Given a choice between extreme or balanced approaches to resolving public issues, Canadians will generally opt for balance. This prompts the question whether there might be a more balanced approach than that offered by the Justin Trudeau government to the management of economic recovery, environmental protection and health care reform in the post-Covid-19 period. And, given the sensitivity of the Trudeau government to Quebec’s distinct concerns and aspirations, and its insensitivity to those of the western provinces, is there a more balanced approach to federal-provincial relations and national unity? Might there also be a unifying alternative to the extreme divisiveness of the Identity Politics offered by the federal Liberals and the NDP?
Balance on the Environment-Economy Front
On the environment-economy front we are in grave danger of simply oscillating between two extremes – from the historical situation in which economic development proceeded with scarce regard for its environmental impacts, to the current situation where the single-minded focus on environmental protection often proceeds with scarce regard for economic consequences and the damage this can do to Canadians. What is desperately needed is a major effort to secure balance on the environment-economy front.
In order for governments and the public to be able to achieve such a balance, environmental impact assessments on every major economic development – now required by law in most jurisdictions – still need to be conducted and heeded. But to balance that, economic impact assessments, done thoroughly and in good faith, also need to be conducted and heeded on every major environmental protection measure – such as the signing of the Paris Accord and the institution of a carbon pricing regime.
In Canada, the necessity of conducting economic impact assessments on every major environmental protection measure is not yet fully recognized nor mandated by law, resulting in an imbalance on the environment-economy front that is in urgent need of correction.
Balance on the Health Care Front
When federal and provincial governments charged their health care bureaucracies with designing and implementing health protection measures to cope with the Covid-19 crisis, they failed to insist that assessments be simultaneously carried out of the impacts of those measures on the economy (jobs, incomes and the viability of businesses), on rights and freedoms (supposedly guaranteed by the Charter), and on people with non-Covid-19-related illnesses being consigned to health-care waiting lines.
As a result, there have been:
- Hundreds of thousands of cases where jobs, incomes and businesses have been killed by the health protection measures adopted, with no official attempt to measure or report these economic impacts so that a balance could be struck between health protection and the protection of the economy;
- Hundreds of thousands of cases where the Charter rights and freedoms of Canadians have been violated via health protection measures, with no attempt to measure or report these impacts so that an appropriate balance could be struck between health protection and the protection of rights and freedoms; and
- Untold thousands of Canadians added to the ever-lengthening health-care waiting lines and a spike in the numbers of those who have died waiting for treatments, with no acknowledgement as yet by any of the governments that the antiquated and overloaded Canadian health care system is in urgent need of fundamental reform.
When that acknowledgment eventually comes – one wonders which province and which federal party will lead the way – Canada will likely follow the lead of most other OECD countries (except the U.S.). And that will be to transition to a “mixed” health care system, one that provides universal access but delivers more timely care through a better balance between public health care and public-private partnerships, not-for-profit institutions and private health-care providers.
Balance on the Federal-Provincial Front
When the Fathers of Confederation put together Canada’s original constitution they sought to strike a balance between the roles of the federal and provincial governments by carefully delineating the particular responsibilities of each in sections 91 and 92 of what was then known as the British North America Act. But serious federal-provincial tensions and imbalances threatening national unity are created when the federal government unilaterally intervenes in areas of provincial or joint jurisdiction, as it has done repeatedly.
What is required to reduce federal-provincial tensions and secure a better balance in federal-provincial relations? A constitutional amendment prohibiting the federal government from legislating, spending, taxing or making treaties in areas of provincial jurisdiction (such as natural resources) or joint jurisdiction (such as health or environmental protection), unless it secures the consent of the province(s) affected.
Balance on the Regional Front
Canada is a nation of unique geographic regions – the Atlantic, Laurentian, Western (some would carve out B.C. as its own region), and Northern. Each region has its own distinctive concerns and aspirations requiring recognition and attention from the federal government and the rest of Canada. When the distinctive concerns and aspirations of only one province – such as Quebec – are given official recognition and special attention by the federal government, this imbalance is not only resented by the people of the other provinces, it can do material harm to those other regions, and it puts major strains on federal-provincial relations. When the distinctive concerns and aspirations of the several western provinces are consistently and systematically ignored by the federal government and the rest of Canada, this imbalance also threatens the unity of the federation itself.
The remedy? Explicit and official recognition by some federal leader and party of the regional character of Canada and the distinctive characteristics of each region, accompanied by the offering of measures to address the particular concerns and aspirations of each. Within this broader context of recognizing Canada’s regionalism, specific measures to recognize Quebec as a distinct society or to address western alienation would become less destabilizing because each of the other regions would also have their distinctive features recognized and their particular concerns and aspirations addressed as well. The principle would also be established that the price of one region getting a particular concern or aspiration addressed would be for it to support rather than oppose measures to address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of other regions.
Unity Politics as an Alternative to Identity Politics
Canadian politics is increasingly being fractured along half-a-dozen fault lines defined and accentuated by so-called Identity Politics. This makes it increasingly difficult to achieve the national consensus required to actually implement any of the major policy positions put forward by the federal leaders and their parties.
State-supported Identity Politics has the following characteristics:
- A group of voters whose political support a political party wishes to court is identified by some fundamental personal characteristic such as their ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation;
- The political party, commonly a governing party, then confers or promises to confer some right or benefit upon members of the group in return for their political support;
- It is made abundantly clear that the group’s members owe the conferring of this right or benefit to the party promising or granting it, and that if they should support any other party it will likely be withdrawn again; and
- Critics of this approach are quickly labelled as bigots motivated by prejudice against the identified group, thus insulating the approach and related policies from serious analysis or criticism of any kind.
In critiquing Identity Politics it is of course essential to recognize that there arevarious Canadians who by virtue of some characteristic are or have been marginalized, victimized and prejudicially treated by the majority of Canadians with the concurrence of the state: women and children, Indigenous people, immigrants, gays and transgender people, and most recently, people of religious faith. Justice and compassion demand that such wrongs be recognized and rectified. The challenge, however, is to do so by ways and means that foster acceptance of members of such groups at the most fundamental level: as human beings deserving of respect and fair treatment regardless of their distinguishing personal characteristics rather than because of them.
The weakness and danger of state-supported Identity Politics as currently practised by the Trudeau government and others is that it divides the population and electorate into an increasing number of minority groups distinguished mainly by their differences rather than their commonalities. This will make the reconciliation of conflicting interests and the achievement of a national consensus on anything increasingly difficult to attain.
Correction of this divisive deviation from democratic values thus requires a re-focusing on what could be called “Unity Politics.” Unity Politics focuses on those values or aspirations – for example, the desire for acceptance, freedom, safety and opportunity – which the vast majority of Canadians share, and advocates policies that strengthen the bonds that unite Canadians on that ground. The replacement of Identity Politics with Unity Politics is a prerequisite to achieving the national consensus on key issues required to facilitate implementation of any of the major policy positions put forward by federal leaders and parties in their election speeches and platforms.
In summary, a key question to be answered in analyzing which federal leader, party and candidate to support in the upcoming federal election is, who offers the most balanced approach – on the environment-economy front, on the health care front, on the federal-provincial and regional fronts, on the national unity front, and on whatever front is of greatest importance to you.
Preston Manning is a former Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, was a Member of Parliament for nearly 10 years and founded the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. His most recent book is Do Something! 365 Ways You Can Strengthen Canada, reviewed here.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.