Mackenzie King could have been referring to Canada’s regular eruptions of regional tensions and conflicts when he famously said the country has “too much geography”. Inevitably in such a large and diverse federation there are cultural clashes and competing interests, and conflicts routinely arise over cultural, economic or political differences. One of the biggest challenges facing any national government and prime minister is how they manage Canada’s inherent regionalism.
Canada’s founders included a very good yardstick in the Constitution by which we can measure their performance. It is found in that simple, but elegant phrase from the British North America Act – peace, order and good government. Every prime minister has a duty and an obligation to keep the peace and maintain order within the federation. It is the very essence of good government. By this measure, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney failed miserably. Stephen Harper, on the other hand, succeeded admirably.
It’s true that by the time Harper was defeated, a significant chunk of the electorate was either: (a) tired of him: (b) mad at him or: (c) detested him. But the same was true for Trudeau and Mulroney. Trudeau was reviled in the West and in most of Quebec when he left office in early 1984. Mulroney’s public approval rating had fallen below 20 percent before he resigned in the spring of 1993. But here’s the difference between Harper and the other two. Many Canadians were ticked off with Harper, but they weren’t mad at each other. By the time Trudeau and Mulroney exited, Canadians were mad at each other due to their blunders on regionally sensitive issues.
Trudeau first stood up to and later tried to appease the French nationalist movement in Quebec. The province soon elected its first separatist government. Later he mismanaged relations with western Canada as badly as any prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald, whose missteps caused armed uprisings in 1869-70 and again in 1885. The annexation of the West to the newborn Dominion of Canada was at the root of Macdonald’s trouble. Energy price fixing was the issue for Trudeau.
Oil prices rose sharply through the 1970s due to the machinations of the OPEC cartel. This was great news for producers in Alberta and to a lesser extent Saskatchewan, but bad news for consumers in Central and Eastern Canada. The Trudeau Liberals appeased eastern consumers at the expense of western producers with the 1980 National Energy Program. It fixed Canadian prices below world prices and set off a political firestorm in the west.
The Alberta government was so upset it temporarily cut oil production, which inspired the famous bumper sticker “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark”. A small but noisy western separatist movement was launched. In short, the Trudeau government had provoked a rebellion rather than keeping the peace – hardly the measure of good government.
From bad (Trudeau) to worse (Mulroney)
Mulroney blundered just as badly. Elected by a coalition of Trudeau-despising Quebecers and Westerners, he betrayed the latter by dithering on his promise to dismantle the NEP and then rigging a big military aerospace contract so it went to Montreal instead of Winnipeg. His Quebec-West coalition soon imploded, leading to the creation of the Reform Party.
Mulroney poured fuel on the regional fire with his 1987 Meech Lake constitutional accord. The deal was meant to fix another Trudeau mess, the failure to get Quebec’s signature on the 1982 national agreement to patriate the Constitution and expand it to include the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Meech didn’t satisfy the constitutional demands of a wide range of interest groups and ultimately floundered on regional rejection in Newfoundland and Manitoba.
The failure cost Mulroney a good part of his Quebec caucus who decamped to form the separatist Bloc Quebecois. It also left Quebecers mad at Manitobans and Newfoundlanders, Canadians mad at Quebecers, and everybody mad at Mulroney. Nonetheless he tried again with the Charlottetown Accord – an even bigger package of constitutional sops – only to have it soundly defeated in a national referendum. That set the stage for the decimation of the Progressive Conservative party in the 1993 federal election, and the razor-close 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec that nearly broke up the country.
When viewed against the regional upheavals and convulsions of the Trudeau and Mulroney eras, the genius of Stephen Harper becomes apparent. He served his political apprenticeship in the shadow of these events and learned from them. Harper kept the peace and, upon his exit, peace prevailed within the federation.
Peace through Harper
This was no accident. Harper had several opportunities to get things wrong and exacerbate regional divisions. During her short time as premier of Alberta, Allison Redford was at loggerheads with Premier Christy Clark in British Columbia over the Northern Gateway pipeline project. Harper might well have intervened in favor of his home province, but imagine the blowback that would have caused in B.C. Instead, he let the ladies fight it out.
Harper also acted astutely when dealing with two big foreign corporate takeovers – often a flashpoint for federal-provincial disharmony. First his government stood aside – likely against his better judgement – to allow a Chinese state-owned company to buy Calgary-based energy giant Nexen Inc. in a $15.1-billion deal. A year later it did precisely the opposite, nixing a $40 billion bid by BHP Billiton, the Australian-based global mining conglomerate, for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. The contradictions raised a lot of questions: Wouldn’t this scare off international investors? What was the government’s foreign investment policy? The policy was: keep the peace. By approving the CNOOC-Nexen deal, Harper avoided riling the Alberta government and business community. And by rejecting the BHP-Potash deal he kept Saskatchewan content.
Harper handled Quebec with equal dexterity. True, Quebecers didn’t like his tough-on-crime bills and thought he was a philistine on cultural policy. And they wanted more action on climate change. But here’s what really counts: he did nothing to arouse the sovereigntists. In fact the threat of separatism steadily declined on his watch. He did it not by showering the province with money (although there was some of that), but mostly by being consistently respectful of provincial jurisdiction and autonomy, and through symbolic gestures like the 2006 motion recognizing Quebec as a nation within a united Canada. In return, Quebecers awarded him a handful of Conservative seats in each of the 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015 elections.
Every prime minister has scraps with premiers and Harper certainly had his share – notably with Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador, Kathleen Wynne of Ontario, and, in last year’s election campaign, Rachel Notley of Alberta. But these conflicts were trifling compared to Pierre Trudeau’s epic battles with Peter Lougheed or Brian Mulroney’s ferocious fight with Clyde Wells over the Meech Lake Accord.
Harper held but one first ministers’ summit in his ten years in office and was roundly criticized for it. But if he learned anything from Mssrs. Trudeau and Mulroney, who regularly convened such gatherings, it was that they typically do more to strain national unity than strengthen it. Even worse, they tended to elevate the status of the premiers at the prime minister’s expense. In his view, it was better to leave them in their fiefdoms than let them share the national stage. Their complaints and demands made less news that way.
Another Trudeau, another east-west divide
In his determined effort to be everything that Stephen Harper was not, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a first ministers’ meeting as one of his first priorities. It went pretty well. Recognizing that Trudeau was still enjoying a post-election honeymoon, the premiers were on their best behaviour. He in turn was fulsome in his commitment to satisfy all their wants and needs.
But already there are signs of division. Trudeau’s election promise to borrow billions to spend on infrastructure projects has raised expectations in legislatures and city councils across the country to dangerous heights. Not all can or will be satisfied with the handouts they get. Moreover there is a serious, growing, and possibly irreconcilable disconnect on values and policies between Trudeau and his eastern Liberal base and the western resource-producing provinces.
The former want aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions in the name of fighting climate change. The latter, already reeling from the effects of the global oil price collapse, desperately need pipelines to gain access to new markets and better prices. What they’re getting from Trudeau instead are comments dismissing the economic importance of resources, a new set of National Energy Board regulations that will make pipeline approvals even more difficult, a west coast oil tanker ban that effectively kills the NEB-approved Northern Gateway pipeline, and a promise to the United Nations envirocrats and movie stars at the December Paris Climate summit that Canada will do its part to meet international emission targets – targets so high they are not achievable in Canada without shuttering much of its energy and resource industries.
Where Harper used his first major international economic speech to proclaim Canada an aspiring “energy superpower”, Trudeau pointedly told the global glitterati gathered at the Davos World Economic Forum in January that his Canada will instead be known for its “resourcefulness”. More recently, he declared that he intended to be a “referee” in the great debate over pipeline expansion, not a “cheerleader” like Harper.
This is pride that goes before a fall. The pipeline issue has already resurrected memories of the NEP. It has the potential to ignite a west-east regional war, and the mayor of Montreal, former Liberal MP and cabinet minister Denis Coderre, fired the first shot when he held a press conference in late January with 81 Montreal area mayors to oppose the Energy East pipeline.
The man who now occupies the Prime Minister’s Office would be wise to emulate rather mock his predecessor. Harper managed relations between the regions deftly and with uncommon wisdom. He kept the peace and maintained order and met the measure by which the Fathers of Confederation defined good government.
And by this measure so too shall Justin Trudeau one day be judged.
D’Arcy Jenish is a Toronto-based author and journalist.