The Americas: Mulroney Faced Anew With Provincial Schisms
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Republished on on February 07, 2006

Wall Street Journal, Jan 30, 1987  

To Canada's suffering prime ministers, the country's politics must sometimes look like one of those children's games where you try to get all the balls in holes simultaneously—except that there aren't enough holes. It is simply impossible to balance various regions' interests for long.

For example, just before Christmas there was an ominous indication that Quebec's language politics were heating up once again. Amid great publicity, the French-nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society organized a five-bus tour of downtown Montreal. Signs in French only were cheered, those including English booed.

The Liberal provincial government of Premier Robert Bourassa had been quietly trying to finesse the language issue by maintaining legislation passed by its separatist predecessor to suppress English, but stalling prosecution of merchants displaying English-only signs in contravention of it. Now the government hurriedly announced it would tighten up—only to be blind-sided by a long-awaited ruling from the Quebec Appeals Court striking down aspects of the legislation under the Canadian Charter of Rights. Between Canadian law and French nationalist rage, including an immediate serious firebombing, Mr. Bourassa's Liberals are trapped—an outcome Quebec separatists have long predicted.

Meanwhile, back in Western Canada, the reverberations of the "CF-18 affair" have barely died down. This was the decision by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa to divert the maintenance contract for Canada's version of the F-18 fighter to Montreal and away from a Western firm that had submitted the lowest bid. Mr. Mulroney tried to justify his intervention on Canadian Nationalist grounds: The Western bidder was technically British-owned. It is a measure of Western Canada's alienation that his explanation was universally dismissed as a transparent excuse for outrageous pork-barreling.

A recent trip from Montreal to Victoria brought home again how profound these sectional divergences are—and how unaware of each other, apart from these periodic explosions, most Canadians remain. A Montreal journalist says flatly that there are no Western separatists—open advocates of the secession of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and/or British Columbia from Canada. But a few days later, a Vancouver talk show is besieged by them. English Canadians widely assume that Quebec has rejected separatism for good. But in Montreal the emergence of Quebec as a French nation-state in all but name is regarded as self-evident.

Many of Canada's problems are quite simply the fault of a constitution flawed in terms of elementary political science. Canada imported from Britain a parliamentary system developed for a small, homogeneous unitary polity. It lacks the protection for distinct but outvoted regional communities that in the U.S. is furnished by the Senate, with its two members from each state regardless of population. Canada's 10 provinces have considerable individual powers, but they lack direct influence over the federal government.

This is why Western Canada has found itself treated by Ottawa as a colony in a pure mercantilist sense. Its windfall energy profits from the OPEC price hikes were confiscated under royalty provisions of the National Energy Program, and now the realization is dawning that federal interference may well have cost the West this once-in-a-lifetime chance to develop its high-cost reserves.

Canada's absence of checks and balances has also made possible the governing elite's prolonged effort to bribe and co-opt the French-speaking quarter of the population, virtually all concentrated in Quebec, by offering it more power and perquisites than its size would warrant. But the very real economic and political costs of this policy to English Canada are increasingly apparent.

For example, the province of Ontario is now moving toward official bilingualism although almost all of its tiny French minority (1.6% in metro Toronto) speak English. The expense will be enormous—$4 million to translate existing laws alone. More important, the consequence of federal bilingualism is to award the minority a decisive advantage in getting government employment. Since the Progressive Conservative Party invariably wins elections in English Canada, only to be stymied by the Quebec bloc vote, it's hardly surprising that some influential Toronto conservatives are discussing a campaign to expel Quebec from confederation.

Of course, the Progressive Conservative Party actually won the federal election of 1984 by the significantly desperate expedient of accepting as its leader Brian Mulroney, who had never even sought public office but had the advantage of being a bilingual Quebecer. And Mr. Mulroney did carry Quebec—but it is now agreed that this was a historical freak like John Diefenbaker's similar 1958 sweep, and will prove equally evanescent.

However, Mr. Mulroney's position in Western Canada also seems vulnerable—either to the socialist New Democratic Party, which has not yet totally squandered good will from its Western populist beginnings, or to a new regionally oriented party. He has a lot of juggling to do before the federal election deadline in 1989.

Mr. Brimelow, a senior editor of Forbes magazine, recently toured Canada promoting his book on the nation, "The Patriot Game" (Key Porter Books, Toronto).

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