Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark: the West Versus the Rest since Confederation

by Mary Janigan
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2012

The West Wants In!    How many times have we heard that complaint in the Canadian political debate?

The rise of the Reform Party in the 1990s and the triumph of Harper Conservatism which followed, suggests that Western Canada is playing a fundamentally different – and more important – role in our national affairs today that at any time in our nation’s history.  To many central and eastern Canadians who have long ruled the federal roost at Ottawa, the evidence abounds that ‘The New West’ is now in charge.

Relations between Western Canada and the rest of the country is the subject of an important and lively new book from the pen of one of Canada’s most accomplished writers, Mary Janigan.  Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark:  The West Versus the Rest Since Confederation chronicles the long and arduous campaign for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to secure full control of their public lands and natural resources.  Surprising as it might seem to modern-day Canadians, the three prairie provinces did not enter the federation on the same terms and conditions as did the other provinces.

The newly-minted Dominion of Canada acquired the vast territory known as Rupert’s Land in 1869 from the Hudson’s Bay Company for three-hundred thousand pounds.  This was Canada’s version of the Louisiana Purchase, that real estate deal in 1803 by which Thomas Jefferson bought half a continent from Napoleon Bonaparte.  The purchase of Rupert’s Land would ultimately provide the land base for the future provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.  Of course, none of the local inhabitants of Rupert’s Land was consulted about this land deal. Nor did they understand what a new Canadian order of things might mean for their traditional way of living on the Great Plains.  Ottawa wanted ‘a land bridge’ to the Pacific shore to anchor Canada from ‘sea to sea’ and to secure the land on which to build a Pacific railway along an all-Canadian route.

Among the many strengths of Janigan’s account is how well she describes the federal view of nation building and how this attitude clashed with the regional realities of Western Canada.  In the early days of Confederation, the new federal government in Ottawa had big plans but little money.   One source of currency was this newly-acquired western land with which Ottawa could pay for its transportation and settlement policies.  The ink was not yet dry on the Rupert’s Land deal when the Métis of the Red River Valley clashed with Canadian surveyors and land-hungry settlers who demonstrated little or no respect for Métis land title.  Soon what became known as Manitoba was ablaze with rebellion and Louis Riel became the first in a long line of western leadership voices to protest the insensitive behaviour of the national government in Ottawa.  He condemned the condescending attitude and the confiscatory approach the federal government took towards the legitimate needs of these rapidly developing Prairie communities.

Shortly before Saskatchewan and Alberta were created as provinces in 1905, the premier of the North-West Territories, Frederick Haultain complained bitterly to Laurier’s Interior Minister Clifford Sifton that “all of our public revenues go to swell the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Canada, our public domain is exploited for purely federal purposes, and we are not permitted to draw on our future.”   The stylish and sometimes irascible Haultain made plain to federal authorities, “The West wanted equal rights with the other provinces. It wanted control of its lands and resources in the West, by the West and for the West.  And it wanted compensation for the lands and resources that Ottawa had already used for purely federal purposes.”  Clifford Sifton adamantly rejected this ‘local’ view of resource transfer to western provinces, though in one of those strange ironies of history, Sifton’s older brother Arthur would soon be the premier of Alberta making the Haultain argument to the federal government.

What is quite extraordinary in Janigan’s telling of this tale is the extent to which many in the ‘rest of Canada’ took the view that ‘we bought the West fair and square’ and there could be no transfer of lands and resources to these new provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan without the consent of the other provinces.  Janigan makes the point repeatedly that the Maritimers were particularly hostile to equal treatment of the West.  The venerable George Murray, longtime Liberal premier of Nova Scotia wrote to his fellow Nova Scotian  Conservative  Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1914 telling him that ‘the western provinces did not own their resources, Ottawa had rightly retained control because of the very significant development responsibilities like immigration on which the federal government had to spend so liberally.’  Moreover, the Nova Scotia premier declared that these complaining western provinces were receiving “very generous” federal subsidies especially when compared with Maritime subsidies.

Federal-provincial meetings on the question of western lands and resources generally brought out the worst in Canadian statecraft.  Janigan provides a detailed description of the conference held in Ottawa just after the Great War formally ended in November 1918.  The author sets up this colourful and contentious conference by reminding the reader that the West had made a contribution to the war effort well beyond its regional weight within the federation.  This support for the war effort counted for little as the ‘Gang of Three’ – the premiers of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta – confronted the front line of federal cabinet authorities –Finance Minister Thomas White and Interior Minister Arthur Meighen – who brought with them an impressive array of research analysis on the issues at hand.

Almost immediately, the conference dissolved into an intergovernmental morass as Ottawa revealed that it had no money to ease the pain and furthermore, the federal government would not make concessions to the Prairie leaders without the consent of the other premiers.   The Gang of Three supported by that ‘rustic sage’, B.C. premier “Honest John” Oliver, were “incandescent” in their anger of this turn of events.  They were not going to allow their just claims for fairness and equity to be linked to other unrelated complaints in federal-provincial relations.  They vowed never to forget the shoddy treatment they received that week in November as the world returned to peace and Western Canada was about to erupt in agrarian revolt and labour unrest.

Anyone who remembers those fractious first ministers’ meetings of the Trudeau era will certainly recognize this script.  But for any Western Canadian reading Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in Dark, the resistance of the rest of Canada to a genuine plea from Westerners for fairness and equity will be a reminder of how dangerous and destabilizing are the regional tensions within the Canadian federal state.  As Janigan observes ruefully but relevantly toward the end of this saga, “our regional identities have almost subsumed any national identity” and “our regions define themselves by their grievances.”

In the end, the man who led the way to finally resolving this thorny issue was William Lyon Mackenzie King.  After nearly 70 years of  ‘The West’ battling ‘The Rest of Canada’, King cautiously negotiated settlements with the three western provinces  by 1930.  Mackenzie King was a politician who, according to Janigan “regarded compromise as an evangelical virtue.”  For several years during the 1920s, “he had wheedled and stalled and charmed and blackmailed his fellow first ministers.”  The wily and patient King did so as he and his federal colleagues came to understand that Ottawa was now paying more for the management of these western resources than the federal government received in royalties and other revenues.

Not well known is the fact that as King moved to conciliate and settle this irritant of Canadian federalism, he was actually a member of Parliament from Saskatchewan.  He firmly believed that the Liberal Party of Canada was an instrument of national unity resting on the twin pillars of Quebec and Saskatchewan.  For the fussy Mackenzie King, whose professional past had been in the area of labour management relations, the final resolution of these endless firefights over land and resources was “a miracle of Confederation” informed by “divine providence” and paid for with generous dollops of federal largesse.

But the story does not end happily in 1930 for soon, the Great Depression would be spreading its dust, debt and despair across the region.  Prairie governments “were reeling, frantic for cash” and it was soon clear that “resource control had brought no flood of instant riches.” Ironically, by the late 1930s, a desperate Alberta was offering to give back to Ottawa some of its recently-won resource rights for federal fire protection of provincial lands and forests.   “Luckily for Alberta” Janigan opines, “this proposal died” for within the decade, the modern oil boom was underway thanks to the rich discovery at Leduc in 1947.

In Canada’s Centennial Year, Alberta Premier E.C. Manning could report that his provincial treasury had received $2.25 billion in oil and gas revenues since the first days of Leduc in 1947.  It was, says Janigan, “a huge windfall” that few participants at that disastrous federal-provincial conference in November 1918 could ever have imagined. But thanks to the persistence of earlier Prairie leaders with names like Riel, Haultain, and Arthur Sifton to name but three, Western Canada could finally enter the promised land of sustained growth and economic diversity.

Let The Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark is a painful yet powerful tale well told and well documented. I would guess it is a tale almost completely unknown and unimaginable to most Canadians today. The concept of Canada, as a peaceable kingdom, and the land of fairness and equity is substantially renovated in this Janigan thesis.  It is clear that many east of the Ontario/Manitoba border imagined a very different kind of country than those who inhabited the Great Plains.  Louis Riel was not alone in his protest about ‘what kind of nation’ were we really creating with this Confederation scheme of ours? One reads Janigan and somehow the National Energy Program of the early 1980s acquires new meaning.

Yes, the West really did want in for a very long time.  But the early and majority shareholders in the Canadian federation determined that the West would not be allowed in on ‘equal terms’.  Mary Janigan reminds us in this fascinating account that Canada really is a ‘very fine balance’ and that the history of our resource development has often disturbed that balance with negative and lasting consequences.

^top of page

* Sean Conway is currently a visiting fellow at the Ryerson Centre of Urban Energy and a Public Policy Advisor at Gowlings. Conway  also served as a Liberal member in the Ontario Legislature from 1975-2003.

Leave a Reply