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Canada shifting to West

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CALGARY -- 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, after all, is likely to remain our country's biggest city for the foreseeable future.

But misplaced enthusiasm aside, the numbers suggest 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 last week and republished by ATB economist Todd Hirsch drive the point home. They show that while Ontario and Quebec remain No. 1 and No. 2 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 New Brunswick and Nova Scotia losing population and P.E.I. and Newfoundland and 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, 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" oilsands product (bitumen) to market at a time when environmentalists have dug in for the long fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

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, underpopulated 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, T.C. 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 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 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.


Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.


-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 A15

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