Meanwhile back in northern North America (or is it still British North America, as Mr. Harper says?)

Jul 28th, 2006 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

ST. JOHN’S, NL. FRIDAY, JULY 28, 2006. The annual mid-summer gathering of the Canadian provincial premiers and territorial leaders (a.k.a. “The Council of the Federation“) provided some slight relief from the troubles of the Middle East, for any resident Canadian citizens still paying attention. The provincial and territorial leaders failed to solve the problem of “fiscal imbalance” in the federation. But they did have a noble moment when they met with national aboriginal leaders, and urged the Harper federal government to keep faith with last November’s Kelowna Accord. Meanwhile, Mr. Harper himself has been off to London to see the Queen. He has said that “in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant.” And you have to wonder: What’s going on here?

1. Premier Danny Williams on The Rock … a good host in 2006 …

This year the provincial and territorial leaders met in what is supposed to be Canada’s least affluent Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. But just as the meeting was getting under way, the self-confessed national newspaper in Toronto reported: “NEWFOUNDLAND TO LEAD NATION IN GROWTH.”

In his chairmanship of the gathering Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams redeemed himself for his abuse of the Canadian flag a while back – in the midst of his own frustration with the fiscal imbalance. (I.e., how come the federal government in Ottawa has so much money, and the provinces have so little?)

Mr. Williams told Don Newman on CBC TV that he did not quite like being the chairman (or, in theory chairperson, except there are no female provincial and territorial leaders at the moment). It made it harder to argue your own case, as aggressively as Mr. Williams likes. But it does seem that he rose to the occasion and spoke for everyone in suitably measured tones.

In the end, anyone who can bring himself to say what Premier Williams said about the Kelowna Accord can’t be all bad: “We made commitments to aboriginal people and we intend to live by those commitments and I fully believe the federal government will live by those commitments, whether it happens to be in that format or another format at the end of the day … there has to be … co-operation and collaboration and we have to work with a new government that is still finding its feet, for want of a better term.”

2. Everyone but Ottawa likes the Kelowna Accord these days …

The meeting with five national aboriginal leaders was more of a prelude to than a full part of the Council of the Federation meeting proper. It took place on Tuesday, July 25 in Corner Brook, NL – as a warm-up to the meeting proper, which began on Wednesday, July 26 in the provincial capital at St. John’s.

One of the aboriginal leaders involved was Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada and a Six Nations negotiator at the ongoing aboriginal land-claims protest in Caledonia, Ontario. She has urged that “Caledonia-style conflict could spread across the nation unless federal and provincial governments move forward with promised improvements for First Nations communities.”

The provincial and territorial leaders urged Prime Minister Harper “to keep former prime minister Paul Martin’s commitment to improve the lot of native people,” as expressed late last year in the federal-provincial Kelowna Accord.

According to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty: “There’s obviously a real concern about where do we go from here. That was an agreement, without exaggeration, of historic dimension … I think it’s in a state of suspended animation at this point. We have an opportunity before us. I’m hopeful the federal government will understand how committed we are to this …When was the last time you had that many people who gathered around a table, who agreed on some fundamental principles, broad-brush a plan and funding? I can’t recall when that last happened in this country.”

Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine “remains optimistic a deal can be enacted … The new federal government poses some challenges for all of us. We must work aggressively at the provincial-territorial level to advance our agreements established … last November.'”

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein added a characteristic note of caution about Stephen Harper, who is also from Alberta: “I can tell you that this prime minister has his own agenda relative to the way aboriginal people in this country will be treated, and dealt with financially … I think that the aboriginal people across the nation, as well as all the premiers and territorial leaders, are hoping that he’ll rescind his decision to do it his way, and abide by the Kelowna Accord, but I don’t think he will.”

3. But Stephen Harper will be able to restore fiscal balance to the federation all by himself in the fall (since it doesn’t look like there will be a federal election that soon after all) …

The subsequent failure of the premiers and territorial leaders to agree on how to resolve the “fiscal imbalance” or “fiscal balance,” or whatever the proper name of the problem is at the moment, on July 26, 27, and 28, was hardly surprising. Even if it did include a somewhat unanticipated “bitter standoff” between the two most populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

As explained in the Globe and Mail: “The end of the talks means that Mr. Harper will be able to impose a solution of his choosing. The fiscal imbalance is of particular importance to Mr. Harper in Quebec, where his party hopes to win enough seats to land a majority government. One of his key campaign promises in Quebec was to fix the imbalance. One Ontario official said Quebec might feel it stands a better chance of getting what it wants by negotiating one on one with the Prime Minister.”

In some respects, it was foolish for the provincial and territorial leaders to pretend that they could resolve the problem themselves. The constitutionally mandated federal “equalization payments” to provincial governments – which form a key wrench in the works of the larger issue – actually are a responsibility of the federal government at Ottawa alone.

(Or as section 36 (2) of the Constitution Act 1982 puts it: “Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”)

In any case, it seems that Prime Minister Harper will have some time on his hands to attend to the matter this fall. On July 27 the Canadian Press reported that: “A new poll suggests Stephen Harper’s post-election surge in popularity has dissipated and dimmed his chances of turning his minority government into a majority …

“The prime minister’s Conservatives lost ground … according to the Decima poll made exclusively available to The Canadian Press … The Decima results arrive like a bucket of ice water amid fevered speculation that Harper will try to engineer the defeat of his government this fall over the softwood lumber deal … The poll suggests a snap fall election wouldn’t be in any party’s interests, with the possible exception of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, and would produce virtually identical results to last January’s vote.”

4. Meanwhile, isn’t this the kind of thing that a reformed Senate of Canada really ought to be doing … ?

As noble as it was for the Council of the Federation to meet with aboriginal leaders and endorse the Kelowna Accord, you have to wonder whether this is ideally the right group to be doing this job.

It certainly is important for some political body that claims to speak for Canada to be saying something strong and positive about aboriginal issues in the summer of 2006. As Beverly Jacobs has urged, the country’s rapidly growing legions of aboriginal young people need to be told that they are a vital part of Canada (which is itself an aboriginal word) – and that Canada and its future belongs to them too (along with all the other resident and non-resident Canadian citizens who, in most cases, have considerably less to complain about).

Yet are the provincial premiers and territorial leaders the best people to be trying to say such things?. They are elected to speak for the people of their provinces and territories. It is the government of Canada that is elected to speak for Canadian people. (And it is some suitable facsimile of the Canadian people that really needs to be talking to the youth among what section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 calls “the aboriginal peoples of Canada” right now.)

A similar point could be made about many other things that the recently christened Council of the Federation seems to be trying to do. It has taken on its present form because the “regional interests” the premiers and territorial leaders claim to speak for are not at the moment adequately represented in the institutions of the federal government in Ottawa.

But the provincial premiers and territorial leaders can only speak for these interests from the standpoint of the narrow institutional (and even just “bureaucratic”) concerns of their own provincial and territorial governments. As Pierre Trudeau might ask if he were still alive today, “Who will speak for Canada,” while still keeping all regional interests (and not just those, e.g., of the most populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec) especially in mind?

The answer to this question that has already been blowing in the wind for a few decades now is a reformed and democratically elected, effective, and regionally representative Senate of Canada. Mr. Harper’s new federal government in Ottawa claims to be very seriously concerned about this noble cause as well. And wouldn’t it be nice if this finally proved to be true?

5. If Mr. Harper can ever tear himself away from the British Empire long enough to get something serious done on reforming Canada … ?

Some recent further intelligence about Mr. Harper makes you wonder about his real interest in and capacity for leading the authentically forward-looking Canadian political change that any effective Senate reform would entail. On July 27, e.g., also in the middle of The Council of the Federation’s meeting in Newfoundland, John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail reported that when he visited London recently …

Stephen Harper gave a very important speech … The press focused on one line, in which the Prime Minister called Canada an “emerging energy superpower.” But that wasn’t the part of the speech that mattered. The important part came earlier, and some of it was truly astonishing.

Citing the British legacies of common law, parliamentary democracy and an open economy, Mr. Harper flatly declared that “much of what Canada is today we can trace to our origins as a colony of the British Empire.”

It is unfashionable, Mr. Harper acknowledged, to speak of colonial legacies as anything other than oppressive. “But in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant.” British magnanimity, he argued, ensured the survival of French culture. British approaches to the aboriginal population, “while far from perfect, were some of the fairest and most generous of the period.”

The “bond of comradeship” between Canada and Britain was cemented in two world wars, Mr. Harper went on. “When Britain has bled, Canada has bled.” Britain and Canada stood with their U.S. ally in containing the Soviet menace. And the English-speaking peoples are on the front lines in the global war against terror.

“Canada’s new national government is absolutely determined, once again, to stand shoulder to shoulder with our British allies,” the Prime Minister affirmed, “to stay the course and to win the fight.” And he ended his speech: “God bless Canada, and God save the Queen.”

Not since the days of John Diefenbaker has a Canadian prime minister said such things.

There are arguably a few words here that it was healthy enough for Mr. Harper to be saying in the summer of 2006. But there are also several other things that make you think his idea of “standing up for Canada” in the 21st century is not as bold and forward-looking as he and his party sometimes pretend. (And certainly nowhere near bold and forward-looking enough to bring off something as challenging as any kind of serious Canadian Senate reform.)

John Diefenbaker already tried to bring “the West in” to the Ontario-and-Quebec-dominated corridors of power in Ottawa, way back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In one election he even won a landslide in Quebec (thanks to Premier Maurice Duplessis). In the end he didn’t really change much of anything – beyond protesting loudly against the new independent Canadian flag in 1965. Isn’t there more to “the New West” in Canada nowadays than that?

Leave Comment