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Wynne, Harper And The Tangled Traditions 
Of Federal-Provincial Relations In Ontario
By Randall White
Observers who greet Prime Minister Harper’s 
latest snub of Premier Wynne by noting that 
there is a long history of antagonism between 
Canadian prime ministers and Ontario premiers 
certainly have one kind of point. 
To start with, “the two Macdonalds” - Sir John 
A., first prime minister of the new confederation 
of 1867, and John Sandfield, first premier of the 
new province of Ontario  — went “hunting in 
pairs.” They campaigned together for some 
ostensibly non-partisan founding coalition.
For a few more years there was peace in the 
valley. 
By the time Oliver Mowat became premier in 
1872, however, at the head of the Liberal “Great 
Reform Government of Ontario,” everything had 
changed. 
Mowat was the original Anglophone province 
builder. Confederation, on this theory, was a 
compact among provinces. And, “a Mameluke 
when roused,” Premier Oliver Mowat fought with 
the arch-centralist Prime Minister John A. 
Macdonald vigorously for provincial rights.
Mowat found a partner in Honoré Mercier, the 
premier of Quebec who organized the first 
Interprovincial Conference of provincial leaders 
at Quebec City in 1887. Mowat was elected 
Chair of the Conference by his peers. 
Oliver Mowat remained premier from 1872 to 
1896 without interruption. His long regime left 
deeply ingrained habits behind. His province-
building policy in federal-provincial relations 
largely remained the default position of Ontario 
governments until after the Second World War.
In the last half of the 1920s, the Conservative 
government of the rambunctious Howard 
Ferguson at Queen’s Park intermittently jousted 
more vigorously than usual with the Liberal 
governments of Mackenzie King in Ottawa. 
After an Imperial Conference in 1926, Premier 
Ferguson insisted that plans to transfer the 
power to amend Canada’s main constitutional 
document from the British to the Canadian 
federal parliament, could not proceed without a 
role for provincial governments in the amending 
process. 
In the last half of the 1930s and early 1940s, 
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and 
Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn were both 
Liberals. But they were totally different people.
Hepburn’s mercurial career may offer some 
precedents for Rob and Doug Ford. King and 
Hepburn also had policy differences, especially 
over the Second World War. They seem to have 
annoyed each other profoundly.
The end of the Second World War brought new 
circumstances. The Great Depression of the 
1930s had raised a need for more federal-
provincial co-operation.
After the war George Drew, the ironic founder of 
the Progressive Conservative dynasty that 
would last from 1943 to 1985, was the last 
acolyte of the old province building. 
In 1950 his successor, Leslie Frost, declared 
that Ontario would pursue a new “spirit of co-
operation” in federal-provincial relations. Tax 
rental agreements in 1952 and equalization 
policy in 1957 illustrated were part of his vision.
 
Frost’s PC successor, John Robarts, carried on, 
convening a Confederation 
of Tomorrow Conference in 1967 to address the 
challenges of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.
All this blossomed into a golden age, when 
Premier William Davis reached out to help Prime 
Minister Pierre Trudeau save Canada from 
separatists in Quebec, with what finally became 
the Constitution Act, 1982. 
One key moment was in the early1980s 
constitutional debates. Following the first 
Quebec sovereignty referendum, the 
governments of Ontario and New Brunswick 
backed Pierre Trudeau’s almost Sir John A. 
Macdonald-style Liberal government of Canada 
against the countervailing provincialist designs 
of the so-called "Gang of Eight."
But since those days, there has arguably been a 
gentle revival of Mowat’s old province-building 
spirit. At the same time, Canada’s most 
populous province still puts Canada first, and (in 
its older demographics) many still vaguely 
admire some similar side of the late Pierre 
Trudeau.
As far as Stephen Harper today goes, he would 
probably fit best politically with the Gang of Eight 
and their advocacy of strong provincial powers.   
From that point of view, you can’t fault his 
reluctance to work more closely with Kathleen 
Wynne’s Ontario on new nation-building 
projects.
What nonetheless still seems odd is Mr. 
Harper’s apparent unwillingness to even hold a 
few inconsequential meetings with Premier 
Wynne, as he does with other provincial 
premiers. 
What seems even more odd is how the prime 
minister of Canada is not more concerned to 
present at least an illusion of friendship towards 
the premier of Ontario, where the key to the 
federal Conservative majority in parliament lies. 
Mr. Harper must have his own answers for 
questions like this, but there are none in the 
historical record.
Meanwhile, on a quick back-of-the-envelope 
calculation, just over half the 71 Ontario seats 
the Harper Conservatives currently hold in 
Ottawa are held by the only recently victorious 
Wynne Liberals provincially. The list includes 
Premier Wynne’s own seat in Don Valley West. 
There will be 15 “new seats” for Ontario in the 
2015 federal election as well. Still. Why is PM 
Harper being so just plain rude to the Premier of 
Ontario, when he doesn’t have to, even on the 
most combative old province building 
precedents?

Wynne, Harper And The Tangled Traditions Of Federal-Provincial Relations In Ontario

 

By Randall White


Observers who greet Prime Minister Harper’s latest snub of Premier Wynne by noting that there is a long history of antagonism between Canadian prime ministers and Ontario premiers certainly have one kind of point. 

To start with, “the two Macdonalds” - Sir John A., first prime minister of the new confederation of 1867, and John Sandfield, first premier of the new province of Ontario  — went “hunting in pairs.” They campaigned together for some ostensibly non-partisan founding coalition.

 

For a few more years there was peace in the valley.


By the time Oliver Mowat became premier in 1872, however, at the head of the Liberal “Great Reform Government of Ontario,” everything had changed. 

Mowat was the original Anglophone province builder. Confederation, on this theory, was a compact among provinces. And, “a Mameluke when roused,” Premier Oliver Mowat fought with the arch-centralist Prime Minister John A. Macdonald vigorously for provincial rights.

Mowat found a partner in Honoré Mercier, the premier of Quebec who organized the first Interprovincial Conference of provincial leaders at Quebec City in 1887. Mowat was elected Chair of the Conference by his peers. 

Oliver Mowat remained premier from 1872 to 1896 without interruption. His long regime left deeply ingrained habits behind. His province-building policy in federal-provincial relations largely remained the default position of Ontario governments until after the Second World War.

In the last half of the 1920s, the Conservative government of the rambunctious Howard Ferguson at Queen’s Park intermittently jousted more vigorously than usual with the Liberal governments of Mackenzie King in Ottawa. 

After an Imperial Conference in 1926, Premier Ferguson insisted that plans to transfer the power to amend Canada’s main constitutional document from the British to the Canadian federal parliament, could not proceed without a role for provincial governments in the amending process. 

In the last half of the 1930s and early 1940s, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn were both Liberals. But they were totally different people.

Hepburn’s mercurial career may offer some precedents for Rob and Doug Ford. King and Hepburn also had policy differences, especially over the Second World War. They seem to have annoyed each other profoundly. 

The end of the Second World War brought new circumstances. The Great Depression of the 1930s had raised a need for more federal-provincial co-operation.

After the war George Drew, the ironic founder of the Progressive Conservative dynasty that would last from 1943 to 1985, was the last acolyte of the old province building. 

In 1950 his successor, Leslie Frost, declared that Ontario would pursue a new “spirit of co-operation” in federal-provincial relations. Tax rental agreements in 1952 and equalization policy in 1957 illustrated were part of his vision.

Frost’s PC successor, John Robarts, carried on, convening a Confederation of Tomorrow Conference in 1967 to address the challenges of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

All this blossomed into a golden age, when Premier William Davis reached out to help Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau save Canada from separatists in Quebec, with what finally became the Constitution Act, 1982. 

One key moment was in the early1980s constitutional debates. Following the first Quebec sovereignty referendum, the governments of Ontario and New Brunswick backed Pierre Trudeau’s almost Sir John A. Macdonald-style Liberal government of Canada against the countervailing provincialist designs of the so-called "Gang of Eight." 

But since those days, there has arguably been a gentle revival of Mowat’s old province-building spirit. At the same time, Canada’s most populous province still puts Canada first, and (in its older demographics) many still vaguely admire some similar side of the late Pierre Trudeau.

As far as Stephen Harper today goes, he would probably fit best politically with the Gang of Eight and their advocacy of strong provincial powers.  

From that point of view, you can’t fault his reluctance to work more closely with Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario on new nation-building projects.

What nonetheless still seems odd is Mr. Harper’s apparent unwillingness to even hold a few inconsequential meetings with Premier Wynne, as he does with other provincial premiers. 

What seems even more odd is how the prime minister of Canada is not more concerned to present at least an illusion of friendship towards the premier of Ontario, where the key to the federal Conservative majority in parliament lies. 

Mr. Harper must have his own answers for questions like this, but there are none in the historical record.

Meanwhile, on a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, just over half the 71 Ontario seats the Harper Conservatives currently hold in Ottawa are held by the only recently victorious Wynne Liberals provincially. The list includes Premier Wynne’s own seat in Don Valley West. 

There will be 15 “new seats” for Ontario in the 2015 federal election as well. Still. Why is PM Harper being so just plain rude to the Premier of Ontario, when he doesn’t have to, even on the most combative old province building precedents?

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 : November 27, 2014

View all of Randall White's columns
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