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'Province-worshippers' doom real Canada

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Canada will never fulfil Prime Minister Stephen Harper's dream of it becoming an "energy superpower." Superpowers are coherent states capable of national policy making. They're not governed by a toxic combination of provincial autonomists and federal decentralists.

Frightened by the fury unleashed in Alberta over the original National Energy Program in the early 1980s, successive federal and provincial governments of all political stripes have avoided even putting the words national and energy together in one sentence.

Instead, Alberta Premier Alison Redford is now advocating a "Canadian energy strategy." Her idea was more or less embraced by the western premiers last week. She described it to TVO's Steve Paikin last winter.

"The Canada energy strategy is an idea that a lot of people across the country have been talking about for about 18 months," she said. "The idea is our future, we believe, is very much tied to energy, not just the energy we have in Alberta, but the energy we have right across the country.

"So for Ontario, I know that Premier (Dalton) McGuinty is very committed to developing new industrial bases that would rely on renewable technologies. And there's hydro in Quebec and Manitoba. So what I'm saying is that as provinces we need to come together... and have a conversation about how we can work together on infrastructure projects, on research to make sure we're maximizing our energy opportunities as a global player."

There's no flesh on those bones, nor much chance there ever will be. Yet even a schoolchild understands any energy strategy in a country as diverse as Canada requires the planning and leadership that can only come from the centre.

Canada has one of the richest resource bases on the planet. But Canada is a resource policy black hole. Alone among the world's major industrialized countries, it has no national energy policy. In fact, Ottawa is in the embarrassing position of having no control whatsoever over the development of its energy storehouse. Instead it genuflects to each province's politics or to global corporate interests.

When the prime minister calls Canada an energy superpower, he is thinking of Alberta's tarsands and oil exports to China and the U.S.

A national power grid and green and alternative energy sources -- energy that holds great potential for economic growth and development for all the other provinces besides Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland -- don't interest him. Nor does the environment.

So long as Harper is prime minister, there is no hope for alternative energy, federal policy direction, resource sharing or environmental stewardship. The list of abdication of federal leadership grows.

This is a prime minister who is keen to remove Ottawa completely from all fields of provincial jurisdiction. His focus is the economy, defence and foreign affairs. He is determined to unravel Canada's social safety net -- collective bargaining rights, pensions, employment insurance, equalization and medicare. When he ran for the Conservative leadership in 2004, Harper published a paper entitled Federalism for all Canadians. It advocated turning Canada into a true confederacy.

All appointments to the Supreme Court, the Bank of Canada, federal superior courts and major federal agencies were to be drawn from provincial lists. The Senate would be elected. Each province would determine its process.

Federalism for all Canadians has not been heard from since.

Former senator Eugene Forsey, Canada's foremost parliamentary scholar, painted an uncannily accurate portrait of Canada's current state in a letter published in the Montreal Gazette during the 1979 federal election.

National unity, he wrote, "is not just keeping on the map a splash labelled Canada, just keeping a common market, just keeping a league of semi-independent provinces with a central government and Parliament as mere conveniences, to do for the provinces things they cannot do for themselves.

"It means keeping a real country, capable of doing real things for real people... Only a real country can maintain unemployment insurance, the old age and disability pensions, hospital insurance, medicare, family allowances and child tax credits...

"But the voice of the province-worshipper is loud in the land... If the province-worshippers have their way, there will be no real Canada, just a boneless wonder. The province worshippers are reactionaries. They would turn back the clock 100 years or more. They would make us again a group of colonies, American colonies this time, with a life poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2012 A10

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