Trump NAFTA Trudeau

The shout rings across the prairies. Omigod, something interesting is happening in Canada!

Fresh from an election which saw your secret boyfriend Justin Trudeau lose his majority, the country is talking about splitting up again. This time it’s got nothing to do with Quebec — even though the Bloc Quebecois roared back into life, gaining 32 seats in the 338-seat parliament, up from 10 (a clear shift leftward in Quebec, though unnoticed as such by most commentators).

No, now those talking separation are the two inner-western provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan. They delivered a result for Trudeau like Queensland on steroids, returning only a single non-conservative member out of 51 (for the New Democrats, Canada’s belated, separate Labour party).

The provinces are furious at the Trudeau government’s attempt to play both sides of the progressive/extractive divide (sound familiar?) regarding a pipeline that would ensure the continued viability of the country’s tar sands oil. They think they’re getting a raw deal on agricultural trade. And they don’t like the (limited) rights the federal government gives First Nations on resources issues.

So now the western provinces are grumbling about the amount of revenue they provide, the lack of representation they are afforded, and how they might be better off “Wexiting” oot of the federation, eh.

For federalism wonks — and hell, who isn’t — this is a fascinating exercise in the contradictions of such. Canada was genuinely federal until the 1960s, a product of the country’s origins as a fusion of Ontario and Quebec — two very different societies. But the federal government acquired more power (over social policy etc) under Pierre Trudeau, in the ’60s (except for Quebec, which was given further concessions).

First-past-the-post voting and three-party contests deliver clean sweeps and wipe-outs on a regular basis. Provinces, that were once united by being Anglo-Celtic, are now divided as Ontario and Quebec cement further as metropolitan centres. This happens in a lot of federations, but what makes Canada different is that it didn’t federate all at once.

The founding provinces of 1867 were joined by British Columbia and two others a few years later, territories became provinces in 1905, Newfoundland was a separate country until 1949 (sort of), and First Nations province Nunavut was established in 1999.

Canada does not have, at its root, the illusion that it could not be otherwise than it is. What makes Alberta and Saskatchewan still more distinct is their politics, for in the 1920s to the 1950s, they were the only place where the movement of Social Credit took real hold.

A pre-wonks wonk movement of the 1920s, Social Credit advocated for an early universal basic income and the social control of banking, to recognise the intangible contribution of co-operative intellect to the capital base, and restore purchasing power.

Why haven’t you heard of this prescient theory? Because its inventor, Major Douglas, was a fantastic anti-Semite who said essential to his theory was the belief that private banking was akin to the Jews recrucifying Christ. So after 1945, erm yeah…

Nevertheless, Social Credit governments in Alberta and social democrats in Sasketchewan were world-famous in the Depression, and delivered on social welfare and state ownership. Alas, the complex radicalism of the era has, as elsewhere, yielded to a politics of cultural ressentiment, dependent on the eternal resources fairy tree.

The provinces are therefore the very opposite of plural capital-rich environments; like Queensland, pipeline promises have not only sucked out traditions of innovation, but they have undermined cultures of regional self-reliance.

Interestingly, southern Queensland and northern NSW/New England were the only places in Australia where Social Credit gained traction, underpinning one iteration of the New England secession movement of the time. The League of Rights adopted the idea and it echoes down rural politics today — one reason why Barnaby Beetrooter was babbling about usury and US default during his hilarious turn as shadow finance minister.

But, the western provinces won’t be seceding, not least because British Columbia, centred around hipster Vancouver (God I love that city, hmmm I might move there, why haven’t I already?) ain’t going, which would mean no port. And because of course the whole idea is crackers. For the moment.

But the renewed chatter of secession reminds one — if reminder were necessary — that the modern nation-state, federated or otherwise, the child of the railway and the telegraph, is coming to grief as its corporate and culture elites centralise power and regionalise poverty and exclusion.

The US has no legal secession process, otherwise it would have come apart by now; Canada’s, I kid you not, Clarity Act, allows secession, but only with the full nation’s permission — including the separate permission of the convoked First Nations (why don’t we all live in Canada?).

In Australia, secession requires permission of the other states. Queensland, just ask. Just ask. The answer’s yes. Curse of a goddamn single continent: we’re stuck with each other.

Whether Canada is, we’ll find out, as Alberta’s proud cry — “Liberty! If it’s alright with the rest of you!” — rings out across the prairies.

Peter Fray

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