Notes on 46th Text for Reading Field: Bercuson

Canadian History, Week 8


David Jay Bercuson, ed. Canada and the Burden of Unity. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1986.

David Jay Bercuson supplies a collection of articles that assess the historical relation between Canada’s federal government and its provinces in the Maritmes and the Canadian West. This is a study of the dynamics of regionalism, particularly with respect to economic development. Although history serves to supply examples and evidence in support of the authors’ arguments, most of the texts represent exercises in political economic theorizing. Two aspects of Canada’s National Policy – principally railways and to some extent tariff regulation — figure in a number of the discussions (immigration, the third aspect, is dealt with only incidentally and tangentially, and then in its reverse — as out-migration from Nova Scotia). The authors do not hesitate to offer their own solutions to what they see as debilitating problems. The overwhelming tone is one of protest: against the centralization of decision making and of the power to enact or deny policy directions that are of import to regions.

Bercuson opens the discussion with an evaluation of Confederation that equates the ideal of unity with disingenuous rhetoric. In his opinion, “mutual suspicions and rivalries,” which existed between the signatory entities prior to the realization of Confederation grew rather than diminished in its aftermath. While acknowledging that there are inter-provincial differences, Bercuson divides confederated Canada into three regions: the West, which includes British Columbia as well as the Prairie Provinces; the Maritimes; and Central Canada (the later additions, Newfoundland and the North are not discussed).  The burden of unity that the creation of Canada imposed on the outlying regions, according to Bercuson, is one of “permanent fiefdom to the intended heartland of Ontario and Quebec.” Further, he states, “Central Canada was destined by geography and federal policy to have an industrialized centre and an agricultural and resource-extraction periphery.”[1] Provincial protest notwithstanding, Bercuson is of the opinion that this relation, replete with unequal powers and disparate roles, was and is purposefully maintained by the federal government. Basically, the centralist argument is that unity is best for the greatest number (politically measured by seats in the House of Commons), and is, therefore, best for all. Bercuson concludes (and is supported in his conclusion by the other authors), that “the sacrifices called for in the name of ‘national unity’ have taken a heavy toll on the hinterland regions and no real national unity can be attained until national priorities have been rearranged.”[2]

Paul Phillips ties the National Policy, continental economics, and national disintegration together to argue that a complacently held belief in a fallacy — that Canada “exists as a single, independent, policy making unit” — has allowed multinational corporations to insinuate themselves into the Canadian economy very nearly to the point of controlling it.[3] In the absence of real, rather than idealized, Canadian political economic nationalization, multinationals have simply transformed Canadian regions into their own economic hinterlands. These hinterlands, though situated in Canada, are far more dependant on American contracts than on Canadian contacts and therefore are destined to compete intra-nationally and remain bereft of inter-provincial support systems. In isolation, with no say or influence in the making of U.S. policy, they are impotent in the face of externally generated instability and exploitation and are in fact likely to undergo “underdevelopment.”[4] Phillip’s solution requires that Canada regain control of its economic policies by implementing a new national policy that eliminates ‘branch plant’ conditions. This new national policy must regulate multinational behaviour within Canada, foster research and development of Canadian technology, and concentrate on making the most of Canadian natural resources.

For his part, Carman Miller argues in favour of restoring Greater Nova Scotia (lost with the separation of Isle St. Jean [Prince Edward Island] in 1769, and New Brunswick and Cape Breton in 1784). In his view Maritime unity still remains a potent source of regional power, unrealized due to the advent of Confederation, but necessary to access if Confederation is to work for the Maritime region. Ernest R. Forbes agrees that the Maritimes have not reached their full potential under the confederated agreement. Forbes argues that the provinces of the region were not adequately protected against misguided attempts of Central Canadian policy makers to impose symmetry in their transportation policies. He points out that attempts to mollify the western farmers while privileging central industrialists led to the destruction of the preexisting and successful Maritime regional transportation policy and to the undermining of their (also formerly successful) economy. T.W. Acheson agrees, pointing out that the tendency for ‘Empire-building’ in Central Canada allowed for buy-outs, corporate takeovers, and shut-downs of Maritime industries by non-Maritime interests – all for the sake of protecting Central Canadian industry from unwanted competition.

T.D. Regehr, finds that not only has freight rate discrimination against the West been the single biggest cause of western Canadian discontent, but that the provinces of the region are without means to effect a political solution. His suggestion is that they attempt an economic one: subsidizing alternate transportation systems to compete with rail and thereby force Central Canadian planners to reconsider their traditional philosophy towards rate-making. Regehr admits that “legal, financial and constitutional problems” will likely arise, but is apparently convinced no other alternative exists.[5] David E. Smith, while agreeing that Westerners have virtually no voice in the federal political arena, attributes this silence to their apparent determination to disassociate themselves from the federal Liberal party. As he does not see any point in expending energy trying to forge an affiliation in the face persistent hostility, the solution Smith suggests is devolution: the creation of agencies with quasi-executive power delegated from the federal government which would operate within each region. He argues that devolution is a legal and reversible move that would give the West some real control of policy implementation and allay distrust. It is somewhat ironic that what sounds like branch plant government is suggested in a text so critical of branch plant economics.

Colin D. Howell closes the collection of articles with an observation on Nova Scotia’s historical protest movement and search for meaningful federalism. He points out that, contrary to nationalist historiographical tradition, Nova Scotians who tried to create a more equal and fair federal system were exhibiting rational behavior that was no more indicative of disloyalty to the idea of confederation than was that of their erstwhile opponents. Howell’s unspoken suggestion — given that the theme of the book is that “‘national unity’ has created burdens that have not been equitably borne and serious national difficulties that have never been tackled” — appears to be that loyal Canadians should perhaps take up the ‘anti’ cause where historical Nova Scotians left off.[6]

Additional Resources:

Government of Canada, “Welcome to Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) at the Privy Council Office,” Intergovernmental Affairs, Government of Canada Privy Council Office website,

“Trudeau not worried about Western alienation,” posted to You Tube by mtthwwbstr, 21 November 2008.

[1] David Jay Bercuson, “Canada’s burden of Unity: An Introduction,” in Canada and the Burden of Unity, ed. David Jay Bercuson (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1986), 2-3.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Paul Phillips, “National Policy, Continental Economics, and National Dsintegration,” in Canada and the Burden of Unity, 19.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] T.D. Regehr, “Western Canada and the Burden of National Transportaion Policies,” 137.

[6] Bercuson,  “Canada’s burden of Unity,” 11.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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