Why I am a British Columbian first, a Canadian second. How about you?
When you reach a certain age, the rules change. No longer do you hear much nor indeed have to care much about political correctness. When you have been fired one more time than you have been hired, and when people expect you to be rather snarly and grumpy anyway, you’re home free to write what I’m about to say.
Many years ago, when I hosted the midnight show at CKNW, a caller asked if I was a Canadian first or a British Columbian first. Without hesitation, I answered “a British Columbian.”
That is much more so now than ever.
I have always been a British Columbian first, and in many ways.
For example, I loathe the Toronto Maple Leafs. Surely, that’s a good start!
On one occasion when my two stepchildren were little, we were watching a hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Czechoslovakia. My wife insisted that I cheer for the Maple Leafs, they being Canadian. I grumpily assented.
At about the three-minute mark, Czechoslovakia scored and I jumped up in the air hollering “Yes!” I simply couldn’t help myself.
I do like watching the Blue Jays lose. I am not a basketball fan but find myself looking at the scores in case the Raptors have lost bringing another dollop of pleasure into my life. Until the Canucks came, I was a devoted Habs fan. I still feel a little something deep down inside when they’re playing even though they’re not one tenth the team they once were. In the rare cases the Habs lost to the Leafs, it was a time of deep mourning in the Mair family. I think I was mostly a Habs fan because it so pissed off Toronto fans when they lost to them.
Divided we stand
This is a strange country. From the outset it contained grossly uneven political and economic divisions. Quebec was different and remains so and in all matters marches to its own drummer. Ontario always had the people, the money and the political power, the latter being helped by a constitution that favours them greatly. They are, and always have been, in the pocket of large business, particularly international predators.
Weather creates significant differences. I could not possibly live in a place where it is -40 C in the winter and 40 C in the summer with flies and mosquitoes galore. Just last week I talked to a friend who had spent 10 days in Saskatoon during which time he and his family were devoured by mosquitoes in scorching hot weather. “Why would anyone live there?” was my question.
One of the interesting things about Canada is that people do live in these sorts of places and seem to get along fine. I don’t and won’t, and also get along fine in my temperate zone.
I was once offered a safe seat in the House of Commons by the Tories — it didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t one — and I turned it down flat on the simple basis that there was nothing in this world that would make me live in Ottawa for one day, let alone four years.
Free trade and its critics (including me)
One of the things that has got me going today is an article in the Vancouver Sun on July 12 by Andrew Coyne, which gives the western premiers a hard time for not being thrilled about free trade within Canada. This is an ongoing dispute of many, many years. I well remember talking about this back in the ’70s at federal provincial conferences. It was a regular theme usually brought to the table by former premier Bill Davis of Ontario.
As a British Columbian, I was suspicious of who wanted this free trade so badly. Well, surprise, surprise! It turned out to be Ontario. They didn’t even want Newfoundland, then with about 40 per cent unemployment, to have a rule that working crews on projects had to be Newfoundlanders. Ontario thought this was un-Canadian.
What these central Canadians overlook, full of their free trade and “let’s all be Canadians at the same time” mood, is the beginnings of this country and the early but permanent decisions made by Sir John A. Macdonald in 1878. He designed a national policy that essentially meant the provinces outside central Canada would provide raw materials to Ontario which would manufacture all of the products from them and make all of the money. The freight rates for the railroads were set so as to make it very cheap to send raw materials to Ontario but very expensive to buy back the finished product.
Tariffs were imposed to protect Ontario products from, primarily, American competition. What this meant was that people in Western Canada paid through the nose for products which they had provided the materials for and that Ontario had turned into consumer goods. This led to many other injustices.
For example, the entire banking industry was located in Toronto or Montreal, meaning, of course, that borrowing money in those two places was a hell of a lot easier than it was anywhere else. I can remember back in the ’60s, I had to make a trip to Toronto in order to borrow $10,000 for a golf course of which I was president. That loan would’ve taken a quick lunch for a golf course president in Ontario.
The freight rates issue and high tariffs were especially resented in the prairie provinces. For British Colombians, it was always a piss off to tootle down to Bellingham and see cars 40 per cent cheaper than at home because the Ontario-dominated House of Commons decided that high tariffs were necessary in order to protect Ontario’s car industry.
When Alberta and Saskatchewan joined the union in 1905, the federal government denied them the oil and mineral rights that all other provinces had. This was for no better reason than the federal government could do so, and it chose to help Ontario and Quebec. After many lawsuits, including appeals to the Privy Council, Ottawa finally granted these oil and mineral rights to Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1930. That created a lot of ongoing resentment and left a bitter taste that remains to this day.
This political imbalance has existed in Canada from the beginning and is every bit as much a part of the country today as it ever was.
Good little Canadians?
To this day, Quebec remains an entity unto itself. Perhaps separatism is on the wane but how Ontario votes in federal elections depends very much on how Quebec feels at that moment. Kissing Quebec’s ass is thoroughly ingrained in the mind of the Ontario voter, who feels an obligation to save the country by keeping Quebec happy. This is a fact of Canadian political life.
Canada’s political system of “first past the post” guarantees that Ontario and Quebec will run the House of Commons no matter how people in the rest of Canada vote. This is another fact of Canadian political life.
It is no sin to want my province to be first in line in the focus of those of us who live on the other side of the Rockies or in northeastern British Columbia? There is nothing at all wrong with us standing up for ourselves on every occasion it seems necessary — which is often.
But, you might ask, is this necessary in this modern era?
You bet your sweet bippy it is!
Look, for example, at the issue of pipelines and oil tankers.
British Columbia gets nothing out of this except to have its environment raped and many of its communities ruined, but it is expected to sacrifice its beauty and its soul in order to satisfy those who will make money in China, Alberta and Ontario. We are called bad Canadians by people like mouthy Joe Oliver, the federal finance minister. Even James Lunney, a local Tory MP, urges us to be “Canadians first.”
To hell with them I say. Why should we be? Why should we put our beautiful province on the block to satisfy international capital and Ottawa politicians? If something were to be proposed in Quebec or Ontario that they didn’t like, it simply wouldn’t happen. British Columbians are supposed to simply lie down and take it like good little Canadians.
Hands off this goblet
A few years ago when an LNG plant was proposed in Quoddy Bay, Maine, on the Canadian border, Prime Minister Harper announced that LNG tankers would not be permitted in Canadian waters. Mr. Harper doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit concerned about LNG tankers in British Columbian waters. The East Coast, you see, is different from the West Coast.
British Columbia has been screwed from the beginning. As W.A.C. Bennett, our once great premier, said — “to Ottawa, British Columbia is a goblet to be drained.” We have prospered in this province in spite of the rest of the country, not because of it.
Does this mean that I’m a separatist, ready to take to the streets to gain our independence?
Absolutely not. Canada, while a political basket case, is an interesting and useful country with generally nice and peaceful people. I like Canada in many ways.
It is, though, a country with a very dull history. If you look at the formation days, say between 1864 and 1867, it’s like a floating Anglican Synod making occasional ecumenical soothing noises to Quebec. The men involved were as dull as dishwater despite the efforts of central Canadian historians to gussy them up. If you want to read about exciting starts to a nation you go no further than the United States of America and the characters introduced to that state. Canadian founders left no writings of any great interest to anyone — contrast that with Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the like.
We have no national heroes. Terry Fox and Tommy Douglas were remarkable men, though they scarcely qualify as national heroes to whom we look to for political inspiration.
I am content and happy to live in Canada. It’s a pretty dull place but then dull isn’t so bad when one looks at the alternative. I cheer for Canada when it’s playing hockey. I wish my fellow citizens well across the country in whatever they do.
I suppose that the main reason I’m not a separatist is that the alternatives don’t appeal to me very much. While I know that British Columbia could go it alone, and that I would be a faithful and supportive citizen, I don’t want to become part of the United States, which probably would be the consequence of the country splitting.
What I do acknowledge, and have for a long time, is that if Quebec leaves the country, it will split anyway. There is no way in the world that Canada could stay together with Ontario having a complete stranglehold on the House of Commons and the government. We in B.C. should be mentally prepared for this to happen.
Loyalty and its limits
No, I wish to stay a Canadian but understand that the patriotism that many British Columbians have towards the country isn’t quite the same as that of Americans towards their country or the British towards theirs. We have reservations. We have unbridgeable divisions.
Yes, on Canada Day, we all sing the national anthem and some tears flow. In many other ways we express our loyalty. But that loyalty is tempered, at least in this province, by the knowledge that we have to defend ourselves against central Canadian financial and political piracy. We have to know that to the Parliament and cabinet that run our country, we come second to the interests and needs of Ontario and Quebec.
Remember Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord? The “deal” that was shoved at us had everything to do with solidifying power in central Canada and nothing to do with the rest of us. It would have been an appalling deal for British Columbia and would have rendered our imbalance situation much, much, worse. As I vigorously opposed the deals, how well I remember being called “Canada’s most dangerous man” by John Crosbie and a “traitor” by then prime minister Brian Mulroney.
The people of British Columbia rejected that insult by just under 70 per cent.
They don’t give a damn about us
I remember back in the ’70s when I was in charge of constitutional affairs for British Columbia and was traveling regularly to Toronto and Ottawa. Friends of mine, originally from central Canada, said that once I got back there and got to know the people, I would find out that they really cared for British Columbia.
After a few months I came back and said they don’t give a damn about us. I will remember attending a constitutional convention in Toronto with a huge bas relief map on the wall that left off the Queen Charlotte Islands (now known as Haida Gwaii). When I pointed this out, no one seemed to understand what the problem was!
At about the same time, Vancouver was seeking an NHL hockey franchise. Stafford Smythe, who happened to own the Toronto Maple Leafs, wanted Vancouver to “give” him one square block of downtown Vancouver so he could build an arena for our new hockey club. When the City of Vancouver told him to get stuffed, people in Toronto simply couldn’t understand us! It never occurred to them that it might be a bad idea to have the Toronto Maple Leafs control the Vancouver hockey club through the Smythe family. They couldn’t seem to see a conflict of interest but put it all down to generosity from the people of Toronto to their brethren in British Columbia being ungratefully turned aside!
I can live with all of that quite easily. I hope that Canada stays together and prospers forever. I say that in hope that my fellow British Columbians stand up for their province, as they always have, and make sure they always defend themselves against those who have all of the power and all of the money, are in the pockets of international big business, and couldn’t care less about us.
It is in that sense — an important sense to be sure — that I am indeed a British Columbian before I am a Canadian.