Home Page Election 2019 News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

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.

Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.


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.


The Hill Times

McKenna wins re-election in Ottawa Centre, trumpets voters’ support for climate fight

News|By Neil Moss
'I’m so relieved,' Catherine McKenna said, about continuing with the Liberal climate change plan.

Election 2019 was a ‘campaign of fear,’ say pollsters

'There may well be a message to this to the main parties, that slagging each other will only take you so far,' says Greg Lyle.

Election 2019 campaign one of the most ‘uninspiring, disheartening, and dirtiest’ in 40 years, says Savoie

News|By Abbas Rana
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she has never seen an election where mudslinging overwhelmingly dominated the campaign, leaving little or no time for policy discussion.

Strategic voting to determine if Liberals will form government, say political players

News|By Abbas Rana
As many as nine per cent of progressive voters could vote strategically in this close election potentially affecting the outcome in more than 100 ridings, says Innovative Research president Greg Lyle.

Turkish offensive should pressure feds to act on repatriation of Canadian citizens in Kurdish-controlled ISIS detention camps, says expert

News|By Neil Moss
The issue of repatriation will be less politically fraught after the election, says expert.

Business tops experience among 2019 candidates, one-third have run for office before

Here’s an analysis of the record 1,700-plus candidates running for the six major parties this election.

Pod save us all: the growing role of political podcasts in election 2019

News|By Mike Lapointe
The Hill Times spoke with some podcast hosts taking a deeper dive into the political nitty-gritty, within a medium that only continues to grow in popularity.

No-shows from Conservative candidate could hurt party’s chances in tight Kanata-Carleton race, say politicos

News|By Palak Mangat
The Conservative's candidate, Justin McCaffrey, has skipped two events, including a debate on the environment, intended to feature all candidates.

For whom will the bell toll in Peterborough-Kawartha?

In a riding where voters are deeply engaged in the political process, candidates avoid the low-hanging fruit and stay out of the mud as they grapple with who to send to the House of Commons.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.