152 years ago, on July 1st, 1867, Queen Victoria proclaimed the Dominion of Canada. This day would be marked every year as Dominion Day until Trudeau I changed it to the Canada Day that we know today.
The first Dominion Day was the result of a long round of horse trading between the colonies of Upper Canada, Lower Canada (at that time forced into an unwanted union), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Led by Sir John A. McDonald, his French counterpart George-Etienne Cartier, and his rival George Brown, the Fathers of Confederation – aided by a small arsenal of vodka and champagne – came to an agreement to unite the colonies (save PEI).
The new dominion quickly set out to bring the other British North American possessions into the fold. The already established colonies of British Columbia and Prince Edward Island held off until they could negotiate better terms, receiving a transcontinental railway and guaranteed overrepresentation in Parliament together with some debt-relief respectively.
The vast space between Thunder Bay and the Rocky Mountains however was largely unsettled by Europeans, and so its incorporation into the young dominion would not be negotiated by local representatives, but dictated to by Ottawa.
This raises the question: if Canada did not exist and the colonies were meeting today, would Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba join? If the offer on hand is the status quo of our current constitutional arrangements, then the answer is almost certainly, no.
Alberta has grown to become the fourth largest province in Canada with twice the population of all four Atlantic provinces combined. Yet, Alberta has a mere six seats in the Senate, while New Brunswick with one-sixth our population, has ten. Canada is the only country in the democratic world where smaller sub-national units receive substantially greater numbers of representatives than units larger than them. This rule does not apply to Ontario and Quebec of course. It’s difficult to imagine Albertans agreeing to this in a new confederation.
Some level of wealth redistribution between regions is inevitable even in small countries, but few countries so aggressively seek to plunder from some regions to support others so brazenly. Going well beyond just the Equalization program, Alberta pays a net $20 billion a year more in taxes than it receives back in transfers and spending. In the last decade alone, Alberta workers paid a surplus of $27.9 billion in CPP premiums to subsidize pensions elsewhere. It’s doubtful Albertans would agree to this in a new dominion.
Until 2015, Western (but not Eastern) farmers were required by law to sell all of their grain to the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. Former Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman went to jail for doing so. Even today, Alberta is forbidden by law from producing enough dairy for its own needs to prop up supply management quotas, primarily in Quebec. It’s difficult to see Albertans signing onto this today.
A catalyst for confederation in 1867 was a wave of protectionist trade legislation in the United States, forcing the British North American colonies to form an unrestricted free trade zone. Here, the Founding Fathers got it right, but subsequent Supreme Court rulings have increasingly given provinces the right to put up trade barriers on everything from beer to oil. The Founders would never have conceived of a province like British Columbia going out of its way to stop an approved pipeline from being built, let alone the federal government piling on legislation designed to ensure that no more pipelines are built again. It is again difficult to see how Albertans would sign onto such an arrangement today.
Alberta will always be taken for granted politically. When the Tories can count on easily winning nearly every seat in Alberta without breaking a sweat, neither major national party is likely to jeopardize seats elsewhere when interests collide.
Canada is a great country with a – mostly – great history. It has settled the second largest land area in the world, fought bravely in two world wars, and been a voice of peace, but it is a country with a deep foundational flaw. A flaw that still sees the three prairie provinces as fly-over-country to be extracted from, not treated equally.
This Dominion Day, Albertans should take great pride in the achievements of Canada. But when the trailer is packed up and we return home from the long weekend, we need to ask ourselves: is it finally time for the West to have a seat at the table in Charlottetown?
And if they refuse, what then?
Photo Credit: Canadian Geographic
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