East vs. West in the Great North

It seems bizarre that one industry, centered exclusively in one region, could drive national policy – economic, environmental, and social – in a country as large and regionally diverse as Canada. But that is exactly what is happening. If there is one unifying theme to the Harper Government’s ‘Omnibus Budget Bill’ C-38, it is the expansion of the Alberta tar sands (please don’t be fooled by their misleading re-branding as oil sands – the resource is thick, dirty bitumen, not like crude oil from conventional oil wells). The bill includes a re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, as well as reforms to immigration and Employment Insurance which, we should presume, will encourage Canadians and foreign skilled workers to emigrate to Alberta and seek employment working on the tar sands.  The budget seems designed to make Canada’s economy even more dependent on extracting wealth from the tar sands, even at the cost of jobs that have traditionally formed the backbone of the economy in Canada’s eastern provinces (Employment Insurance reforms will punish people who use the program repeatedly, such as fishermen in the Maritime provinces, who work seasonally and need support the rest of the year).

Furthermore, the Federal Government’s single-minded focus on the tar sands is creating further divisions between people who derive income from the Alberta Tar Sands and those who do not. Creating divisions is something this government has always been quite good at – just ask John Baird to tell you his feelings about ‘Toronto Elites’ who thought it might be a good idea for the government to keep track of firearms sold in Canada.  House Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair did little to ease the situation when he commented that money from the tar sands was artificially inflating the Canadian dollar, costing manufacturing jobs in eastern provinces. That is not to say that he was wrong – it is very likely, and in fact studies have shown, that the high rate of exchange on the Canadian dollar has done nothing to help the failing manufacturing industry in Ontario. But it is still divisive. Calling Premiers of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan messengers of Stephen Harper even more so.

It inflames the situation still further that the very same western province Premiers are getting together to take pot-shots at Mulcair and anyone east of Manitoba without full-time employment. Personally, I find their tone antagonistic and disturbing. And the nasty smirk on Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s face when she gleefully announces that she will be away at an energy conference when Mulcair visits the tar sands – at her suggestion – even more so.

So what, then, is the solution? From my point of view, I’d shut the whole operation down and start to replant the natural environment that has so joyously been decimated in the region. Naturally I don’t expect to gain much assent for this suggestion.  But I think a conversation about generating sustainable economic growth in Canada (only a tiny fraction of the money from the oil sands actually ends up in Canada), without causing reckless damage to the environment, can only happen if we could put aside the rhetoric – I know it’s hard, John Baird, I know, just try it for a second, though -  and try to speak civilly and rationally to one another. Let’s all of us stop assuming we already have all the answers, and see if there really is any value in communicating with one another. Maybe people in the east don’t really want to contribute to the poisoning of the air and water and degradation of wildlife habitat. Maybe they want to be a part of a traditional occupation that has always been part of this country’s identity. Perhaps the opinions of representatives – Members of Parliament (MPs) and Premiers – from those regions should be taken on board. Oh, wait, what’s that?  The representatives elected to Parliament by Canadians are being bypassed in order to enact the budget bill more quickly, and the only MPs who will be reviewing the changes to immigration, social insurance, environmental, and tax regulations will be the Finance Committee? Well, never mind, I’m sure they didn’t have anything important to add anyway.