Possibly, the nicest slogan a protest party ever invented in Canada — if not clear across the English-speaking world — was the Reform Party’s 1987 plea: “The West wants in!” Its loquacious leader Preston Manning didn’t want to alienate patriotic Canadians who were already fed up with Quebec’s separatist movement; he hoped that open-minded voters, with enough time to hear his case, would make him Prime Minister of Canada.
The gentleness of his slogan, however, didn’t protect him from old-line party adversaries who branded his movement as a radical un-Canadian front for US-style evangelical illiterates. Manning did destroy the national Progressive Conservative Party but never won Parliamentary seats in Eastern Canada, an absolute necessity to win power. Today, in retirement, his consolation is ready access to the Globe’s op-ed page and near-universal appreciation that he’s nicer than that fellow Westerner who did get the job.
The West is now “in” in Canada — and, so, enjoys great influence within Canada’s federal government. Demographics, resources, young immigrants and wealth, it’s assumed, will acquire for the West ever more influence in the centers of power. The rest of us will keep thinking of the West as the country’s flytrap for extremists and oddballs. But no one expects to hear again their old disruptive alternatives to the Canadian federation.
The Reform Party’s slogan has been effective; now it’s everybody’s property, a bland iteration of the status quo. “In” points east, obviously. But is that the end of the story?
If only to reduce the boredom of Canada’s hamster-in-a-cage politics, let’s exhume a few dormant thoughts about the West’s external relations.
The term “Western separatism” persists as an insult in the East but never was credible, strategically, in the West. Western Canadian visionaries didn’t see the West as "exceptional" as storytellers do in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Cape Breton, for instance. Rather, they worried, above all, about their province and the West’s economic vulnerability and relative powerlessness.
Getting “in” was the original family response of the Manning, Lougheed, Douglas, Roblin, Bennett, and Diefenbaker cadres of Western reformers. However, they weren’t single-minded as we almost mindlessly are today. They were outward-seeing, not simply Ottawa-seeing.
When they thought about and lobbied about infrastructure, banking, trade, immigration, and taxation, they looked for ways to escape the claustrophobic post-Confederation status quo, not merely catch a "fair share."
The least obsequious, most successful, and controversial Western reformer of our time was Premier Peter Lougheed of Alberta. The 70s and 80s inspired big thinking and he offered plenty. Pierre Trudeau centralists, severe recession, and uncertain commodity markets spurred Lougheed to secure whatever powers the West needed to reduce the West’s exposure to political whims in the East and political barriers to export markets.
He was a political as well as an economic diversifier. Free trade and resource sovereignty for the provinces, crucially including unobstructed access to the US market, would translate into less economic policy interference from Ottawa.
He joined alliances with other federalists to keep Quebec “in,” but in return he secured trade and constitutional powers for the West.
His victories in the 80s seemed to work. The West generally thought it had secured tariff free trade with the US and constitutional authority over its resources. Also, many presumed that eventually an elected and effective Senate would exist — making the West’s interests even more secure in the Canadian union.
However, has having a prime minister, more Cabinet ministers, MPs, and senior appointees today provided the West any more power in the world — even necessary access next door? Or did outward-looking strivers like Lougheed, Manning, and Stephen Harper only effectively win greater executive authority over a progressively powerless "national" economy?
Immediately, a Barack Obama Presidential rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline would most hurt Stephen Harper. We shouldn’t be surprised, however, if Western voices join this blog in asking not only whether our impotence as a trading nation is tolerable, but whether, to a great extent, it was our choice.
Western Canadians inherited a border that’s managed by a foreign superpower and, unlike Arizonians and North Dakotans, have no vetoes or votes where the commercial destiny of this continent is shaped.
Westerners, traditionally, face up to fundamental structural barriers to their interests. (Status quo political cultures prefer to double down on diplomacy.) The substance of the slogan “The West wants in!” struck a nerve because they felt marginalized and didn’t like the feeling. Within this year, certainly before this decade grinds to a close, they’ll be feeling that way again.