A political sensibility west of Ontario as old as the western expansion of Confederation itself.
Western alienation can refer to many things, from to perceived second-class treatment of the West by other regions (particularly Ontario and Quebec), to the lack of representation in successive (especially Liberal) federal governments, to federal government policies and programs that either have little or no relevance in Western Canada or are perceived to actively undermine the region at the expense of advancing the interests of other provinces.
Historians mark the Red River Rebellion of 1870, which culminated in both the execution of Louis Riel and the creation of the Province of Manitoba, as a founding expression of Western alienation.
John A. MacDonald’s National Policy of tariff protections was implemented in 1879 and remained largely in place until the Free Trade Agreement of 1988. Its main achievement was to protect manufacturing in Central Canada.
For the Prairie Provinces, this meant two things: made-in-Ontario farm equipment with artificially and punitively inflated prices, and lack of access to large consumer markets south of the border.
More recently, the National Energy Program introduced by the Pierre Trudeau government in 1980 and the Mulroney Government’s controversial decision to move important armed forces aircraft maintenance functions from Manitoba to Quebec served as the final straws, with Westerners for the first time sending a regional bloc – the Reform Party – to Ottawa in the 1993 election.
The Reform Party’s journey from third party to Official Opposition in 1997 and its merger with the remaining shell of the Progressive Conservatives in the early 2000s helped create today’s Western-dominated Conservative Party of Canada, ushering in a decade of a strongly Western Canada-oriented federal government under Stephen Harper.
Will this be enough to permanently eliminate the culture of Western alienation? The jury is out.
History shows that successive strong Prime Ministers from Quebec did little to undermine the growth of Quebec separatism. Moreover, Stephen Harper himself has proven the power of Western Alienation: a scant five years before becoming Prime Minister, he authored the cri de coeur of alienated Westerners: 2001’s infamous Firewall letter.
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