The Western “Colonies”

Our notion of equal provinces from sea to sea is surprisingly new

In Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark: The West Versus the Rest Since Confederation, Mary Janigan addresses a large and contentious issue—the place of the West in Canada—by exploring the historical struggle of the Prairie provinces to secure ownership of their natural resources on the same constitutional footing enjoyed by the other provinces. Her window on this larger issue makes a lot of sense given the centrality of resource development to the regional economy. At the same time, the “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” theme is not as broadly representative of the Western Canadian experience as Janigan’s provocative title suggests.

This extensively researched and highly readable historical account, stretching from Louis Riel to Thomas Mulcair and Alison Redford, neatly combines scholarly depth with broad public appeal. Eastern Bastards should find a market well beyond the small community of federal-provincial policy specialists as Janigan has considerable success using the byzantine world of intergovernmental relations to shed light on some of the major themes of contemporary Canadian political life including resource development, regional conflict, environmental tensions and fiscal equalization. And, as I will come back to shortly, her story and thus her market are Canadian rather than Western Canadian alone.

To paint with a much broader brush than the one used by Janigan, the story begins in 1869 when title to Rupert’s Land was transferred from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the new Canadian government. In the face of Métis and settler concerns about the security of land title, concerns forcefully articulated by Louis Riel, Ottawa created the tiny, postage-stamp province of Manitoba in 1870 while still retaining full title to the land and resources across the vast North Western Territories. The initially compelling case for federal ownership of Western land rested on the need to promote immigration and railway development, both through land grants, and to complete treaties with aboriginal peoples.

Federal ownership then continued 35 years later when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Territories in 1905, and when the boundaries of Manitoba were extended to their present state. Although Ottawa provided subsidies to the Prairie provinces in lieu of revenue from the sale of land and natural resources, the Prairie provinces nevertheless had a quite different constitutional status, an inferior status to that enjoyed by the other provinces.

Not surprisingly, governments on the Prairies began to campaign for equal constitutional status with respect to resource ownership, coupled with the retention of federal subsidies. Janigan nicely brings this protracted campaign into focus with her detailed account of a four-day November 1918 federal-provincial conference. As she writes, “the gathering unexpectedly became a microcosm of everything that was wrong within the federation—and everything that remained wrong. Into those four days, decades of past quarrels were compressed, and decades of embittered claims were foreshadowed.”

The three Prairie premiers came to the Ottawa meeting with the demand that the Western provinces be given the same ownership rights with respect to natural resources as those possessed by Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. They encountered fellow premiers who were confronting the difficult financial challenges of post-war adjustment and a federal government all but exhausted by the stress of wartime administration. They failed to encounter Prime Minister Robert Borden at all, as he opted to depart for meetings and relaxation in Britain. In short, the premiers’ timing, only nine days after the end of the First World War, could not have been worse. They showed up wanting more when there was no more to be had. Thus the Gang of Three—Manitoba’s Tobias Crawford Norris, Saskatchewan’s William Melville Martin and Alberta’s Charles Stewart—returned from Ottawa empty handed apart from their determination to continue to act in concert.

Although I cannot agree with Janigan that the November 1918 conference was a “seminal event,” much less a turning point, in the West’s relationship with the rest of Canada, in her hands the conference is used to good effect to illustrate enduring themes that continue to play out today; the conference provides a useful snapshot of the long-running Western Canadian saga. As Janigan explains, not even the 1930 transfer of federal land title to provincial governments on the Prairies and the title of unallocated railway land to British Columbia were decisive turning points. At the time of the resource transfer the Great Depression was taking hold with devastating effect on the Prairies, provincial governments were all but insolvent, and control of natural resources primarily meant increased administrative costs. It would not be until the Leduc oil discovery in 1947 that “the Western premiers, including Alberta’s astonished [Ernest] Manning, could catch their first real glimpse of the promise of resource control.”

In many ways, the capstone for the Western Canadian campaign came with the Constitution Act of 1982 that underscored and reinforced provincial ownership of natural resources. Although provincial equality with respect to resource ownership came with the 1930 transfer, the 1982 act provided greater constitutional protection. The act, it should also be noted, came on the heels of the 1980 National Energy Program that spawned the infamous phrase Janigan uses for her title: “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”

However, just as the Prairie provinces achieved success in their long and relentless struggle for ownership of their natural resources on a par with other provincial governments,the 1982 Constitution Act embedded treaty rights within the contemporary Canadian constitution and thus provided the foundation for aboriginal challenges to that ownership. Aboriginal peoples began to argue that their resource ownership was never relinquished by the treaties and, by implication, that provincial governments should get in line behind First Nations when it comes to resource ownership. In short, the Western struggle for resource ownership is now being played out again with respect to aboriginal peoples, although in this new round aboriginal peoples are much better armed by the courts and constitution than the provincial governments ever were.

Here there may be some important lessons for aboriginal peoples to draw from the Western experience described so well by Janigan. One such lesson is that ownership of natural resources cannot be equated with control. Although the federal government finally relinquished ownership of natural resources to the three Prairie provinces in the early 1930s, and although provincial ownership was underscored in the 1982 Constitution Act, the federal government retains a multitude of powers that can be legitimately brought to bear on resource development. These include not only broad taxation powers but also jurisdictional authority with respect to interprovincial and international trade. Of particular importance going forward will be Ottawa’s regulatory capacity with respect to environmental regulation and foreign investment. Control of natural resources, therefore, is inherently more muddied than is ownership, a reality aboriginal peoples will not escape. There is no neat constitutional fix to the complexities of resource development.

Of equal importance is the fact that resource ownership is of limited value if market access cannot be found. As Alberta’s contemporary struggles to market its vast bitumen resources illustrate, constitutional ownership will not open up Asian markets or ensure access to traditional markets in the United States. It will not shore up slumping American demand for hydrocarbons, or forestall the almost explosive growth in the American production of natural gas and oil. Constitutional ownership will not ensure the massive amount of foreign investment that will be required, or determine who might be able to invest in Canadian resource development. It will carry little if any weight with the Parti Québécois in their resistance to more Western oil coming into Quebec, and it will not silence environmental opposition to the oil sands and pipelines.

For aboriginal peoples, as for provincial governments in the West, there is no guarantee that resource ownership alone will unlock economic prosperity. Markets must still be found, and the encompassing federal and provincial governments will continue to exercise significant influence on aboriginal resource development regardless of court expansions of aboriginal resource ownership. If the Alberta government and the huge oil and gas industry are encountering significant market access challenges, what does this imply for small First Nations in remote parts of the country?

On other fronts, Janigan’s book provides an important corrective to scholars such as myself who sometimes attach too much weight to the macroeconomic determinants of Western Canadian development. We can forget that even the impact of the price of wheat or oil gets filtered through the political personalities of the day, that Peter Lougheed, for instance, was not any old premier but a unique player on the political stage. Janigan thus reminds us that personalities count. Incidentally, in doing so she also provides further evidence for people such as myself who argue that William Lyon Mackenzie King, despite very difficult circumstances, was a remarkably accomplished manager of the federation. King provides badly needed evidence that Ottawa has not always mismanaged the Western Canadian file!

What Janigan does so well is to add important detail and nuance to the much larger story of regional conflict and resource development, and to the evolving place of the West in Canada. In part, she accomplishes this by showing how the Prairie West was seen in colonial terms by both Ottawa and the older provinces; Rupert’s Land, it was believed, was bought and paid for by the Dominion, and should generate a reasonable rate of return. The costs of Western settlement to the federal government, and thus to Eastern taxpayers, should be recouped. Difficult as it may be to see the contemporary West in colonial terms, Janigan’s account makes it very clear that this was precisely the way the region was seen by the federal government, and by the five Eastern provinces leading up to the November 1918 conference. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the ways in which the November negotiations did not change the world is that the colonial framework lingered on for generations to come. As Janigan herself argues, echoes of the 1918 mindset can be found in the political leadership—I use the term loosely—of Pierre Trudeau and the contemporary musings of the Leader of the Official Opposition, Thomas Mulcair.

Eastern Bastards also illustrates how difficult it can be to fit the square peg of British Columbia into the round hole of Western Canada, and hence the need to constantly qualify what is meant by “the West,” something that Janigan seldom does. British Columbia readers will undoubtedly rankle at the inclusive use of “Western Canada” and “the West” when, apart from the not insignificant issue of railway lands, British Columbia secured full provincial ownership of its natural resources when it entered Confederation in 1871. British Columbians were largely bystanders in the constitutional struggle described by Janigan, and thus “the West” in the book’s subtitle should more properly be seen as the Prairie West.

The bottom line? I certainly enjoyed Janigan’s book, and learned a lot. The colonial narrative will be an eye-opener to many readers, as will the often bitter conflict between the governments of the Prairie provinces and those of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. The historical lesson is clear: federal-provincial conflict is often reinforced by, and may even find its roots in, conflict among provincial governments and competition among provincial economies. Any illusion of provincial solidarity vis-à-vis Ottawa is just that, an illusion; the federal government is often a referee more than a player in regional conflict.

As Janigan quite correctly asserts, the struggle for resource ownership was central to the larger struggle by Western Canadians to find their place in Canada. However, and as she also asserts in her own publicity for the book, “this is not a regional story. It is the story of Canada.” As such, it is seldom an uplifting story but rather a story of nation building by default, of regional conflict and jealousies as political leaders wrestled with narrow provincial self-interest, the burdens of war, economic depression, and the huge challenges of immigration and Western settlement. Nonetheless, it is our story, Canada’s story, and there is great pleasure and real despair that comes from wallowing in its details.

My guess is that for many Western Canadian readers, Eastern Bastards will fan residual embers of regional discontent. For readers from outside the West, Eastern Bastards will illustrate how contemporary resource conflicts have deep historical roots. The Quebec licence plate slogan, “Je me souviens,” would make pretty good sense in Lethbridge or Moose Jaw. Unfortunately, the provocative title of the book may also distort our understanding of the contemporary West. After all, “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” was first and foremost a bumper sticker response to the National Energy Program, and one that never captured majority opinion in southern Alberta much less the region as a whole. It was a phrase specific to a given time and place. Prior to the November 1918 conference, the “Eastern bastards” were the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters of the Western settlers, and not much has changed today. The Western Canadian “project” was always a nation-building project, about creating shared prosperity.

I fully understand the appeal of the Eastern Bastards title; the same book with the title “Intergovernmental Relations and Natural Resource Development: Louis Riel to Alison Redford” would not leap off the shelves. Nevertheless, there is a risk that Janigan’s title places too much weight on the conflicted relationship between the West and the rest, and not enough weight on nation building. There is no desire today to “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark,” although an occasional chill would not go amiss.

At the time of Janigan’s centrepiece, the November 1918 federal-provincial conference, the original partners of Confederation strongly believed they had a stake in Western Canadian lands and resources, that through the federal government they had paid for both the purchase of Rupert’s Land and the heavy costs of Western settlement. Hopefully that belief can be restored today, albeit in a less predatory fashion. If Canadians at large can be convinced that they have an even greater stake today in the prosperity of the West, then Eastern Bastards will stand out more for its insights into the past than for its warnings about the future.