The Toronto Star
August 25, 2014
Martin Regg Cohn
Ontario-Quebec dance could realign Canadian politics: Cohn
The bad old days of the PQ and Bloc Québécois are behind us. Will a new hybrid bloc — binding Quebec with Ontario — bolster national politics?
What does Quebec want?
This week — and for the next four years — a better question might be: What do Quebecand Ontario want?
The two Central Canadian provinces, with 20 million people making up more than half of the economy, have reconnected politically and hope to hook up more high-voltage transmission lines.
Twice in August, the architects of this revived axis — Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and Quebec’s Philippe Couillard — have held detailed talks in anticipation of this week’s annual summit with their fellow premiers in Charlottetown.
In 1864, Charlottetown hosted a meeting of Maritime leaders — crashed by Ontario and Quebec — that was a precursor to Confederation. Now, 150 years later, the premiers are seeking inspiration for another round of nation-building via the decade-old Council of the Federation.
This time, the two Central Canadian premiers are hoping to buttress the COF without big-footing the smaller provinces. Wynne and Couillard prefer to lead by example.
At a time when many of Canada’s politicians remain at cross-purposes, the two premiers are remarkably aligned in substance and style: Both helm stable, majority Liberal governments with four-year mandates thanks to their recent electoral triumphs.
Couillard’s unabashed federalism contrasts with the negativity of the previous Parti Québécois government, which strained bilateral ties and cast a cloud over last year’s COF meeting (hosted by Wynne in Ontario).
While the new Ontario-Quebec alliance highlights the resurgence of federalism in Quebec, it also underscores the absence of a national vision in Ottawa. The federal government’s perennial indifference has left a vacuum for the provinces to fill on energy, the environment, health care and infrastructure.
Helpful as it is for COF to compare notes on education or share best practices on health care, nation-building is as much about leadership as consensus-building. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s persistent refusal to engage with the premiers has hemmed us all in.
The provinces can’t do it all on their own. There were high hopes for a resurgent Quebec-Ontario alliance a decade ago when two other newly elected Liberal premiers helmed majority governments: Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest hailed the beginning of their beautiful friendship, to be cemented by an ambitious high-speed train running between the two provinces.
But Charest’s 2012 defeat by the PQ derailed that shared vision. Bilateral links atrophied as the planned railway ties unravelled.
The unfulfilled McGuinty-Charest pas de deux demonstrated that personal chemistry alone can’t forge connections. The case for co-operation must be made economically and politically, not just personally.
Even if those ephemeral high speed trains from Toronto to Montreal went nowhere, a less grandiose interprovincial link — high tension transmissions lines — could yet power Canada’s two biggest provinces at a time of declining political tensions. Wynne and Couillard are talking about doing a deal one day.
Wynne “has always been very interested in figuring out why it hasn’t happened in the past, and whether it can happen in future,” said a senior official. But it’s all about price.
For all the goodwill and bad karma, Ontario’s interactions with the other provinces and Ottawa are largely about money — specifically its demands for a fair share of equalization and other transfer payments. While Queen’s Park is quick to join the chorus of provincial demands for more infrastructure and transit money from Ottawa, at the end of the day it’s a zero sum game.
Even if the federal government anted up, Ontario would continue to be short-changed by a restricted percentage of the national pie. When COF was first conceived, Ontarians had yet to experience persistent economic decline in the manufacturing heartland.
Despite the bad signs and hard times, the Wynne government remains optimistic about revived links with Quebec and the potential for movement from Ottawa. Other provinces, notably Manitoba and P.E.I., are strongly supportive of Ontario’s campaigns for infrastructure, transit, and an enhanced Canada Pension Plan. With a national election coming next year, and a predicted budget surplus in Ottawa, the political pressure for federal funding will be strong.
Either way, the bad old days of the PQ and Bloc Québécois are behind us. We shall soon see whether a new hybrid bloc — binding Quebec with Ontario — has a positive impact on national politics.