Donald J. Savoie’s remarkable career as a scholar, policy analyst, and occasional government insider has brought him many honours, and in this very personal book, his love for a Canada that he believes “offers more advantages to its citizens than any other country” shines through. At the same time, he bemoans how our politics and sense of self have been soured by widespread claims of victimhood by Canadians in all regions and, seemingly, all walks of life. He believes such a mentality is rarely justified, with Indigenous and Black communities being exceptions for which he makes a heartfelt appeal for more help.
Savoie’s perspective is coloured by his belonging to the Acadian community in New Brunswick. Pushed inland by the British, his ancestors settled in tiny Saint-Maurice, on “the land that God gave Cain.” For generations, Acadians survived “by clinging to one another, by living in small isolated communities, by limiting contacts with the outside world, by turning to the Roman Catholic clergy for guidance in all things, and by looking simply to survive rather than play a leading role in politics and business.” In his youth, Savoie believed Acadians were “the true victims in New Brunswick and in Canada,” but things changed when Louis Robichaud became premier in 1960. Savoie’s hero, Robichaud oversaw New Brunswick’s own Quiet Revolution of modernization and enhanced rights for Acadians. Now, sixty years later, the community is vibrant and prosperous, and Savoie believes it is time for it to move on from victimhood.
Savoie has also grown less tolerant of other claims to victimhood. He argues that every region in Canada has such a mentality; even Ontario has a sense of being wronged that goes back to Loyalist refugees and to more recent debates over fiscal fairness. Savoie believes Quebec has a better claim to victimhood, based on the Conquest and Lord Durham’s Report, but he points to a long history of domination by the Church and to the romanticization of a rural lifestyle as the main reasons for its late development. Quebec has been transformed since the 1960s, with significant help from federal governments led by prime ministers from the province for forty-four of the past fifty-five years.
Savoie is more sympathetic to the grievances of the Maritimes and the West. The Maritime bill of attainder includes Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy; industrial policies during the Second World War; shipbuilding contracts sent to Quebec, even though they would have been performed more cost-effectively in the Maritimes; and the Chignecto Canal, an eighty-year saga of inaction. However, he believes “there are signs that the region is making the transition away from victimhood,” in part because of the benefits of recent free trade agreements and changes to immigration policy. When discussing western beefs, Savoie again mentions the National Policy; the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan, rather than one big province; the delay in transferring control of natural resources to these provinces; the National Energy Program; and the awarding of Bombardier maintenance work to Montreal, even though Winnipeg was more competitive.
Many of these historic complaints have some justification, but Savoie paints a one-sided picture. For example, he believes the fossil fuel sector has not received support equivalent to that given to Ontario’s auto sector or to Quebec’s aeronautics industry. Yet he makes no mention of how Ottawa has repeatedly adopted policies to promote the oil industry: support for the TransCanada Pipeline; the Borden Line that made Ontario and the western provinces a captive market for Alberta oil; the Hibernia agreement; accelerated depletion to kick-start oilsands development; and, most recently, the purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline in an expensive rescue operation. These decisions have not been motivated by altruism. Petroleum is one of Canada’s largest industries, by far our biggest export sector, and a major source of federal revenues. So its health has been a major preoccupation of federal officials. Of course, some policies — notably the National Energy Program — were abhorred by the industry. They intervened in the market to redistribute large rents among governments, producers, and consumers. Now the vexing challenge of managing the transition to a low-carbon economy inevitably leads to tensions with Alberta, while posing major difficulties for the country as a whole.
Similar stories can be told for other sectors. Federal governments have promoted farming interests across the country, including marketing assistance, crop insurance, and rebuilding the grain rail system in Western Canada. They provided financing for New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau nuclear plant and a loan guarantee for the ill-fated Muskrat Falls project (followed by bailouts). Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan have all had sweet deals on equalization payments. The seasonal benefits part of the employment insurance program reflects consistent pressure from Atlantic politicians to maintain it, though Savoie appears to dislike it.
Savoie argues that Ontario and Quebec benefit from structural and institutional favouritism because that’s where the big voting blocs are. But parties competing to form government try to win seats wherever they can, and Ontario and Quebec voters are often divided. Moreover, good policy making is about more than politics, though Savoie believes the federal finance department and the Privy Council Office view problems “from a Central Canada perspective.”
For Savoie, “our national political and administrative institutions are not suited to work in a federal system.” His favourite institutional reform remains a Triple‑E Senate (equal, elected, effective), much discussed in the 1990s, which he believes would have attenuated regional tensions and given more voice to the Atlantic and western provinces. (I suspect it could well have aggravated such tensions — but enough on what even Savoie admits is a dead duck.) Other reforms include “making Cabinet government work, appointing regional ministers, decentralizing the federal public service, and producing an annual report card on Western issues.” While some of these may be beneficial, they seem quite modest given his overall critique. He makes no mention of electoral reform, a commitment the Liberals made in their 2015 platform but then dropped when faced with an opposition-drafted Commons report calling for a form of proportional representation to be put to a referendum. Our current first-past-the-post system exaggerates our regional cleavages, which Savoie is keen to mitigate, so his silence on this topic is surprising. Electoral reform remains the one big institutional change that is still possible, and experience elsewhere shows that it happens when parties think it is in their interest. It could become more likely as our party system fractures.
While Savoie argues we have major institutional weaknesses, he says our politicians have found ways to “sidestep” our rigid Constitution and have “been able to accommodate or rather attenuate regional or other tensions by coming up with government programs — many of which, by design, show little respect for jurisdictional boundaries.” The key tool is the spending power, which Ottawa has used to create “hyphenated federalism,” by which he means a large array of federal-provincial shared-cost programs. His optimism about this workaround may be undeserved, given the increasing share of federal transfers that are virtually without conditions, as well as provincial resistance to new conditional programs. The terms of the Canada Health Act are often honoured in the breach by several provinces, and federal efforts to develop a robust national health information system have been largely frustrated. Savoie’s confidence in hyphenated federalism, in Canadians’ trust in government, and in our politicians’ ability to achieve results seems to undercut his broader critique.
I agree with Savoie that regional claims to victimhood are ill-founded, though I think he overplays the victim mentality. I also agree that any such claims by the business community, Chinese and Japanese Canadians, politicians and public servants, francophone minorities, and rural Canada don’t rise to the level of victimhood. Although Savoie declares the “odds are stacked against rural Canada,” the only groups he thinks currently have a true claim to the status of victims are Indigenous people and Black Canadians. After so much discussion of “victimhood” without any definition, he finally quotes, on page 242, Murray Sinclair’s vivid description: “There are elements of the Indigenous community that are still living their victimization on a daily basis, which is that they don’t speak out, they don’t act out, they don’t do anything to be demanding. They don’t see their situation as a loss of rights, they see their situation as almost their fault.” This is victimhood as a total loss of agency and self‑worth, which certainly justifies not using the term for most other groups with complaints.
Should we even use it for Indigenous communities? Savoie admits he has struggled with the term’s use, and he provides examples of First Nations that have been able to transition away from victimhood. But do the many Indigenous people and Black Canadians who are educated, active, and often leaders in all walks of life see themselves as victims? Indigenous leaders tend to emphasize their rights and their pride in their heritage — including surviving defeats and abuse — as much as the deep problems and injustices their communities have faced.
Savoie concedes he’s not an expert on Indigenous issues, but he is deeply concerned by continued suffering and discrimination. Given his background in regional economic development, he focuses on the challenges of 630 First Nations spread across 3,100 reserves. His central message is that self-government is critical for community development. He gives examples of success and mentions the self-government agreements outside the Indian Act with the Nisga’a and the Yukon First Nations. Even so, he understates the extent of progress: since 1973, there have been four stand-alone self-government agreements and twenty-six comprehensive land claims settlements (of which eighteen had provisions related to self-government). Some of these involve nations coming together for shared services and joint self-government. Savoie rightly decries the Indian Act, but in the absence of consensus among First Nations on its replacement, individual bodies must negotiate separate deals to escape it. This process can take decades and swallow up huge resources. There are currently about a hundred comprehensive claims and self-government negotiations under way across Canada. Might there be a way to speed up and generalize the process? Could existing agreements provide templates that other First Nations could opt into with minor adjustments?
In the 2016 census, 1.67 million people identified as Indigenous, whether First Nations (58 percent), Métis (35 percent), or Inuit (4 percent). Only half of First Nations people lived on-reserve, and much of the Indian Act does not apply to those who live elsewhere. In 1970, Harold Cardinal wrote Citizens Plus in reaction to the white paper that proposed eliminating “Indian” status. “Citizens plus” is a useful term, especially as we think about those living off-reserve: What does it mean for them to be citizens alongside other Canadian citizens? What is to be the “plus” for the various off-reserve groups, whether special rights, programs, or even governance arrangements? Savoie’s focus on self-government for First Nations on-reserve, important as it is, does not begin to address these and other issues that urgently require some clarity.
Canada: Beyond Grudges, Grievances, and Disunity is the product of a mellower Donald J. Savoie, the long-time critic. We can share his rejection of many of the claims of victimhood he describes — even if he overstates their prevalence — and perhaps agree that the country is in some ways enviable and not fundamentally broken. His focus on victimhood leads to his conclusion that Canada has “a problem” regarding the plight of Indigenous and Black populations. While we can agree with this as well, a book centred on a discussion of victimhood misses other major challenges we confront.