Flapping the flag in Newfoundland and Labrador.. a holiday sport

Dec 31st, 2004 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

From inside the assorted urban, suburban, and exurban walls of Canada’s current largest metropolis it is hard to know just what to make of Newfoundland premier Danny Williams’s holiday season “flag war over equalization payments.”

To review the background quickly, under Part III, Section 36 of the Constitution Act 1982, tax dollars from more fortunate Canadian provinces (lately largely Alberta and Ontario) are redistributed by the federal government to less fortunate provinces. The principle is that all provinces ought to be able to provide some Canada-wide minimum standard of public services to the Canadian citizens who reside within their boundaries.

Newfoundland and Labrador has long counted on these so-called equalization payments, to help deal with the harsh circumstances of human life on “The Rock,” now that it has far too many people to be supported just by what remains of the historic cod fisheries. Offshore oil development in Atlantic Canada, however, has most recently opened up some prospect that The Rock might eventually become somewhat more fortunate in its own right.

As matters stand, Ottawa has been “clawing back” federal equalization payments to the province, to adjust for the enhanced revenue-raising capacity generated by provincial oil resource rents. To many Newfoundlanders (and other affected Canadians), this apparently seems like withdrawing life support just as the patient is starting to recover – in such a way as to ensure that the patient never will recover properly, and will always have to stay in the hospital.

Premier Williams’s current argument is that the Martin government promised it would drop the linkage between equalization payments and oil resource revenues in last June’s federal election campaign. But after some effort to negotiate such a deal, the Ottawa bureaucracy has still not come up with what Premier Williams regards as a satisfactory exact formula.

A federal-provincial meeting on the subject in Winnipeg, just a few days before Christmas 2004, was the last straw, as far as Premier Williams is concerned: “It’s … quite apparent to me that we were dragged to Manitoba in order to punish us, quite frankly, to try to embarrass us, to bring us out there to get no deal and send us back with our tail between our legs.”

As a result Premier Williams walked away from the negotiating table, returned to St. John’s, and ordered all the Canadian flags flying on provincial buildings to be taken down. Or as the premier put it at a press conference: “They’re slapping us in the face. I’m not willing to fly that flag any more in the province.”

Out shoveling the snow from the sidewalks in the old city of Toronto, one immediate reaction is that all this may say a lot more about Danny Williams from The Rock than it says about anything else. Both the provincial Liberal opposition in St. John’s and Conservative Nova Scotia premier John Hamm (who is involved in the same negotiations with Ottawa at the moment) have demurred from joining Premier Williams in his flag-war protest.

In his Canada-wide TV appearances Danny Williams also seems to fit crude stereotypes of blustery regional grievance mongers, that have become lodged in the central Canadian popular imagination. By now this is all an old and increasingly tedious story. “You know,” the great master of modern North American music Miles Davis once said, “you can get tired of anything. You can even get tired of being afraid.”

With more than a generation of the Quebec sovereigntist movement, and its accompanying eastern, western, and northern, regional (and aboriginal) protests behind them, many central Canadians have just become tired of being afraid that if they or someone supposedly connected to them does not do something for someone or somewhere else, the new independent Canadian democracy that gave itself its own maple leaf flag at last in 1965 will somehow fall apart.

Or, what Danny Williams is saying, according to one phone-in show caller in the Greater Toronto Area, is that “we’d been sending our brother-in-law cheques, because he’d fallen on hard times. Now he’s just won the lottery, and he wants us to keep sending the cheques anyway.”

At the same time, another feature of present-day central Canada is that it is full of Canadians who originally came from other parts of the country, as well as other parts of the world at large. And this may help explain the comparatively large amount of sympathy that Premier Williams’s flag war over equalization payments managed to garner in a Globe and Mail online opinion poll, on December 24, 2004.

More than a third of all respondents (35%) answered Yes to the question: “Was Premier Danny Williams’ decision to remove Canadian flags from provincial buildings in Newfoundland an appropriate way to express his anger over the outcome of revenue-sharing talks with Ottawa?”

The Globe and Mail online edition has some readers as well in all parts of the country. (Its claim to be “Canada’s national newspaper” is, whatever else, not entirely incorrect.) These readers include provincial (and territorial) public servants, from Halifax to Victoria to Yellowknife, and all points in between.

When inter-provincial groups of these public servants gather together, for one reason or another, it is not unusual for them to complain about the legendary arrogance of the federal bureaucracy in Ottawa. Some of the 35% of Globe readers who believe that Danny Williams’s flag war is appropriate no doubt have their own experiences of the federal negotiating habits which the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador is protesting.

(It is more than arguable that a seriously reformed and regionally representative Senate in Ottawa would go some distance towards making the federal bureaucracy less arrogant and more regionally accountable, in a number of respects. The Australian experience suggests this is true even if the Canada-wide political party system does somewhat dampen even a reformed Senate’s most ardent regional zeal. And some Canadians in all parts of the country may remember that, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells was an ardent and constructive proponent of Senate reform. But that is of course a more complicated story again.)

It is similarly clear enough that Premier Williams’s flag war over equalization payments is considerably more popular in his own province than it is among Globe and Mail online readers. On December 29, 2004 Canada’s national newspaper itself reported that municipal officials “in St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Corner Brook say they have removed Canadian flags from their buildings to show their solidarity with the province in what has become a patriotic-sounding war of words over offshore revenues.”

According to St. John’s mayor Andy Wells: “The majority of Newfoundlanders support Premier Williams’s position on this issue – it’s part of a larger problem we have with our whole relationship with Canada.” And, as the Globe and Mail has explained, Mount Pearl mayor Steve Kent “has taken the flag flap a step farther. He’s not only taken down the Canadian flag, he’s put up the so-called Republic of Newfoundland flag – the flag commonly associated with the province before it joined Confederation in 1949.”

Mayor Kent is also concerned to stress that “This is not about being anti-Canadian … This is really about being pro-Newfoundland and Labrador.” Yet it is perhaps only in the province that has most recently joined the present confederation – within the all-too-short lives of many among us still around today – that such patently absurd and self-contradictory public pronouncements can be made, with anything that approximates a straight face.

John Hamm’s Nova Scotia has its own longstanding grievances against the arrogant federal bureaucracy in Ottawa (and all the other arrogant people in the old “Upper Canada” too). Many Canadians in Nova Scotia remain far from reluctant to air these grievances, when the opportunity is at hand. But Nova Scotia was also one of the original founding provinces of the present confederation, in 1867. Despite everything else, by New Years’ Eve 2004 some sense of the wider Canadian identity that finally gave itself a flag of its own in 1965 has put down some authentic roots on the seabound coast, to which no one ever bids farewell forever.

What Premier Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador especially seems unable to grasp at all is that the present red and white Canadian flag is not just a kind of logo of the federal bureaucracy in Ottawa, and its regional official buildings elsewhere in the country – to say nothing of the present minority Liberal Government of Canada under Prime Minister Paul Martin.

It is no doubt still not too much more than that (and why not be frank about it?). The Canadian flag Danny Williams has ordered taken down on The Rock will be only 40 years old this coming February 2005. Many among us today still have at least vague memories of its birth pangs. At the time the visiting president of the Irish Republic Eamon de Valera apparently told Lester Pearson (the federal Liberal prime minister in 1965) that real national flags have to be baptized in blood. And the only real blood involved in the birth of Canada’s flag was the sort that Winston Churchill had in mind, when he said: “Politics is almost as exciting as war, and even more dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.”

(Subsequently some Canadian soldiers have in fact died for the red and white maple leaf flag, on peacekeeping missions in various parts of the turbulent global village. Even in Newfoundland and Labrador, Sam Connors, former head of the provincial federation of municipalities, has a son who “has completed five tours overseas with Canada’s Armed Forces, including trips to Bosnia and Afghanistan.” Mr. Connors “agrees with Williams’s position on the offshore issue,” but feels that “the flag stunt went too far … For the premier of our province to take down the flag in protest, to me, that’s the lowest form of politicking that you could do.”)

Yet even when all the continuing comparative youthfulness and inexperience of the Canadian flag is taken into account, enough time has elapsed over the past four decades to give it at least the beginnings of some broader credibility in virtually all parts of the country, up to and including Quebec. In the end, the flag today is not just a symbol of the Canadian federal government, as a large public-sector corporation headquartered in Ottawa. It is also and finally and most importantly a symbol of the democratic sovereignty of the modern people of Canada.

When Premier Williams uses the flag as he has now done, he is not just showing his contempt and disrespect for Paul Martin’s government in Ottawa. He is showing his contempt and disrespect for we the people of Canada, who finally pay the taxes and vote in the elections, from coast to coast to coast (including Newfoundland and Labrador).

It is no doubt also still true enough that we the people of Canada are not as yet so full of ourselves and our alleged accomplishments as to be unduly offended by what our fellow citizens (or anyone else) may say or do about our flag. This is, in the estimation of many quite patriotic Canadians, a good thing about Canada today – and something we want to somehow preserve and hang onto, as we grow older and wiser, and learn how to tame and train our arrogant federal bureaucracy and so forth more effectively.

It ultimately seems to be something like a law of world history, however, that when you treat people – and especially democratic sovereign people – with quite open and systematic contempt and disrespect, they will ultimately feel obliged to return the favour, in one way or another. So it remains a fact of current Canadian political life that a decisive enough majority of 65% of Globe and Mail online readers do not feel Premier Williams’s flag war is an appropriate response to his no doubt understandable enough frustrations with Paul Martin and Ralph Goodale, and all their various political and bureaucratic operatives in Ottawa.

So it may finally be that the biggest question raised by the holiday season flag flap in Newfoundland and Labrador really is just how clever Danny Williams is as a negotiator. The simplest truth is that nowadays there is just no part of the country – including central Canada and Ontario and certainly the GTA metropolis on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario – which does not have “a larger problem … with our whole relationship with Canada.” And at least from inside the assorted urban, suburban, and exurban walls of Canada’s current largest metropolis, it does seem that most of the people of Canada, wherever they may be, probably have just become terminally tired of being afraid about the future of their country.

No doubt what the Ottawa commentator from central Ontario, John Ibbitson, has called the “next Canada” is coming. One way or another, there are going to be a lot of changes over the next few decades. But it does seem equally true that the days of holding a knife to the throats of the people of Canada, as a means of achieving your regional political objectives inside the present confederation, have come to an end.

Knives of this sort only work when the people really are afraid. And whatever else may or may not have happened in Canada since the late 1960s, enough has happened to show the democratic people that there really is no point in being afraid. (If nothing else, there are just so many other things that it is more useful and rewarding to do with your time.)

So, for instance, soon enough in 2005 it seems quite likely that Premier Hamm from Nova Scotia and the arrogant federal bureaucracy in Ottawa will successfully negotiate some deal on equalization payments and offshore oil revenues that works quite decisively to the advantage of Atlantic Canadians. The democratic majority of Canadians in the rest of the country will say good for them. And the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will be able to sign on too.

Meanwhile, if it makes Danny Williams and the mayors of St. John’s, Mount Pearl, and Corner Brook feel better about something not to fly Canadian flags on their official buildings, why not? Once even the most stridently patriotic Canadians in the rest of the country get over their initial annoyance at the insult, it really makes no serious difference to the rest of us. (And we certainly know from watching so much US television that being a Canadian in the first place is no big deal in the larger scheme of things. Even in central Canada our heads have not swelled so big as is sometimes imagined elsewhere in the country, whether we like it or not.)

Some of this logic does seem to be getting back to The Rock itself, somehow. According to the latest news on December 30, 2004, Premier Williams is now allowing courts in free-standing structures, not otherwise attached to provincial office buildings, to fly the Canadian flag that he himself finds so repellent at the moment. Some Newfoundland judges have apparently suggested that it is unseemly for the rule of law to become too involved in such mere political sport.

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