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The Urgent Need for Canadian Cooperation

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on May 06, 2020

Two hockey players fist fighting
Jarred Tinordi #24 of the Montreal Canadiens fights with Cody McLeod #55 of the Colorado Avalanche in an NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 18, 2014 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty Images)

As President Obama, Bono and the back wall of Indigo said, the world needs more Canada. This may be true but first the world, and Canada, need a much more united Canada.

Canada’s economics are modelled after the prisoner’s dilemma where each province games the system for maximum benefit. People criticize Alberta, for example, for not having a larger fund from invested oil and gas royalties. ‘Just look at Norway,’ the critics argue, missing the differences between a sovereign state and a player in Canada’s fiscal structure and convoluted equalization payments.

Canada’s energy system is a great example of a sub-optimum solution. Most high-voltage electricity transmission lines run north south. Selling into the US is easier. When lines cross a provincial border, like Quebec and Newfoundland, resentment often follows (after 70 years NL is eligible in 2041 to renegotiate the one-sided Churchill Falls power agreement). Same with oil and gas where much of Eastern Canada still receives oil from countries with poorer environmental and human-rights practices. Alberta and Saskatchewan (and Canada) lose billions of dollars every year from inadequate pipeline capacity (a safer way to transport oil).

Another example of the sum of Canada being less than the provincial parts is the recent response to the COVID-19 crisis.  Canada is one of the poorest performing developed nations in the world when it comes to collecting and sharing public health data (Amir Attaran). Provinces collect un-standardized data and share only on a voluntary basis. This will cost the country lives and money as the economy is opened post-COVID. This shortcoming was identified by several auditor generals and an extensive federal review of the country’s response to SARS 17 years ago.

Canada is one of the world’s strongest advocates for multilateralism arguing that by cooperating the world’s countries would all achieve better outcomes. Yet anyone with a modicum of understanding of Canada discounts these assertions. Countering with the cost of Canada’s inter-provincial trade barriers (about 4% of GDP) and inherent inefficiencies of sub-nationalism (likely more than 6% of GDP).

Canada was born as a collection of regions tied together by a railway and a desire to remain independent of the US. Much of the country’s energies have gone into overcoming centrifugal forces trying to break off a province or region. Adding to regional discontents in parts of Canada there’s a growing disconnect between urban and rural residents. In the last federal election for example, almost all of the Liberal’s seats were won in Canada’s top ten cities. But this keeping the country together or placating regional factions is fighting last-century’s battle.

Canada’s provinces range in population from 40,000 to almost 15 million. Saguenay and Sudbury are both bigger than Prince Edward Island. A dozen premiers hectoring a Prime Minister focused on the next election is not a sustainable model of governance for such a vibrant and heterogeneous country. Canada needs to keep the country together, but more importantly, Canada needs to lead a global effort to build a better common future. This common future needs to start at home.

Many argue this can be achieved through allocating more political power to cities. But cities in Canada are even more divided than the provinces. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are amalgams of 160 local governments. Add to this a shifting array of agencies for key services like transportation, water, electricity and waste.

The wonder of Canada is that things work as well as they do considering that beneath the veneer of good manners and cooperation seethes a fractious mindset. Canadians need to quickly come together with an intense focus on the future.

Canadians better cooperating with Canadians is important for a relatively easy 10 percent increase in wealth, but it is these same challenges of getting along with others that bedevils the world today. Better cooperation is the single most powerful initiative that Canada could launch to further national and global sustainability. Canada’s success can be the world’s success.

Filed under: Sustainability 101