011. Harper is widely considered to be a person of great political skill – who possesses the necessary attributes to be the Prime Minister of Canada (such as being fluently bilingual, and friendly to Québec). Although Joe Clark was geographically from Western Canada, most Western Canadians increasingly came to view him as playing the role of a “collaborator” with the “Eastern” elites.

Stephen Harper

The currently dormant alienation of Western Canada may eventually reach boiling point because in the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper was allegedly “done in” by the hostile, “Eastern” [4] media and intellectual elites. It is unfortunate that Harper delivered so little of what so-called “small-c conservatives” might have expected from a “big-C Conservative” majority government. Harper continued policies that were, in many cases, not substantially different from those of the more centrist Liberals. Indeed, but for the penumbra of longstanding, inflamed partisanship, and longstanding historical voting patterns, perhaps close to eighty percent of Canadians could have probably supported Harper’s moderate and centrist policies.

The Wildrose Alliance was a more decidedly right-wing party (that existed only at the provincial level in Alberta), that indeed achieved considerable electoral successes, but it at one point appeared to have mostly folded, with most of its elected members in the provincial parliament, going over to the provincial Progressive Conservatives.

However, in the May 5, 2015 provincial election in Alberta, the left-wing New Democratic Party very unexpectedly won a majority government (54 seats), with the Wildrose Alliance coming in second (21 seats), and the Progressive Conservatives, a distant third (10 seats). The left-leaning Alberta Party and the provincial Liberals each won a seat, as well. This shows how volatile politics can be, and that a well run or poorly run political campaign can sometimes be more important than the presumed “political culture” of a given jurisdiction.

The Atlantic Region

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 [5] who consider the Confederation an unmitigated disaster for the region. It is often thought that in the Confederation, the interests of Ontario and Québec were paramount, and that the Maritimes have accordingly tended to become a backwater. (An example is the decline of the once-robust nineteenth-century shipbuilding industry.) 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 “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, some time ago, a threat was perceived to ever-higher levels of federal support, there was a revolt among the Atlantic provinces, even though the government of, for example, Newfoundland, had been nominally Conservative. [6]

At the same time, the Atlantic provinces have undeniably some of the most authentic cultures of any part of Canada. It is also an area where post-Sixties’ immigration has been 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 significant.

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 feeling for Atlantic Canadians. Yet suggestions that people living in the Atlantic provinces should seek better economic opportunities elsewhere, are repellent to Atlantic-Canadians who wish to remain in the land of their forefathers. Even when they do leave, many try to return at least for large family get-togethers or re-unions, usually around the time of major holidays or in the summer.

Robert Stanfield, a long-time Premier of Nova Scotia, would have been a credible Prime Minister. Had the allocation of a few hundred votes country-wide been different in 1972, Stanfield could have possibly won more seats than the Liberals – which would have made a Stanfield minority government unavoidable. However, various “dirty tricks” were deployed against him in that election, such as the massively circulated “football fumble” photograph. Had the 1972 election gone his way, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s aura of invincibility would have been shattered, and Canada might have gone on to a quite different future.

Also, in the 1983 federal Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Newfoundland candidate John Crosbie had a real 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 browbeaten by the Canadian media, as was 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.

Some possible futures for Atlantic Canada

Atlantic Canada will probably remain part of Canada as the threat of Québec separatism has receded. The comparative cultural unity and less exposure to the excesses of multiculturalism and left-liberalism in Atlantic Canada might eventually create the basis for economic prosperity in the region. 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.

In what sense is Canada a nation?

In Canada, the terms “nation” and “state” are often considered interchangeable. However, a more incisive approach is to characterize a “nation” as something close to a cultural or ethnic entity and the “state” as a legal structure than can include mostly one, two or several nations.

Gad Horowitz is one of the more interesting figures on the Canadian Left. One of his central ideas was that Canada as a whole could be characterized as a binational State. The two nations are English-speaking Canada and Québec. Gad Horowitz had also suggested that “Britishness” can be mostly a “political nationality” that does not imply ethnic or religious exclusion.

Canada today would appear to be moving towards a “dualism” where Québec will have most of the attributes of an independent country, but be loosely linked to the Canadian federation. It may be unclear to what extent a very pronounced “dualism” would correspond to Gad Horowitz’s call for “special status” for Québec. Whether that might necessarily mean a more robust identity for English-speaking Canada is also uncertain. One recalls that Preston Manning insisted in the platform of the Reform Party on “the equality of the provinces” and explicitly disavowed the “two founding nations” idea. Manning claimed he wanted “special status” for no one. Manning’s concept coincided somewhat with a “One Canada” approach that Gad Horowitz had identified as untenable – because Horowitz thought that Québec was truly a nation.

The problems of maintaining a binational State have been huge for Canada. Some have argued that the original kernel behind the idea of multiculturalism was the unquestionable duality of the Canadian State. Indeed, Québec has been an ongoing problem for the Canadian federation, absorbing vast amounts of political energy. While Manning preferred not to call Québec a nation, some of his ideas of decentralization (such as the “tool-kit” for the provinces which he proposed around 1997) would have offered considerable political possibilities to Québec. At the same time, to say that Québec is a nation is not to necessarily imply that its future must lie outside Canada.

It may be possible that a more positive evolution of Canada would be to move in the direction of a “provincialization” or “cantonization” with a “union of sovereign states” (the original concept of what was then called the European Community). The four main regions of Canada would appear to be Québec, Ontario, the Atlantic provinces, and Western Canada (which would presumably include most of the Far North). In such a case, it could be possible that a more traditional Québécois nationalism, and the local patriotism of the three main English-speaking regions, would come to the fore.

The extent to which most concepts of current-day Canadian nationhood have diverged from more traditional concepts of nation, is remarkable. Ironically, Québec in some ways retains far more of a “hard” concept of nation.

The notion that meaningful assimilative pressures should be exercised by Canadian society – and that there are truly worthwhile aspects of Canada that it is virtually necessary to assimilate to (and that constitute considerably more than merely what Benjamin J. Barber has termed “junk westernization”) – fly in the face of the regnant multiculturalist orthodoxy. Moreover, it is clear that the excesses of multiculturalism create increasing tensions and frictions in society. That Canada functions at all today, may simply be due to the fact that it is territorially the world’s second-largest country, with vast natural resources spread among a comparatively small population. Conversely, when a heavily populated country consists of different ethnic and religious groups competing for scarce resources, various levels of violent conflict invariably occur.

Warnings from traditionalists and conservatives about the long-term sustainability of  utopian societal constructs such as multiculturalism, or of an economy of never-ending growth, constitute a call to temper the system before it collapses with potentially catastrophic results. They seek to encourage thoughtful statesmen, as well as to the public at large, to avert ever more apocalyptic/dystopic outcomes.


[1] Newfoundland is now frequently referred to as “Newfoundland and Labrador”. It was a Crown Colony (as well as, for a significant amount of time, a Dominion) 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
[4] In Western Canada, the terms “Eastern” or “Easterner” or “Eastern Canada” refer mainly to Ontario and Québec. Such terms frequently have a pejorative feel. In Ontario, the terms “Eastern Canada” or “from the East”, are usually a reference to the Atlantic provinces. They are not considered pejorative
[5] 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
[6] Interestingly enough, in none of those provinces, has the name of the provincial parties been officially changed from “Progressive Conservative” to “Conservative” – although it also hasn’t changed in any other province in Canada where provincial Progressive Conservative parties exist

Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents


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