The Challenge of Regionalism - Canada Has Six Distinct Regions: Atlantic Canada; Quebec; Ontario; the Prairie West; British Columbia; and the Far North. Such Divisions Are Arbitrary and Do Not Reflect the Many Nuances of These Regions

By Anderson, Greg | The World and I, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Challenge of Regionalism - Canada Has Six Distinct Regions: Atlantic Canada; Quebec; Ontario; the Prairie West; British Columbia; and the Far North. Such Divisions Are Arbitrary and Do Not Reflect the Many Nuances of These Regions


Anderson, Greg, The World and I


Amid the excitement of the political change in Mexico that brought Vicente Fox to power and the drama of Bush versus Gore, North America's other national political contest in 2000 appeared to be an uneventful confirmation of the status quo. Canadians had returned Jean Chretien's Liberals to power with their third straight super-majority government, meaning that it controls two-thirds of the parliament.

If the size of government majorities were a sign of a country's unity and stability, Canada would easily be among the most unified and stable anywhere. Yet just beneath the surface of Chretien's big win is a nation that is as deeply divided by region as ever. Like the "sectional" politics of antebellum America, regionalism in Canada is a pervasive influence on national issues, pitting region against region in ways that, at their most benign, make Canada tough to govern and, at their worst, periodically threaten to pull the country apart.

Unraveling the regional puzzle

What, exactly, is Canadian regionalism? Isn't it all about the French and the English? Not exactly. To illustrate, imagine taking the combined populations of New York and Los Angeles (approximately 30 million people) and scattering them throughout an otherwise population- free United States. In addition, place 85 percent of them within a narrow, 200-mile-wide strip of land that runs the width of the country and urbanize the population by concentrating 77 percent of them in cities.

On top of that, throw half of them in just two states, have the language of the majority in one of those states differ from that of the rest of the country, and make those two states the primary manufacturing hubs for the whole country. Sounds like a bit of a mess, but it is a snapshot of modern Canada. Knitting together Canada's people and its regions under a single umbrella has been a primary challenge for Canada's leaders dating from at least the time of the American Revolution.

Canada has traditionally been described as having six distinct regions demarcated, more or less, along provincial boundaries: Atlantic Canada, including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Labrador; Quebec; Ontario; the Prairie West, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta; British Columbia; and the Far North. Such divisions are arbitrary and do not reflect the many nuances of each of these regions.

Just as San Franciscans might object to being lumped in with those living in Los Angeles, San Diego, or Sacramento, the local character and views of Albertans and Manitobans are hardly synonymous, even though both provinces are supposedly part of the Prairie West. Nevertheless, traditional divisions are a useful starting point in trying to understand the sources of regionalism in Canada as well as efforts to mitigate some of regionalism's effects.

Sources of economic activity

Canada has a small, open, highly industrialized, export-driven economy. The majority of Canada's export value comes from the manufacture and export of a range of industrial products including automobiles, machinery, and aircraft. Nevertheless, roughly 40 percent of export revenue is generated from natural resources like energy, softwood lumber, agricultural products, and minerals. Such a mixture of economic activity might not be of such consequence except that it is unevenly distributed across the country. The preponderance of Canada's industrial activity is concentrated in southern Quebec and southern Ontario, but activity in the rest of the country is centered more heavily on resource extraction.

According to Statistics Canada, manufacturing employs 15 percent of Canadians across the country. In both Quebec and Ontario, 18 percent of all labor is employed in manufacturing. By contrast, only 6 percent of Saskatchewan's labor force is engaged in manufacturing; whereas agriculture employs just 2.1 percent of the nation, in Saskatchewan that figure is 10 percent.

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The Challenge of Regionalism - Canada Has Six Distinct Regions: Atlantic Canada; Quebec; Ontario; the Prairie West; British Columbia; and the Far North. Such Divisions Are Arbitrary and Do Not Reflect the Many Nuances of These Regions
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