If we don’t matter in Ottawa, it is our fault. Let me explain why. But first, as good Maritimers lets all recite the litany. We all know it, the litany of grievances that the Maritimes (and indeed, Atlantic Canada) has with the rest of Canada.
First we start with failed Maritime Union, then a bad deal on Confederation, skip across to the National Policy, the intercontinental railroad, and the shift of our financial centre to Montreal. We then continue with the erection of further tariffs and trade barriers, the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, a robbery at Churchill Falls, and subsidized ice breaking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then we fast forward to equalization and the Atlantic Accords (skipping along the way a hundred or more other slights, insults and injuries – real and perceived). Then we close with a collective chant – they did this to us, therefore they owe us.
Now, to sustain the litany we must do a couple of other things. First, we should attempt to avoid recognizing that other areas of the country have suffered similar set backs. Or, at the very least, we need to generally avoid talking about those setbacks or agreeing that they may be reasonably equivalent to the things that have been done to us (and note the importance of the phrase, done to us). Second, we should not normally attempt to resolve the resulting challenges on our own (remember, done to us, therefore owed to us).
This has been our strategy for dealing with Ottawa since 1867 and at the urgings of our provincial representative in Ottawa I think we all need to take a few minutes to review how successful we have been.
In case you missed it, Ian Thompson, Nova Scotia’s representative in Ottawa, delivered a talk in Halifax a few weeks ago exploring his first 20 months on the job. About half way through his talk he turned to his experience as a PR guy and reminded his audience that: “all of us consume information through our own life filters…our response is based on our own experience with the subject or with the person communicating the information.”
On this front, we are own worst enemies. The evidence is overwhelming that, by perfecting the litany (and admit it, even if half jokingly, the litany was very familiar to you) we have convinced the rest of the country that we are whiners and n’er-do-wells who will never amount to anything without a little help from our friends.
From the lens of someone in Ottawa who has heard the litany at least a hundred times, any evidence of success in Atlantic Canada, any glimmering of self sufficiency, is the exception rather than the rule. Any complaint and certainly any use of the words “fair” and “share” in a single sentence are seen as the true measure of our meaning. Partnership and cooperation are not seen as real words but as code for entitlement and subsidies.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that definition we are demonstrably insane here in Atlantic Canada. The population equation has not changed, the economic centre of gravity has not shifted, and the political calculus is still as tilted against us as it was when most of the items in our litany actually happened. Do we really think banging our tin cup harder, just because we believe we are “right”, will have any better effect than it did the last time, or the time before that or the time before that?
I agree wholeheartedly with Thompson that only by changing the lens through which Ottawa and the rest of Canada perceives us, and indeed, how we perceive ourselves, can we hope to change our relationship with Ottawa. This does indeed, as he proposes, involve building more and better links with both the people actually in Ottawa and with our ex-patriots wherever they may be. It also means, as he says, repeating the good stories over and over again, as diligently and passionately as we have delivered the litany. But it also means never, ever, ever again using the words “fairness”, “fair share”, or “our due” when discussing federal provincial relations. It means putting the litany itself firmly where it belongs, in the past.
Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,
www.aims.ca, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.