In an evening of discussions, a panel organized in collaboration with the Institute for Research in Public Policy welcomed a full house at McGill’s Faculty Club. Titled ‘Justin Trudeau and the Politics of Federalism’, the event extensively examined Ottawa’s interprovincial policies entering the new year. Chantal Hébert, a political journalist at the Toronto Star, began the night with a show of candor, challenging the other panelists to maintain a balance of hope and concern.
“This parliament is opening 2020 on an incredible show of federal [and] provincial unity,” Hébert said.
Hébert revealed that she was impressed by the unanimous support for the United States – Mexico – Canada Agreement (USMCA), but is still concerned by the ways that progress can be inhibited by a minority government.
Daniel Béland, a McGill professor of political science and the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, was the first to introduce the rising concern of Albertan separatism, noting how the division of right-and left-wing politics has manifested in geographical conflict.
“This issue of fairness and trust within our federal system [reveals how] partisan divides [have become] way stronger now,” Daniel Béland said. “[…] The times have passed and now we live in a different context [….] These elections at the provincial level [have] change[d] the partisan map across the country.”
At the opposite end of the table, Christopher Ragan, Director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy and a McGill professor of economics, steered the topic of ‘Wexit’ instead to the movement’s relationship with Ottawa. An Alberta native, he reasoned that there is more concern for self-preservation in Western Canada than for federal opposition.
However, the event moderator, Charles Breton, was quick to challenge this view. An Executive Director of the Institute for Research in Public Policy, Breton restated his suspicion of the West during the question and answer session.
“As someone [who has] lived in Vancouver for 10 years before coming here, when we talk about Wexit, there’s only one part of the West that wants out and it’s not British Columbia,” Breton said.
The panel addressed how the disparity between British Columbia and Alberta indicates the necessity of proceeding with the interests of each province in mind. In examining the intricacies of interprovincial negotiations, the panelists emphasized the consequences of categorizing conflict.
“For as long as I have been in politics, Alberta has been all in or all out,” Hébert said. “[…I] don’t think that the kind of debate over Québec’s place in Canada really parallels the current debate about Alberta and Saskatchewan alienation. Both are very real, but they’re grounded in very different phenomena.”
Hébert and Ragan described how ‘Wexit’ will be dependent on the federal government’s course of action, but could create further division in Canada as political and economic fluctuations prove inversely proportional.
“One of the lovely ironies is that […] the decline in the price of oil, which is a big and negative shock in Alberta is a positive shock to the economies of Ontario and Québec,” Ragan said. “So I’m actually surprised that this hasn’t been a point that has been picked up as something that’s adding to the political tension.”
Despite the challenges facing the minority government, the panel easily identified where Canada is capable of growth, and the possibility of unity.
“In the end, federalism is not for or about those political actors—it’s supposed to be about the people. It’s an institutional arrangement that’s there to increase accountability,” Breton concluded.
As this parliament moves forward, the audience reflected the developing curiosity of the changing political climate.
“It was a good catch-up […] there hasn’t been a whole lot going on in politics right now,” Nathan Collett, U2 Arts & Science., said. “It’s good to see so much interest.”