Forget for an instant Newfoundland’s oil and gas gushers, which have transformed that perennial tail-of-the-dog province into one of Canada’s “haves.” Set aside Nova Scotia’s shimmering, ships-yet-to-be-built contracts that are supposed to pave our yellow brick road to the future. And ignore as well, at least for the moment, that it is summer, the very best of times in Atlantic Canada – certainly not a time to be contemplating That Question.
That Question, as posed recently by Peter McKenna, the chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Prince Edward Island, is simply this: “Has the Harper government placed Atlantic Canada in its crosshairs?”
Stephen Harper, you may recall, is the man who described us in 2002 as having a “culture of defeat,” whose idea of an inclusive pan-Canadian Canada can be summed up in a 2001 open letter he wrote to then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein, in which he claimed it was “imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”
Ralph Klein? Ah, yes, that Ralph Klein, the man who, when he was mayor of Calgary in the 1980s, famously dismissed the notion of a national energy program with a flip, “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”
Now that Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have gained their comfortable majority government without much electoral assistance from Atlantic Canada – and with even less required at the next federal election when there will be 30 new House of Commons seats, none of them from Atlantic Canada – he is free to reshape Canada into his own Alberta-centric, no-government-is-good-government, winners-vote-Tory, losers-weep country.
Consider his government’s recent get-a-real-job-you-lazy-fisherman reforms to Employment Insurance, his we’ll-teach-you-who’s-not-really-a-fisherman attacks on the “sacred pillars” of the east coast inshore fishery that have underpinned rural economies for generations, his oil-spills-what-oil-spills gutting of fisheries and oceans monitoring, his so-who-cares-if-Atlantic-Canadians-are-older-and-poorer reductions to Old Age Security, his rich-get-rich-and-we-get-the-crumbs, unilateral changes to how health care will be funded in future, his I-never-liked-ACOA-anyway cuts to regional economic development, his … well, you get the picture.
We can’t, of course, blame all our troubles on Stephen Harper. After all, we were the ones who elected generations of provincial governments that failed to foster homegrown enterprise while chasing the skirts of those come-from-away, mega-dreamers. Remember Malcolm Bricklin’s gull-winged automobile, Peter Munk’s Clairtone stereos, John Shaheen’s Come-by-Chance refinery? When their dreams became our nightmares – as they inevitably did – and they faded back to from wherever they came, we were saddled with debts we’re still paying off while our sons and daughters were driven to seek their futures elsewhere.
Even after the hollowing out of our own next generations became all too apparent, our governments – at least in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – blithely turned immigration policy into yet another quick-fix, patronage cash cow for their friends, repelling rather than attracting newcomers to our shores.
So yes, there’s plenty of blame to spread around.
And some of the issues Stephen Harper’s unilateral edicts raise do need to be addressed.
Do we really need dozens of government-funded local economic development authorities competing with each other for corporate leavings?
How should government encourage economic development? Or should it?
What should be the future shape of the fishery?
Are there better ways to leverage employment insurance so fewer Canadians end up depending on it as a necessary supplement to seasonal employment?
The problem for Canada (especially Atlantic Canada) is that those are not the questions Stephen Harper is focused on.
Instead, Stephen Harper – the man whose party only a third of us voted for – is embarked on a determined ideological campaign to massively remake Canada during the next four years into a new country we will not recognize, and may not want.
Atlantic Canada may not specifically be in Stephen Harper’s crosshairs; perhaps we’re just roadkill. But the effect will be the same.