Saturday, January 10, 2015

The National Policy and Canadian Federalism

The last spike in the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1885

The National Policy was introduced by the government of John A. Macdonald in 1879 and remained, in one form or another, government policy for a long time. Understood in its broadest sense, the policy contained three parts: 

  1. the building of the transcontinental railway - the CPR;
  2. strong immigration policy to fill the West; 
  3. the protection of the infant Canadian industry with high tariffs

The plan was a comprehensive one and each of its parts provided an impetus and a justification for the other parts. The aim of the policy was to create a true country with a national economy. Macdonald thought that while a political framework had been created in 1867 the dreamed up union could only last if it was cemented by the creation of a strong national economy - one that would run east-west rather than north-south. The future of Confederation, he thought, hinged upon the development of the West. Without such development, the Americans would take over the West, encircle Canada and inevitably bring about its annexation. 

Macdonald perceived the occupation of the vast plains of the West as vital national interest. The building of the CPR would assure the sovereignty of Canada over the territory and eastern industry would have access to the resources and the customers of the West. The immigration policy was designed to maximize the investment in such an expensive railway and to provide customers for eastern industry. The high tariffs would ensure the development of a Canadian industry and assure a better standard of living and jobs for Canadians.

At first glance, the policy seems a remarkable one but upon closer examination one has to recognize many difficulties and consequences for the future. The first thing to note is that the national policy was not a "national" policy in some important respects. In an age of mounting imperialism, it was an imperialist policy. The heart of Macdonald's country was essentially Ontario and, to a lesser extent, Quebec where the important Anglo Montreal financial interests were found. The Montreal-Windsor axis was to be the heart of the country, its pole of development, and the policy was specifically designed to benefit its population. The Maritimes, and most of Quebec, would not benefit greatly from the policy. Their contribution would be largely to export men and resources to the center of Canada while importing its expensive industrial products. Railways would cross their territories but they would not be particularly designed to develop them. They would be called to pay taxes to buy the West and to subsidize heavily the building of the CPR, but would receive very little benefit from such undertakings.

It was hoped that immigrants by the hundreds of thousands would be attracted to the West. For that purpose, Canada eventually had hundreds of immigration officers, although nearly all of them were to be found in Great Britain, Ireland and in the United States. So while thousands of Québécois (close to one million from 1830 to 1930) emigrated to the United States, Canada hoped to recruit large numbers of British, Irish and American immigrants to fill the West. It was plain for everyone to see that the federal government did not care sufficiently for the fate of the Quebecois and made no effort to repatriate them. Immigration from Europe was subsidized (each immigrant received free land and, by the 1920’s, a train ticket for the West; Quebecers who wished to go west had to buy their own tickets).

John A. Macdonald
Macdonald's purpose was not to develop viable, autonomous communities in the West. This had to be avoided at all cost: industries were not to locate in the West, they would only compete with eastern ones; railways were not to be established unless they were controlled by the CPR and they were not to link the West to the USA. Macdonald feared that Western farmers might buy their products there. Provinces were not to be created because the federal government would lose control of the whole operation. When the local indigenous population (Indians and Métis) protested the establishment of the newcomers on their land, they were pushed aside; the West was not to exist for its own sake but only as a useful appendage to Central Canada.

Nevertheless, provinces had to be created eventually and the federal government lost part of its control over the territory; natural resources were withdrawn (until 1930) from the control of the provincial governments in the West and the federal right to reservation and disallowance was used heavily to support the National Policy. As one author has written: "One of the most significant factors which emerges from a study of disallowance is that the power has been used primarily against the West... The West has always been Canada's empire. The expansion of Western Canada provided the life-blood of Eastern commerce, finance, manufacturing, and transportation. It furnished the market for the goods and services which, by permitting the economies of large-scale operations, made Eastern undertakings successful. To put it crudely, as Macdonald did, the Dominion had purchased the West and was entitled to the profits of its exploitation." [Alan Wilson, "Disallowance: The Threat to Western Canada," in Saskatchewan Law Review, Vol. 39 (1974-75):180-181].

What makes an examination of the operation of the National Policy so important and vital for the study of Canadian Constitutional history is the fact that it became a permanent factor in Canada's development. Could post-Macdonald governments deny the reality of the policy and undermine its economic objectives (as objectionable as they might have been in some respects) when it seemed that the economic well-being of Central Canada - jobs, profits, standard of living - came to be dependent on high tariff industries and the exploitation of entire regions of Canada (West, Maritimes and most of Quebec)? 

Political considerations must not be discounted either: the exploited regions were also the politically powerless ones while the benefiting regions actually controlled the majority of seats in the House of Commons. So the policy was maintained by successive administrations. Maritimers lost their natural New England market and sank economically into oblivion. For a long time, in fact until the development of the oil and gas industry, the West was condemned to virtual economic stagnation and its farmers were forced to buy expensive eastern products, thus lowering their standard of living (an author estimated, in 1934, that the tariff in effect subsidized each person in Ontario by $15.15 a year but cost each person in the other provinces as much as $11.67 in Nova Scotia or $28.16 in Saskatchewan - the average personal income of a Canadian at the time was around $300 a year). Montrealers benefited from the policy but the rest of Quebec stagnated; rural depopulation was the result. Only Ontarians were fully satisfied with the policy as 68% of the most highly protected industries were located there.

So the country developed unequally under the National Policy and it gave rise to all sorts of regional problems: Westerners became alienated and have complained of unfairness since. Maritimers lost their traditional prosperity and with it their proud heritage of vigorous and autonomous government. Too poor to afford the social services to which we have all become accustomed, they have had to support centralization of powers in Ottawa in order to receive some of the benefits of Confederation. For them, economic development has been replaced by social welfare. Many Quebecers have argued the necessity of the break-up of Confederation on grounds that the system (National policy) profited Ontario at the expense of Quebec. 

In the past seventy-five years there has been recognition of the problem: Royal Commissions were established (Duncan Report, 1926; White Report, 1935; Rowell-Sirois Report, 1940) that considered the economic problems of Canada or some of its regions and provinces and which pointed to the National Policy as partly the root-cause. 

Federal equalization grants were instituted in the late 1950's to, at least, lessen the burden which inevitably befell the citizens of low growth regions in Canada. In 1969, the federal government created the Department of Regional Economic Expansion (DREE) that distributes grants to overcome regional economic disparities. But, by and large, such policies were much too timid: they did not fundamentally seek to solve problems by creating regional growth centers but, rather, aimed at lessening the most obnoxious effects of the National Policy. Many experts see the solution to the problem of regional economic disparity in massive federal involvement but this can only be done, ultimately, at the expense of weakening provincial control over local economies and societies - in other words by undermining even further Canadian federalism.

In the end, only free and self-reliant people can happily accept to collaborate and live in harmony with other people. Quebec must declare itself to be sovereign in order to break free from the old patterns of dominance that have shaped this relic of empire called Canada and to finally exist in its own right as a free and self-reliant people. To completely integrate into a centralized Canadian economy is to lose who we are as a nation and assimilate. In order to exist as a distinct nation and thrive economically we must become independent and prioritize our own economic interests. That is the only sensible road to prosperity for Quebec.

 Based on a text by Claude Bélanger, Department of History, Marianopolis College, Montreal

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the blog bro. I just discovered it yesterday. It helps me to understand the Quebec nationalist mindset. Also love the tons of historical references. Keep blogging.