Canada has always been a shaky proposition: a vast, northern nation composed of many people with many different backgrounds and beliefs, who must work together to keep the federation strong. It hasn’t always been easy; as much as we like to imagine ourselves the gentle and unassuming neighbours of the raucous United States, internal conflicts drive us apart. Some are obvious, such as Quebec sovereignty—historically our most divisive issue, one that would seem to pit all of English and French Canada against each other. Similarly, a longstanding East-West dichotomy often leads to angry confrontations and heavy stereotyping of fellow Canadians from opposite sides of the country.
In our politics, unfortunately, such acrimonious dispute seems to be becoming the norm rather than the exception. Studies have shown that when politics turn nasty, people tune out. This is particularly true among women, who are tend to pay less attention to politicians when they resort to negative and divisive tactics or attacks on their opposition. Some politicians, however, are bucking the trend.
Since Alison Redford became Premier of Alberta in October, she’s marked herself as a communicator, in stark contrast with her more confrontational predecessors. Her initial overtures to central Canada, particularly Ontario, are rare in East-West relations: Alberta tends to position itself as a lone wolf, and many (but not all) western Canadians have a sense of antipathy towards the eastern provinces. These sentiments are borne of decades of federal-provincial power struggles, often pitting a federal government based in Ontario against western Canada with its different needs, goals, and political and social cultures. The perception that Ontario and Quebec were running the show and not listening to the West was instrumental in reshaping federal politics in the 1990s—the Reform Party’s first slogan was “The West Wants In.”
In a country the size of Canada, disagreements are bound to occur; however, it is the accumulation of those disagreements and the way politicians of various stripes have played them for political gain that has widened the gap among the various parts of Canada’s population.
We need only look to the south to see what this sort of political bickering can lead to. Although some would say that the civil tone of politics in Canada has dropped over the years—notably since the Harper Conservatives came to power in 2006—it pales compared to what politics has been reduced to in the United States. The once constructive dialogue that allowed the U.S. to grow into a strongly democratic superpower has devolved into a political circus, with strongly partisan politicians screaming at each other across the aisles of Congress and refusing compromises of any sort. The American government has been essentially brought to a standstill, both Republicans and Democrats using scorched-earth tactics to undermine the other.
Over time, this has brought mighty America to its knees. The country’s finances are in shambles, its debt spiraling out of control with no hope on the horizon, and a fractured legislature where officials focus more on damaging the other party than on working together constructively to fix the nation’s problems.
In this light, seeing a premier like Ms. Redford open a dialogue to try to find common ground, instead of throwing the same old insults and demands to her eastern counterparts, has been remarkably refreshing. Her conciliatory tone and willingness to talk are helping her strike up conversations and deals that may help marry Alberta and the West’s wealth with central Canada’s population and political weight. This kind of teamwork is the only way to accomplish solid, productive government that serves the population effectively.
This is particularly true of the upcoming negotiations over health care between the federal and provincial governments. If the premiers, particularly of the “big” provinces like Alberta, Quebec, BC and Ontario present a united front in the negotiations, they vastly improve the odds of securing a stronger deal with the federal government. Given the ruling Conservative ideology of shrinking the size of government, particularly in social sectors, this interprovincial unity may be the only thing that keeps the all-important health care funding at the provinces’ desired levels.
We must be careful to note that this growing consensus approach to politics is not just a byproduct of a larger number of women in politics, although it’s almost certainly a factor. Former NDP leader Jack Layton’s direct but non-confrontational style, focusing on the issues rather than on bitter, partisan attacks, not only endeared him to millions of Canadians but helped his party climb to its highest ever political achievements. Similarly, U.S. President Barack Obama rode into the White House on a message of positive engagement to solve problems—before being met with the gridlock of a fractured Congress.
Democracy is and always will be a messy style of government. It naturally fosters debate and a clash of ideas. That being said, the democratic process doesn’t have to be an angry, destructive game of epithet throwing and fear mongering. If we teach children that it’s best to solve their problems with calm words and compromise, why is that so many of our politicians can’t seem to take heed of the same advice? If we’re really going to tackle the big problems the 21st century will bring, we need less angry yelling and more engagement, more consideration of other’s opinions. Willingness to compromise is a far greater strength than many would believe. When Canadians engage each other rationally, the entire nation grows stronger.