There are numerous concepts within the current Canadian political system that are perceived as problematic and that can negatively affect the political, economic, and social aspects of the country’s existence and future development. This essay will primarily discuss the issues revolving around regionalism and the representation of regional interests within Canada’s political system. The division of provinces into ‘outer’ and central ones, the balance of power between those, and the role of government and parliament in the representation of regional interests will be studied. This paper discusses the issues of power, its sources, and distribution within the federal parliamentary context of Canada.
Regarding the division of Canadian provinces, the concept of Central Canada refers to the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. While these provinces are not geographically situated in the center of the country, they play a significant and often dominant role from demographical, economic, political, and historical perspectives. Due to these characteristics, the mentioned provinces have always received more attention and held more power than other parts of the country. The concept of the Laurentian Consensus partially describes this issue from a historical perspective. For a long period of time, since Canadian Confederation, there was a clear dominance of Central Canada’s elites in Canada’s politics. Business, political, academic, media, and other elites of the cities situated along the St. Lawrence River, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, governed Canada in the way they saw fit (Ibbitson). These elites were primarily liberal, and their collaboration and domination were called the Laurentian Consensus.
One of the main reasons why the Eastern part of the country could dictate its interests was the population density. For instance, Ontario province alone accounted for 38.26% of the population of Canada in 2016, while Quebec had 23.23% (“Data products, 2016 Census”). Building on this demographic foundation and the long history of industry development, Central Canada accounts for 58.5% of the country’s GDP (“Gross domestic product”). More precisely, Ontario produces 38.6% of the gross domestic product, while Quebec accounts for 19.9% of it. Beyond the demographic and economic power of the provinces, there is a political projection of their dominance. Ontario and Quebec comprise 199 seats out of 338 in the Canadian House of Commons – roughly 59% (“House of Commons seat allocation by province 2022 to 2032”). These seats are allocated to the provinces based on their population divided by the Electoral quotient and Grandfather clause and Representation rule added in the case of Quebec. In the Senate of Canada, Ontario and Quebec each have 22.9% of seats, which underrepresents Ontario in terms of population. However, together Central provinces of Canada still have a considerable amount of power in the Senate as well.
Regarding other dimensions of regional inequality in Canada, there are complications between Western and Central Canada caused by the industry and resource allocations. Most of Canada’s oil and gas extraction and processing happens in the Western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan (“Where does Canada’s gasoline come from?”). The role of the oil industry is significant within the Canadian economy and essential for a country’s overall exports. The oil and gas sector constitutes around 10% of the country’s GDP; furthermore, “Canada is the fourth-largest producer and third-largest exporter of oil in the world” (“Crude oil facts”). At the same time, most of Canada’s manufacturing potential, which includes automobile and aerospace industries, is situated in the Central provinces. This division creates issues for the whole economy, as significant foreign investments in oil production raise the value of the Canadian dollar, which undermines other industries’ capabilities, resulting in Dutch disease (Papyrakis and Raveh 193). Moreover, further development of oil and gas industries creates regional capital and labor disbalances. This complicated relationship between industries creates both economic and political issues between the Central and Western provinces of the country.
One of the prominent crises of Canadian federalism of the 20th century was directly linked to the energy sector of the country. In 1980 Canada’s National Energy Program (NEP) was introduced; it had three main objectives: security of energy supply, increased participation in the petroleum industry, and petroleum pricing and revenue control (Pollard 164). The third goal played the main role in the federal-provincial relationship crisis. The government introduced several new taxes and a ‘blended’ pricing system and increased the share of federal government petroleum revenues to accomplish the goal. Under the new system, the domestic price of oil “was to equal the average cost of imported oil plus domestic oil” (Pollard 165).
The Western provinces strongly opposed the program, perceiving it as a marker of the growing centralization of power. In these efforts, they acted together with the oil and gas extracting companies that were also critical of the central government’s intervention in the market. Some of the provinces did not accept new policies and challenged them in courts or using their own administrative and bureaucratic resources; these actions destabilized the domestic oil and gas market of Canada. Later, when a new government came into power, most of the NEP policies were reversed. The economic and political dominance of Central Canada was one of the primary reasons the mentioned policies could be implemented, to begin with.
The objective historical disbalances of demography, economy, and subsequent political power between the provinces are evident from the mentioned facts. Moreover, it is illustrated by the case of 1980, when the federal government that downplayed the strategic interests of the Western provinces was elected and was able to enact its plans. However, despite the objective nature of inequality between the provinces, the political system of the country could have mitigated those differences, making the differences between regions less sharp. Nonetheless, as demonstrated before, with the allocation of House of Commons seats based on the population, the political system only reflects the disparity issue but does nothing to solve it. Even in the Senate, where different methods of seat allocation are employed, the representation of the Central provinces is the strongest. Moreover, the issue is aggravated by the brokerage model of the political system used in Canada.
The structure of Canadian politics is unique in terms of party formation. In most democratic countries around the world, parties are built around ideas and concepts that divide societies – parties reflect different approaches toward these issues. Therefore, parties become different and distinctive, as their distinctiveness becomes their advantage in the attraction of a targeted group of voters who can identify themselves with these parties. The divisions in such cases could be based on any factor, including ethnic, geographic, social, economic, etc. However, in Canada, major political parties were not designed in that way. Brokerage politics is the idea that a political party can gain support in regionally diverse circumstances by organizing deals that help the party gain support at the regional level (Johnston and Sharman 6). This means that such brokerage parties do not try to focus their efforts on particular target groups of citizens, but they target a ‘median voter.’ Such a target naturally increases the weight of the most populated territories as a higher percentage of voters live there, and these voters are more homogeneous.
It is argued that since 1867 brokerage model has played an important role in Canadian politics as the country is an example of a regionally and socially diverse nation (Johnston and Sharman 7). Two main Canadian parties – Liberals and Conservatives were two major brokerage model players for most of the country’s history, with numerous smaller secondary parties trying to represent more distinctive interests. Within this system, Quebec played a paramount role in the national majority building process, therefore receiving various unique political, economic, and social benefits.
The discussions of the issues mentioned in the paper have been ongoing for decades. One of the prominent branches of such discussions is the debate regarding intra-state and inter-state federalism. According to Cairns (2), intrastate federalism presumes that the center lost legitimacy, and regional interests are the most important – there are two main ways of accommodating them – either through a centralist or decentralist approach. The former implies the better representation of provinces within the current federal institutions, the latter – strengthening provinces’ own voice in national decision-making. Cairns (4) claimed that at his time, intra-state federalism was a recent concept that was gaining popularity.
Overall, the residents of Canada’s outer provinces believe that Canada’s political system is organized to favor Central Canada because the system does not mitigate the objective benefits that Central Canada has. Due to these geographical, historical, demographical, and economic benefits, Central provinces are able to project more political power too. Moreover, some political scientists disapprove of the Canadian governing institutions due to some of its inherent historical issues, such as the brokerage politics model or the inability to shift political power focus from demographics.
Cairns, Alan. From Interstate to Intrastate Federalism in Canada. Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queen’s University, 1979.
“Crude oil facts.” Government of Canada. Web.
“Data products, 2016 Census.” Statistics Canada, 2016.
“Gross domestic product, expenditure-based, provincial and territorial, annual.” Statistics Canada, 2020.
“House of Commons seat allocation by province 2022 to 2032.” Elections Canada.
Ibbitson, John. “The Collapse of the Laurentian Consensus: On the westward shift of the Canadian power and values.” Literary Review of Canada.
Johnston, Richard, and Campbell Sharman, editors. Parties and Party Systems: Structure and Context. UBC Press, 2015.
Pollard, Bruce. “Canadian Energy Policy in 1985: Toward a Renewed Federalism?” The Journal of Federalism, vol. 16, no. 3, 1986, pp. 163-174.
“Where does Canada’s gasoline come from?” Canada Energy Regulator, 2019.