As West’s influence grows, so does its responsibility

There’s a lot of swagger about the emergence of the West as the new centre of power in Canada.

There’s a lot of swagger about the emergence of the West as the new centre of power in Canada. Some of it has been premature, because Toronto is — after all — likely to remain our country’s biggest city for the foreseeable future.

But, misplaced enthusiasm aside, the numbers suggest that a remarkable shift in population and economic activity west of the Ontario/Manitoba border is being sustained and will likely result in an eventual rebalancing of Confederation.

Numbers released by Statistics Canada, and republished by ATB Economist Todd Hirsch, drive the point home. They show that while both Ontario and Quebec remain first and second on the population scale, their rate of growth from Jan. 1, 2012, to Jan. 1, 2013, is way slower than any province west of them, except for British Columbia.

Alberta and Saskatchewan lead the growth, with Alberta up by more than three per cent and Saskatchewan above two per cent. Even Manitoba, considered the poor cousin of the Prairie provinces, is experiencing a growth spurt, well ahead of the national growth rate of 1.1 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the Atlantic provinces remain in the tank, with both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia losing population, and PEI and Newfoundland Labrador just barely above flat.

The anomaly is British Columbia, considered for many years the economic queen of the West. Its growth fell behind the national average — and perhaps more strikingly, behind Ontario and Quebec — at just 0.84 per cent. Could the seemingly endless Vancouver effect be running out of gas?

As Hirsch notes, if Alberta and B.C. continue at the pace set last year, the energy province will become the third largest province in the country within eight years.

That, of course, is a big “if”. Alberta has enjoyed astonishing growth in the past 15 years in particular, most of it driven by the jobs and prosperity associated with the energy boom. But everyone knows the energy industry is facing some very serious challenges, including the ongoing depressed price of natural gas, the U.S.’s aggressive development of its own oil reserves and — most significantly — the challenge of getting an “inferior” and “dirty” oil sands product (bitumen) to market at a time when environmentalists have dug in for the long fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

And yet, with all these mitigating factors, the trend is continuing. With so many variables, it’s impossible to predict how quickly the population shift will play out, but there is little debate on whether it will. It’s not a question of if, but when.

This shift will rewrite the Canadian experience. When western provinces were just poor, under-populated breadbasket farm regions, their ability to influence the national agenda was next to nil. They were cute little novelties, with a quaint little rodeo every summer. As Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular became important for their energy, suddenly their voices began to be heard. Still, the ability to influence the national agenda was muted by the comparatively paltry number of seats in Parliament.

It has to be pointed out that the west has delivered its fair share of influential national leaders. There were two from Saskatchewan: John Diefenbaker, who led the Progressive Conservatives to a majority government in the late 1950s and, of course, Tommy Douglas, the CCF leader credited with giving Canada the foundations of our modern public health care system. Today, once again, we see the west bringing influence through Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Calgarian who has brought a measure of the “Calgary School” of political philosophy to the Centre Block.

So, the West has two pillars of power in place: economic prosperity at a time when much of the rest of the country is on the ropes and leaders who have been able to capture of the spirit of Canadians at the right moment. One more pillar is gradually falling into place – voters.

The steady and relentless march of Eastern Canadians and new Canadians to the West will complete the rebalancing of Confederation. Some day in the not-too-distant future, the “Laurentian elites” — the power clique of intellectuals, journalists and money men John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker described in The Big Shift — will simply find that they’ve been outnumbered into irrelevance.

It’s an exciting dawn of a new age for a portion of the country that has been relegated to also-ran status since the beginning of Confederation. It’s also a daunting challenge, to use that influence in a way that builds a stronger, fairer country.

I can’t wait to see how the good people of the West rise to the challenge.

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist for Troy Media.