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                           Ontario And The Scottish Referendum: 

                   How It Could Impact Canada's Most Populous Province 


By Randall White

In an earlier era it might have made sense to say that the Scottish independence referendum this coming Thursday was bound to have some serious resonance between the Ottawa River and the Lake of the  ods. 

To start with, according to Percy Robinson, the 1930s historian and author of Toronto During The French Regime, Ontario was once “the most British of all the provinces” in Canada. It seems arguable that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, that would be the end of “Great Britain.” So if Ontario were still the most British of anything, it would necessarily be concerned.

Modern Canada has many historical ties to Scotland. Our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was born in Glasgow.

George Brown, one of Macdonald’s key political rivals and founder of the old Toronto Globe, was born in Alloa, a small town on the River Forth, not far from Edinburgh. 

Oliver Mowat, who served for almost a quarter of a century as a kind of founding premier of the new post-confederation Province of Ontario, from 1872 to 1896, was born in Kingston, Upper Canada, to parents who had both been born in Scotland.

But in the early 20th century, immigrants from other shores brought a variety of cultural currents to Ontario. And by the 1960s and 1970s, the old-world demography of Canada’s most populous province had begun to change in increasingly dazzling ways. 

Nowadays, in the early 21st century, people with British, to say nothing of strictly Scottish “origins” are nowhere near as demographically significant in the province as they used to be. There are people in Ontario with origins in virtually every country of the world.

And, as in Canada itself, the aboriginal population is growing some four times faster than the non-aboriginal population.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Harper has finally commented publicly on the Scottish referendum. 

In response to questions before a business audience in London, England, he said “We think from the Canadian perspective that a strong and United Kingdom is an overwhelmingly positive force in the world ... This is a vote with immense consequences...”

Mark Sholdice, an apprentice historian at the University of Guelph, says the Harper government is recasting Canadian history and culture, strategically trying to wipe out the influence of the Liberal party since Lester Pearson.

In other words, Stephen Harper is trying return to an earlier emphasis on Canada’s "British history.” 

But this interpretation of history is no longer very relevant in Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario. Even if it is still part of the culture in those more rural parts of the province, it is furthest in spirit in the biggest cities.

Yet in his recent comments, Mr. Harper also raised some potential implications of the Scottish referendum for something much closer to practical politics in Canada today.

In his response to one question in London the prime minister talked specifically about “the division of a country like Canada — or the division of a country like the United Kingdom.” And he touched on the prolonged debate over Quebec’s place in Canada, and the two failed sovereignty referendums here, in 1980 and 1995. 

From that perspective, both Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal and progressive Ontario and Philippe Couillard’s Liberal and federalist Quebec could have strong interests in the outcome of the imminent Scottish referendum.

Until quite recently the conventional wisdom has been that the Yes, or pro-independence side, in Scotland was bound to lose. All the polls said so.

Yet over the past few weeks, a few almost last-minute polls suddenly seemed to be saying that the Yes side might actually win. 

If this does happen, and the United Kingdom follows the plan of spending the next 18 months negotiating the terms of independence, who knows what the impact might be on the current, happily becalmed sovereigntist movement in Quebec right now? 

Similarly, who can predict the impact of a Scottish Yes vote on what may otherwise be an emerging new Wynne-Couillard “concordat,” between the old progressive sister provinces of Ontario and Quebec?

But In the UK itself, the punditry have been bouncing back at the last minute to the view that the Yes side is bound to lose.

Yet at least one poll still has it ahead. And according to polling analyst John Curtice at the University of Strathclyde, the race is still “much tighter than it was just two or three weeks ago.”

Anything, it seems, still might happen.

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : September 16, 2014

View all of Randall White's columns
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