With glowing hearts

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion -

Is Canada a coun­try di­vided? Pre­miers claim equal­iza­tion is un­fair to their provinces. Bri­tish Columbia and Al­berta fight about pipe­lines. English-Cana­dian crit­ics de­nounce Que­bec’s treat­ment of mi­nori­ties and its passage of a law that bans pub­lic ser­vants from wear­ing re­li­gious sym­bols. Ten­sions within our coun­try seem to be run­ning high.

And these are sim­ply the most re­cent ex­am­ples of our na­tional con­flicts. Since Con­fed­er­a­tion, pre­miers and pun­dits have claimed provin­cial mis­treat­ment. Our his­tory is rife with in­ter-provin­cial ten­sion.

The po­lit­i­cal strife cre­ates an impression of dis­unity. Cana­di­ans, it might seem, can­not agree on any­thing. But do Cana­dian cit­i­zens in dif­fer­ent re­gions re­ally have fun­da­men­tal value dif­fer­ences?

The an­swer is both yes and no. Cana­di­ans’ at­ti­tudes to­wards pol­icy is­sues are rarely the re­sult of liv­ing in one re­gion rather than an­other, a 2017 study found.

There are some no­table re­gional is­sues, to be sure. Eco­nomic in­ter­ests mat­ter to pol­icy and are re­flected in the fact that some Al­berta and Saskatchew­an res­i­dents see pipe­lines and car­bon taxes in a dif­fer­ent light than do res­i­dents of other provinces.

Cul­tural preser­va­tion mat­ters and fears of cul­tural her­itage ero­sion may con­trib­ute to Québe­cois at­ti­tudes on re­li­gious free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Yet these re­gional fac­tors have mod­est ef­fects. In the 2017 study, pro­fes­sors Éric Mont­petit, Erick Lachapelle and Si­mon Kiss found that Cana­di­ans’ pol­icy po­si­tions re­flect a num­ber of dif­fer­ent un­der­ly­ing sets of val­ues. Each set of val­ues is found in ev­ery re­gion of Canada. There are some vari­a­tions in value dis­tri­bu­tions, but re­gional dif­fer­ences in val­ues, and thus on is­sues, are mod­est. Ge­og­ra­phy mat­ters less than rhetoric sug­gests.

If Cana­di­ans from one re­gion to the next are more sim­i­lar than dif­fer­ent, why do we seem so di­vided?

Part of the prob­lem is the way that we talk about pub­lic at­ti­tudes. Com­men­ta­tors of­ten slip into lan­guage that con­flates “ma­jor­ity opin­ion” with “provin­cial opin­ion.” When ma­jor­ity pub­lic sup­port (or op­po­si­tion) is im­plied to re­flect the entirety of provin­cial opin­ion, it is easy to lose sight of the range of at­ti­tudes pre­sent within a prov­ince.

For ex­am­ple, some Que­beck­ers op­pose the re­stric­tion of re­li­gious sym­bols – just as some res­i­dents of other provinces sup­port the same re­stric­tions. In­deed, the study showed that across 18 pol­icy is­sues – in­clud­ing oil pipe­lines and re­li­gious sym­bols – there is a sim­i­lar di­ver­sity of opin­ion within provinces and re­gions. Pol­icy po­si­tions that are pop­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with a sin­gle prov­ince ac­tu­ally have sup­port from res­i­dents in other provinces too. Canada con­tains mul­ti­tudes, to be sure – but so do the provinces.

On top of this, pop­u­lar de­bates typically pre­sent highly po­lar­ized po­si­tions. More rea­soned po­si­tions are ig­nored in favour of con­flict­ual lan­guage.

Such sharply pre­sented pol­icy po­si­tions are eas­ily in­ter­preted on a per­sonal level. When an Al­ber­tan hears a Que­bec politi­cian’s hard­line op­po­si­tion to oil pipeline con­struc­tion, she may as­sume that no one in Que­bec cares about her fam­ily’s eco­nomic for­tunes.

When an English Cana­dian crit­ics ar­gues that Que­bec’s re­li­gious sym­bol poli­cies are in­tol­er­ant, a fran­co­phone Que­becker may in­ter­pret this as a state­ment that he him­self is in­tol­er­ant.

Such lan­guage con­trib­utes to feel­ings of dis­re­spect across the coun­try. Those feel­ings aren’t new within Cana­dian pol­i­tics. What is new is how so­cial me­dia and fake news ex­ac­er­bate knee-jerk sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and de­mo­niza­tion.

None of this is helped by the fact that the me­dia and provin­cial politi­cians stand to gain from re­gional di­vi­sions.

Play­ing up re­gional ten­sions is a ra­tio­nal strat­egy that pays off. Me­dia sto­ries about re­gional fric­tion gen­er­ate needed at­ten­tion for a me­dia in­dus­try com­pet­ing for au­di­ences. Provin­cial politi­cians ben­e­fit from fu­el­ing re­gional in­dig­na­tion. Pre­miers and in­di­vid­u­als seeking the pre­mier­ship can make sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal gains by “stand­ing up” for their prov­ince, as aca­demic Jared Wes­ley ar­gued with re­spect to the 2019 Al­berta elec­tion.

Over­all, then, the dif­fer­ences be­tween provinces are ex­ag­ger­ated in pub­lic dis­course. Po­lit­i­cal rhetoric in­vokes feel­ings of dis­re­spect and politi­cians and the me­dia gain by play­ing up these sen­ti­ments. It is no won­der that in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal ten­sions are a per­ma­nent fea­ture of Cana­dian pol­i­tics. But so what? Does it even mat­ter? We don’t think so. Sure, provin­cial con­flict of­ten feels un­com­fort­able. But the real­ity is that ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous mea­sures, Canada is func­tion­ing just fine. Com­pared to other OECD coun­tries, Canada does rel­a­tively well with re­spect to its econ­omy and sev­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity in­di­ca­tors.

Unlike many other coun­tries, and with­out deny­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties, Canada has had some suc­cess pro­tect­ing cul­tural and lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity.

De­spite decades of bick­er­ing and hand­wring­ing, Canada con­tin­ues on. Na­tional ten­sions, in and of them­selves, are not lead­ing us to poor pol­icy out­comes. If provin­cial ten­sions turn into true sep­a­ratism, then we have a clear prob­lem. But with­out that, re­gional di­vi­sions are sim­ply the nat­u­ral byprod­uct of a plu­ral­ist so­ci­ety within a fed­eral sys­tem.

— Loleen Ber­dahl is a pro­fes­sor and head of the depart­ment of po­lit­i­cal stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an and Éric Mont­petit is a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sité de Mon­tréal. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in The Con­ver­sa­tion.


Thou­sands of peo­ple took part in Prince Ge­orge’s Canada Day cel­e­bra­tions at Lhei­dli T’en­neh Me­mo­rial Park in 2018.

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