Once, when he was not yet a serious contender for federal office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper opined that Atlantic Canada’s “culture of defeat will be hard to overcome” as long as the region “physically” trails behind the rest of the country.
That stinging characterization, in 2002, of the birthplace of Confederation played well out west among his base of prairie farmers and Calgary oil men. So well, in fact, that he took another crack at ringing the defeatist bell a few days later for The Ottawa Citizen, which quoted him in more generally ruminative terms: “I think there is a dangerous rise in defeatist sentiment in this country. I have said that repeatedly, and I mean it and I believe it.”
Back here, among the lobster pots and pogey checks, his remarks lit a fire of indignation. We fumed and fussed. We wrote letters to the editor and posted angry comments to websites. We demanded that our premiers speed to our defence, as if we were so many jilted brides.
We missed the point, of course. But that’s only because Mr. Harper deployed the the wrong word. It wasn’t “defeat” that gripped us; it was “dependence”. And that culture of dependence – on Ottawa, on the richer provinces of Canada – shrouds us today, like a swaddling blanket.
In his illuminating series of commentaries about New Brunswick and its challenges (now running in this and the province’s other major newspapers), public policy expert Donald Savoie observes, “There is a growing reluctance on the part of the have-provinces to continue to finance transfer payments to have-less provinces at current levels.”
That’s a polite way of describing the situation. Another was Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s vituperative critique last year. The current system of equalization, he declared in an opinion piece, generates “distortions, often of a significant scale, that impair the national economy and discourage people from moving to places of economic opportunity.” The system, he insisted, discourages “labour mobility in a way that hurts the national economy and ultimately individual Canadians.”
There was a certain amount of bald-faced nonsense in this claim. Federal transfers haven’t stopped thousands of Maritimers and Newfoundlanders from leaving their ancestral homes for more lucrative economic opportunities out west. But the larger point has to do with the way we, on the East Coast, routinely meet such criticisms: defensively, even peevishly.
Defending equalization against attacks by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Premier David Alward told the Telegraph-Journal’s Chris Morris on Wednesday, “It is part of our Constitution and part of who we are as Canadians. It allows provinces that do not have the fiscal capacity to provide comparable levels of service at comparable levels of taxation. It’s not a fat cat program.”
In other words, we “depend” on it. And in depending on it, we have, at some basic level, come to think of it as a program to which we are entitled – a part of the province’s 40 per cent, annual revenue take from “Fat City”, the capital.
Perhaps, this is only natural. Everyone perceives reality through the filter of his or her experiences. And if those experiences involve relying on a massive infusion of money from jurisdictional underwriters in other parts of the country to pay for schools and hospitals, then we perceive our reality – though fundamentally tethered to the generosity of stranger, it may be – as fixed in time. The status quo of equalization is, or should be, immutable. Shouldn’t it?
Equalization may be a right. But if we are serious about forging a more economically sustainable future, we should stop looking upon it as a permanent virtue and begin regarding it for what it is: a temporary evil, one from which we should work hard to wean ourselves. At the very least, the language our elected representatives choose to use in their public pronouncements should reflect this long-term purpose.
The horizon for this decidedly bowed, yet not defeated, part of the country instantly clears the moment we embrace the notion that the only ones on whom we should depend are ourselves.