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Stop ignoring West's views - Monday, May 26, 2003 at 13:19

PUBLICATION:  The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)
DATE:  2003.04.24
PAGE:  A14
SOURCE:  The StarPhoenix

Stop ignoring West's views

You'd never know it by the reputation Albertans have earned as Canada's perennial malcontents, but it seems Saskatchewan residents carry a bigger chip on their shoulders over the province's treatment in Confederation.

A comprehensive survey for the Canada West Foundation shows that nearly 71 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents think their province isn't accorded due respect by Canada, while 56 per cent of Manitobans, 60 per cent of Albertans and 63 per cent of British Columbians feel that way.

Further, nearly 78 per cent think Saskatchewan's interests are poorly represented at the federal level. The feeling is shared by 63 per cent of Manitobans, 71 per cent of Albertans and 72 per cent of British Columbians.

The CWF's director of research, Loleen Berdahl, notes that Saskatchewan also led the West in disenchantment when a similar poll was done two years ago.

However, while Albertans and their politicians, backed by their immense resource wealth, are more apt to vocalize their gripes, Saskatchewan, with its smaller economic base and greater dependency on the national government, likely remains more muted in its criticism, she notes. Saskatchewan's small population base and its relatively small representation in the Commons also reduce its leverage.

Given the tremendous innovations this province has contributed to the nation, its residents justly consider themselves a vital part of Canada and are upset when they feel Canada doesn't give the province its due, Berdahl suggests.

On topics ranging from the fairness of federal spending among provinces to the economic benefits of provincial secession to the advantages of banding together to achieve regional clout, it's clear that all four western provinces are of a similar mind.

"This is not a disposition that is diminishing over time. It's deeply embedded," says Roger Gibbins, president of the Calgary-based foundation which wants to ensure western perspectives are included in national policymaking.

"There's often a tendency to equate regional discontent with Alberta, to think the West as a whole doesn't see the world this way. This data says to me, pretty loudly and clearly, that Albertans aren't unique on this at all."

As Gibbins suggests, the poll highlights a deep-seated malaise across the West that federal politicians need to address without delay. And the solution has to go far beyond establishing a western office for the prime minister, as Ralph Goodale, Saskatchewan's sole cabinet minister in the Liberal government has suggested.

Although it's clear from the poll that westerners aren't enamoured of separatism -- even in Alberta, support for secession is mired at about 25 per cent, it has dropped by seven points in B.C. to 18 per cent since 2001 and is stuck in single digits in Saskatchewan and Manitoba -- residents support forming regional coalitions to create a stronger national lobby.

With about a third of all westerners convinced that fundamental changes will be made to the Senate and Canada's electoral system in their lifetime, pressure will continue on Ottawa to deliver a fairer, more inclusive governing system than has been so frustratingly evident over the past decade or more.

On everything from the federal government's abysmal treatment of the national transportation file to its ham-handed approach on Kyoto provisions to its gun registry fiasco, it has failed to consider a western perspective.

From agriculture to energy policy, westerners have been left to fend for themselves on such things as farm subsidies and Kyoto costs that disadvantage them in competing with Americans.

Rather than reveal anything new, the Canada West poll shows just how entrenched has become alienation in the West. Surely, building a stronger country by tackling this challenge is a legacy worthy of any politician.