By Trevor Busch
The question of national unity in Canada has been a national insecurity troublingly inimical to our identity since Confederation. Canadians have always been preoccupied with defining ourselves and our values to a degree that is seldom witnessed in our neighbours, like the United States.
On the face of it, there are understandable reasons for this. Although our history is truly far more interesting than the dry, witless exposition many of us were forced to bear witness to throughout our high school academic days, for many it seems to lack some of the defining moments of struggle that have united others in retrospective pride.
We have no revolutions to look to, few foreign invasions of our soil, and none in any recent memory. Confederation, for instance — true to Canadian form — was largely an orderly transfer of power from a colonial parent to a fledgling dominion. No barricades in the streets à la French Revolution was this declaration of our independence, and no tea was dumped in any harbours to protest taxation without representation. In short, while many might think to envy or emulate this distinct lack of oppression in our past, Canada remains an example of how this penchance for the dove over the hawk has led to deep-seated questions about identity.
Quite literally, in fact. Even our country’s name was to a degree an arbitrary choice. During Confederation, various bizarre alternatives were seriously considered, including Albertsland, Albionora (“Albion of the North”), Borealia (from borealis, the Latin word for northern), Britannia, Cabotia (in honour of Italian explorer John Cabot), Colonia, Efisga (an acronym for English, French, Irish, Scottish, German and aboriginal), Hochelaga (Iroquois name for a village near Montreal), Laurentia, Mesopelagia (“Land Between the Seas”), Norland, Superior, Transatlantia or Transatlantica, Tuponia or Tupona (an acrostic derived from “United Provinces of North America”), Ursalia (“Place of Bears”), Vesperia (from Roman mythology, “Land of the Evening Star”) and Victorialand (in honour of Queen Victoria).
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the traditional “Canada” managed to hold sway. Father of Confederation Thomas D’Arcy McGee apparently questioned at the time, “Now I would ask any honourable member of the House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself, instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelegander?”
It’s clear that many of McGee’s colleagues that forged Confederation in 1867 had the ideas of identity and unity in mind. Often forgotten today as more of historical footnote, there was a strong movement at the time to create a legislative union rather than our present federal union, which seeks to balance the powers of the federal government with those of the provinces. A legislative union essentially has no provinces — virtually all powers rest in the hands of an omnibus federal government. This was viewed as a potential solution to the philosophical problem presented by the American Civil War — a tragedy and danger still fresh in the minds of Canadian legislators in 1867 — which was often seen as the result of allowing too much decentralized state authority to fatally weaken the federal government.
That being said, the Fathers of Confederation may have yielded in the direction of a federal union, but that doesn’t mean they wanted provinces to be able to challenge or fatally weaken the supremacy of the federal government. Inclusions like declaratory power (arbitrarily making any power a federal power) or disallowance and reservation (declaring any provincial legislation null and void) still exist as part our constitution, although they are seldom used and haven’t been exercised in decades. Many constitutional experts argue they should be abolished. But perhaps they shouldn’t be so hasty.
Consider today’s intractable battle between British Columbia and Alberta over pipeline construction. Can you imagine how different this situation might be had the Fathers of Confederation opted for a legislative union rather than a federal one? While people from both regions might desire or oppose something, the debate and decision would begin and end in the hands of an all-powerful federal government. While most 21st century Canadians would probably be horrified at the prospect of being ruled exclusively from a distant capital in Ottawa, we could easily have had a legislative union had more decided to support the idea in 1867.
Today, on the other hand, we have upstart provinces that at their inception were meant to be weakly-subservient entities to the federal government, now grossly challenging the authority of that same government. It’s hard not to avoid the conclusion that Canada, both geographically and considering partisan regional interests, is an ungainly beast shoehorned together into a federal union, a method of organization that has never achieved what was envisioned by its creators.
Quebec, another foreign power’s colony driven into the British fold by force of arms, consistently refuses to engage with its Canadian neighbours and still harbours a resentful independence movement. The Maritimes often feel short-changed by the federal government, and their issues largely ignored by a broader Canada. Ontario, still the basis upon which federal power often rests for parties, maintains a shaky supremacy threatened by population growth and migration in the West. The West itself resents this situation and is still pathologically suspicious of the East’s motives, and in British Columbia environmental interests have taken an irreconcilable approach to inter-governmental relations. And this is not even to mention Canada’s sparsely-populated but vast northern territories, which sometimes seem to be ignored by everyone.
All of this hasn’t been helped by the federal government’s slow-but-steady erosion of their powers and an inability to maintain the supremacy that its creators desired. We have a federal system that was designed to be heavily weighted in favour of the federal government at the expense of the provinces, but today we see almost the opposite occuring — B.C. Premier John Horgan is essentially holding Alberta and the federal government hostage over pipeline construction. It seems the ghosts of decentralization that haunted the Fathers of Confederation are reappearing as apparitions to threaten the very unity those fathers wanted to preserve. Successive federal governments unwilling to smack down upstart provinces over key issues — Alberta’s successful fight against Trudeau the Elder’s National Energy Program in the early 1980s comes to mind, whatever one might think about it — has led to a drip-drip erosion of federal power in Canada in the past century.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Canada’s federal government is still — on paper — vastly more powerful than the provinces. If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau really wanted to reassert the power of the federal government in Canada (instead of just paying lip service to the idea), opening the tickle-trunk and utilizing declaratory power to make pipeline construction a federal power would end debate over the issue faster than Horgan cutting a swath through a vegan buffet. It would be a hugely controversial move, but not one outside the bloodlines of the Trudeau family. Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s reactionary declaration of the War Measures Act in October 1970 to deal with the FLQ was no less controversial. Perhaps we need a little of that mix of confidence, arrogance and decisiveness in Justin Trudeau that prompted his father to quip “just watch me” when reporters questioned his move back in 1970. And this issue, like its predecessor, has now morphed into a question of national unity.
But the West needs to be careful what it wishes for. If Albertans want the federal government to decisively intervene in the ongoing debate, that’s fine, but we need to be aware of what the implications of this could mean in other areas where battle lines are already being drawn. While federal intervention would ensure a pipeline would be built, conservative opposition to the imposition of a federal carbon tax in multiple provinces would likely meet a stonewall of resurgent federal resistence.
We can’t have our cake and eat it, too.