Size really does matter in Canada.
Population and natural resources wealth equates to political power and influence and has become the governing principle of our federalism.
Our politicians do their best, however, the tail rarely, if ever swings the dog.
I first discovered this years ago as a young and untried provincial bureaucrat sent off to the nation’s capital in search of federal funding.
I can still see the suave French Canadian federal mandarin with the bow tie staring at me across the table.
“We can’t give program funding to Prince Edward Island,” he told me somewhat apologetically.
“You just don’t have the numbers.”
What a sobering and disillusioning moment.
It was 1983 and I was representing a provincial government department led by North Wiltshire cattleman Gordon Lank, a progressive minded minister in the Conservative administration of Premier J. Angus MacLean.
Now I should provide readers with a little personal history.
MacLean appointed me as the Island’s first Cultural Affairs Officer in 1980 following a competition which, by the way, I won. He told his then Principal Secretary David Weale that he liked me because I was a “rough nugget.”
I still regard that as a compliment.
My Conservative friends will tell you that while I might have started out as a Tory I ‘turned’ in 1989 when Liberal Premier Joe Ghiz asked me to be Deputy Minister of Community and Cultural Affairs. I remember at the time Bob Morrissey and several other Liberal ministers questioned my appointment suspecting my blood was irrevocably blue.
Ironically, seven years later the new Conservative Premier, Pat Binns summarily fired me, certain my blood was now red and therefore I could not be trusted within the PC fold.
I could have made his decision even easier I suppose had I reminded him my blood in the 1970s was neither red nor blue but rather a shade of NDP green, having run as a candidate in Summerside against then Liberal Premier Alex B. Campbell.
But the old rule needed to be adhered to.
When you live by the sword you must be willing to die by the sword. After all, partisan politics in Prince Edward Island, if nothing else, is personal and tribal.
I do know that when Premier Binns fired me that day he didn’t make eye contact and held his head very low, probably remembering the political support I had given him personally at an earlier time, or perhaps the speech I had written for him when he made an initial run at the leadership of his party.
The truth is, I have only been a card-carrying member of a political party once in my lifetime, when I joined the Liberal Party to keep Tim Banks from becoming that party’s president.
It seemed like a worthy cause.
For me, politics always has been more about leadership and policy and the ideas that drive decision making. Good political representatives come in all colours and stripes.
But now back to Ottawa.
So there I was in the political heartland, another young greenhorn from the colonies in search of federal program funding, not a lot mind you, just a few drops from the millions upon millions that rushed over the rapids of the Rouge River downstream to Quebec, and into Ontario and the other larger wealthier provinces.
“You don’t have the numbers,” the man with the bow tie repeated.
I had been expecting a more positive response. My presentation was good I thought and my request reasonable, and yet here was this Ottawa mandarin putting me in my rightful place.
Over the years I have reflected on that failed mission.
It was most definitely a rejection of social class and standing, for I was the “rough nugget” in royal court, the poor little Islander seeking favour from the sophisticated Quebecois federalist who held the purse strings.
To say I was viewed in a patronizing and dismissive manner is an understatement.
Later on, he didn’t even pick up the bill for dinner.
But beyond that obvious gulf of social class and standing, I also believe it was a more fundamental rejection of regional and community interest, a judgement of the big over the small.
We just didn’t have the numbers.
I am fully aware that representation by population is a cornerstone of our democratic system. Population and the sheer weight of numbers do matter. In 1915, a constitutional amendment stipulated that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate, thereby ensuring that diminutive Prince Edward Island sends four elected MPs to Ottawa.
That sounds pretty good.
But I would argue that our federal representatives, as hard as they try, have precious little influence or power, regardless of which political party is the government, and Prince Edward Island struggles to be heard and listened to on Parliament Hill.
Furthermore, the numbers are continuing to change to the disadvantage of the smaller provinces and Atlantic Canada in particular.
While the population of Prince Edward Island remains static, Alberta’s population has been growing steadily. The Harper government has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to bolster the representation of western Canada in Parliament. This was the mantra of the old Reform Party and it remains at the top of the prime minister’s ‘to do’ list.
Now you would think that after being marginalized and discounted for so long by Ottawa, our provincial politicians might be more understanding and responsive to the needs of smaller communities.
Tragically however, centralist thinking seems to beget centralist thinking, and here on Prince Edward Island over the past quarter century, as Conservative and Liberal Governments trade places on the 5th Floor of the Shaw Building in Charlottetown, the same deference to size and population prevails at the provincial level.
As a consequence of such neglect, rural Prince Edward Island continues to collapse into the Cornwall-Charlottetown-Stratford capital city region and to a lesser extent the Summerside area.
Kings County, and West Prince especially, suffer as individuals and families migrate into the city or reluctantly set sail for Alberta and other destinations.
Some never come back. Others shuttle back and forth to the oil fields until, as a very tired looking man just returned from the west told me at the A&W in Charlottetown one day, “I don’t know where I live anymore.”
When community leaders from Tignish, Souris or Summerside venture into Charlottetown expecting to be heard and to have their issues addressed, most face the same centralist thinking I experienced in Ottawa 25 years ago, minus the bow tie.
They are confronted with the same urban favouritism, the same refusal to understand or appreciate the strength and potential of smaller rural communities.
It may sound irrational or strange to some but our political leaders need to believe the Island is bigger than its geography or population, more diverse and complicated than visitors see it. They need to have greater respect for local places and rural communities. They should believe that Prince Edward Island is just as Orwell’s Sir Andrew Macphail described it more than a century ago – a world in miniature.
When you think about it we may not have the numbers but we are a little world onto ourselves.