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Ontario: Region-state? Dependant-State? Kingmaker

By Nelson Wiseman      

Ontario will gain 15 seats in the next federal election; together, Alberta and British Columbia will gain 12. The key to 24 Sussex Drive in 2011 was in Ontario. It will continue to be so for a while.

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TORONTO—In his Donner prize-winning book in 1998, From Heartland to North American Region State, policy guru Tom Courchene argued that “economic determinism” had shifted Ontario’s traditional interest in the Canadian East-West axis to a continental, North-South, alignment. 

In his account, Ontario was no longer the linchpin of Confederation but the “premier” cog in a regional industrial system. 

Courchene’s story of Ontario’s fiscal evolution and policy transformation—their backdrops being the cuts in provincial transfer payments by the Mulroney and Chrétien governments and the free trade agreement with the United States—portrayed the province as less fastened to its Canadian moorings and more to the American economic juggernaut. A year after his book appeared, as the Canadian dollar was descending steeply toward U.S. 62 cents, Courchene advocated discarding the loonie for the American dollar, which in retrospect would have resulted in Canadians with savings being big losers. 

A journalistic version of Courchene’s thesis, about how Ontario’s interests had diverged from those of its past, appeared in John Ibbitson’s provocatively titled book, Loyal No More. In his surrealistic forecast, Ontario would come to replace Quebec as the most intractable challenge to Canadian unity. 

His reasoning, like Courchene’s, was that Ontario’s economy dictates Ontario’s culture, its collective state of mind. In brief: Ontarians would see themselves having less and less in common with their compatriots. 

The thesis was questionable then. Now, it seems outlandish.  

Once the major beneficiary of Canada’s protectionist policies, Ontario is now deemed a “have-not” province, the equalization program’s second largest recipient to the tune of over a third of a billion dollars this year, an increase of 534 per cent in the past two years. Courchene now paints a different picture: “The poorer Ontario is, the less other provinces are going to get,” he says. “It’s a big issue and it’s going to get bigger.” 

So much for the region-state hypothesis, although a dependant-state theory is not warranted either since Ontarians still contribute more into the federal treasury than they receive from it because of regionally discriminatory programs such as employment insurance.  

Ontario’s manufacturing workforce, which was and is still dependent on the U.S. market, shrank dramatically as the U.S. economy stagnated and the value of the Canadian dollar rose. Now the province is looking to booming Alberta, not the Michigan-Ohio rust belt, in search of export markets; in the space of a couple of weeks this autumn both Ontario’s finance and economic development ministers visited Edmonton to curry trade and to laud oil sands development. And the week before he resigned, Dalton McGuinty announced plans for his fourth trip to China. 

The economy, however, is but one determinant of Ontarians’ orientations. The 2011 federal and provincial elections revealed Ontarians’ attachment to Canada and their relative detachment from their own province. Their voter turnout rate federally, 62 percent, exceeded the national average while their provincial turnout, 49 percent, set a record low.

Ontario is weird. Ontarians are less interested than other Canadians in provincial politics. Media coverage of the provincial scene—The Toronto Star is an exception—is sparse compared to media coverage of provincial politics in other provinces. 

A reader may peruse the Ontario edition of The Globe and Mail for years and be hard-pressed to encounter the names of more than a handful, if that, of backbench MPPs. Most Cabinet ministers, unless they are competing for the premiership as some are currently doing, get rare mention at best. Relatively few Ontarians can name their opposition leaders; only 20 per cent could identify David Peterson or Bob Rae just weeks before they became premier. In contrast, everyone in Quebec knew who Pauline Marois was when she led the opposition and most everyone in British Columbia and Alberta knows of Adrian Dix and Danielle Smith.  

The outcomes of Ontario’s two elections in 2011, federal and provincial, were very different. Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives triumphed while McGuinty’s provincial Liberals prevailed. Dig below the surface, however, and we find remarkably similar colour-coded maps for the results of the two elections: the federal and provincial Conservatives held overwhelming sway in rural Ontario. 

Provincially, the Liberals held enough urban seats, particularly in the GTA, to hang onto office. (The sparsely-populated, NDP-friendly north is a marginal player at both levels.) It was the swing seats in the suburban and ex-urban ridings in the outer GTA that accounted for the difference between the federal and provincial results. And the difference that made that difference was the recent influx of non-white immigrants to those swing seats. 

Ontario politics are now more engaging than they were when bland Bill Davis governed. The provincial state has become an ever-bigger player in people’s lives. Nevertheless, Ontarians continue to give more attention to Parliament Hill than to Queen’s Park even as Ottawa has weakened its links to their day-to-day welfare in areas such as health care, social services, and housing. Ontarians are oriented to Ottawa because their province continues to dominate demographically and economically, more so than California and New York combined dominate in the U.S.  

Ontario will gain 15 seats in the next federal election; together, Alberta and British Columbia will gain 12. The key to 24 Sussex Drive in 2011 was in Ontario. It will continue to be so for a while.

Nelson Wiseman teaches political science at the University of Toronto.

news@hilltimes.com

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