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Are The Laurentian Elites Really Back In The Saddle?

 

 By Randall White

Not long after the CBC predicted a Liberal majority government this past October 19, a seasoned Ottawa journalist proclaimed  “the return of the Laurentian elites” on Twitter. 

A few days later you could read such parallel newspaper headlines as “So the Laurentian elite is back in business. Sorry, western Canada.”

The concept of “Laurentian elite” was popularized, albeit quite negatively, in Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s much-discussed book of 2013, The Big Shift.  

To quote from the publisher’s blurb: “The political, media and business elites of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal ran this country for almost its entire history. But in the last few years, they have lost their power.” They were succeeded by “a new, powerful coalition based in the West and supported by immigrant voters in Ontario.”

This past November 4, Glendon College Canadian Studies professor Colin Coates posed the question “Is The Big Shift History?” on the admirable website ActiveHistory.ca. His answer was more or less yes. And at first blush, all this does seem almost convincing.

Consider the regional disposition of the 184 Liberal majority seats in the new House of Commons. Ontario has 80 seats and Quebec 40, for a grand total of 120 seats in the great Laurentian heartland of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Then there is the all-important economic base. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives came to office in 2006 on the back of a great resource sector boom in Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

They leave office in 2015 in the wake of a great global bust in the same sector. And the traditional seat of economic leadership of Canada has moved back east. Or so the story goes.

Yet when you look more closely at the October 19 federal election results, it is other, deeper regional nuances that stand out. 

The most ardent followers of the new big red machine are not in the Laurentian solitudes of Ontario and Quebec. They are in Atlantic Canada — which gave some 60% of its regional vote and every single seat at its disposal to Liberal candidates. 

The more regionally nuanced story continues in Manitoba, gateway to Western Canada, which gave almost as big a share of its provincial vote to the Liberals as Ontario (44.6%). 

At the same time, Quebec gave 40 out of its 78 seats to the Liberals with only 35.7% of the provincial popular vote. And British Columbia gave 17 of its 42 seats to Liberal candidates, along with almost the same percentage of its popular vote (35.2%). 

As for the all-important economic base, the fall in the Canadian dollar triggered by the decline in the price of oil may or may not have some longer-term benign impact on older and newer industrial sectors in Ontario and Quebec.  

What archaeologists today call the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were the original Laurentian elites, on a very long view of the Canadian past. And ever since they told Jacques Cartier he had arrived in “Kanata” (or so he thought), the growth of modern Canada has actually been linked with a gradual westernization of economic leadership as the country's population itself grew westward. 

For example, back in 1971, during the early days of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) was still somewhat larger than the Toronto CMA.  

But by 2011 the Toronto CMA was home to almost 5.6 million people, and Montreal had only 3.8 million. Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton together had some 4.7 million people — larger than Montreal and getting closing in on the Toronto ballpark.

Moreover, whatever happens to the price of oil, the growing Asian demographic core of the world economy will be luring Canadian economic development westward, to one degree or another, for generations to come. 

It may be that there is a regionally up-to-date bow to some fresh new post-Laurentian consensus in Canada today, in the unusually bold and risky craftsmanship of Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet.   

Mr. Trudeau has followed Stephen Harper’s rule about having a Minister of Finance from the Greater Toronto Area.

But, as just one example, some of his most forward-looking appointments lean on his family ties to Greater Vancouver. 

Consider Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, a member of the We Wai Kai first nation in BC and MP for Vancouver Granville. Or Harjit Singh Sajjan, Minister of National Defence and MP for Vancouver South. Or the legally blind Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sports and Persons with Disabilities, and MP for Delta BC. 

Whatever else, the new Canada is a place in the midst of change. And it may be changing in ways that neither the traditional advocates nor critics of the Laurentian elites have so far imagined. 

Mr. Harper attempted to revive the old folkways of the empire on which the sun never dared to set. 

But the new order in Ottawa today is trying to look to the future, not the past.

 

 

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 10, 2015

View all of Randall White's columns
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