The rise of Western Canada was the topic of a round table discussion last week in Calgary, broadcast live by CPAC. Joining Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne were Fort McMurray’s Mayor Melissa Blake, Alberta’s Minister of Culture Lindsay Blackett, Saskatchewan’s Environment Minister Nancy Heppner, Lloyd Axworthy, the University of Winnipeg’s president, and the Wildrose Alliance’s Rob Anderson. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen moderated the event.
Coyne: How do we define the West beyond geography? Is there such a thing as a kind of western agenda, a western political culture?
Blackett: We have a spirit of collaboration amongst governments. We’ve had joint cabinet meetings with Alberta and Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. We have the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) with B.C. that we want to extend to Saskatchewan. Independently, we haven’t had a lot of clout, but when we band together—not just economically but politically, and with commonality on issues—we have a lot more success, and that’s not something the other provinces really have.
Anderson: People come here for the opportunities. It’s a great place for a fresh start, to accomplish something important. I think the culture is kind of based around that.
We are a self-reliant region and we need to quit looking out to the federal government, and other places, to solve our problems.
Coyne: And yet it’s a paradox, isn’t it? This region that votes so robustly Conservative federally is also the region that has consistently returned NDP governments provincially. What is it about the West’s political culture that it can vote for both of those types of parties—sometimes at the same time?
Axworthy: If you go back into the history, whether it’s Social Credit or the rise of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, they were both populist movements really fighting against eastern establishments.
One thing that is really affecting Western Canada, as much as the rest of country, is that what we are dealing with is now so much outside our borders, we’re somewhat vulnerable to external trade patterns, to climate-change issues, to issues of disease. We’re having to come to grips with issues that are not of our own making but we have to find our own solutions. That’s causing a lot of confusion in the political system right now because the old, conventional wisdoms don’t apply.
Coyne: But isn’t that one of the things that defines the West: it’s always been exposed to the elements, exposed to resource crises, it’s always had to adapt to change, and part of the culture of the West is a receptivity to change, one manifestation of which is it keeps throwing up these new parties. But there’s a willingness to experiment that perhaps the rest of Canada has not been as known for.
Blackett: That’s true, but in terms of commonalities, we’re not beholden to somebody else. And hard work is not a dirty word here, and that sense of entitlement is not as pervasive as it is back East.
Wells: The strains of any complex society have always been a little starker in the West, partly for geographic reasons. Harsher challenges, bigger distances, but also more opportunity, money just popping out of the ground. And there’s two reactions to that: “Leave me alone so I can make a stand on my own,” or “Let’s band together for protection.”
Anderson: There’s no doubt we have a wealth of resources in the West. Unfortunately, one of the things that has hurt us in the last few years is this idea that maybe we’re not as friendly as a province as we were once to do business in. We’ve got to get back to that spirit of entrepreneurship, that pro-business attitude that we had here in the West that you still see in Saskatchewan and that you even see in B.C.
Coyne: Lindsay, is he right that Alberta’s losing that sense of entrepreneurship and friendliness to business?
Blackett: Our premier stated last week that we want to be the most competitive region in the country to do business, not just in oil and gas. That means a lot of work reducing red tape and making sure we have the same low tax regime, that we’re attractive. Maybe that’s something that had slid over the last 10 to 15 years. But we’ve got to reinvent ourselves. I think we’re more than capable.
Coyne: Talking of reinvention, probably the most striking change in the West is what’s been happening in Saskatchewan, going from being a have-not to a have, going from a shrinking to a growing province. How is that changing Saskatchewan in terms of its sense of itself, in terms of its political culture?
Heppner: [Premier Brad Wall] is the biggest promoter of our province I have ever seen. We are pioneers and entrepreneurs and hard-working people and have always had a quiet pride in our province. I don’t think our pride is quite so quiet anymore, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We stood up and realized we don’t have our hand out to Ottawa, we don’t have to yell and scream at Ottawa to get things done, we can stand on our own two feet. That goes hand in hand with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Saskatchewan Party.