British Columbia should embrace its role in the West

Western Canada, if allied, is a national powerhouse.

Dear editor,

In a few short years, we’ve gone from achieving a new height in collaboration in western Canada to climbing out of a new low. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has thrown a wrench in the relationship and the plucky message that BC can prosper on its own – thank you very much – has broad appeal among British Columbians.

Unfortunately, this has undermined the solidarity with the other western provinces that has been so important to British Columbia’s success over the years.

I was raised and educated in Vancouver and for most of my life I thought of myself as a British Columbian. But time spent in Saskatchewan and Alberta has led me to think of myself as a western Canadian.

It is stunning how many values British Columbians share with many of their Prairie neighbours. A deep love of the land. Tolerance and hospitality. Creativity and a willingness to take risks. A belief in both personal freedom and personal responsibility. An understanding that prosperity doesn’t come from government largesse but from finding a way to add value to the lives of others.

These shared values likely reflect how recent the pioneering experience is in this part of the world and the basic export focus of the western Canadian economy. And indeed, it is “an economy” not several.

Alberta is BC’s second largest export market. The most recent numbers (2009) show that British Columbians sell $12 billion in goods and services to Albertans – more than they sell to China. Similarly, Albertans sell $14 billion in goods and services to British Columbians. The well-being of these two provinces is deeply interconnected. When one suffers, they both do.

Now, BC has some advantages that Alberta does not. BC’s economy is more diverse and many of its natural assets are renewable. Alberta is deeply dependent on the sale of its oil and natural gas assets and has to worry about saving for the future when they are gone.

Collectively, the western provinces are a powerhouse in food, energy and materials – the basics of life from the very first day that a human being built a shelter and started a fire to cook food. These shared strengths are an incredible platform for success if the West works together.

When the Prairie provinces were being created, Ottawa intentionally divided the West into small pieces so that they would never rival the power of Ontario and Quebec. This was very much on the minds of Premiers Campbell, Stelmach and Wall when they created the New West Partnership. They were seeking to create a common economic region with enough clout to influence national policies, attract investment and compete more effectively overseas. It was a great vision and is still vital today as the West struggles to get Ottawa to do its job opening markets, welcoming immigrants and – perhaps most importantly – addressing our obligations to our Aboriginal peoples.

The division over the Northern Gateway pipeline has created tensions in the partnership, but it need not spell the end of the cooperation that does, and still could, take place among the western provinces. Cooperation means more influence in the federation and on the international stage, better services for citizens and a stronger economy.

As with any relationship, the partners need to be open to debate and constructive criticism. BC’s comments on the Northern Gateway proposal to the National Energy Board were, for example, extremely valuable. Greater attention needs to be paid to whether there is adequate infrastructure to respond to potential spills in the remote areas the pipeline will cross. Alberta and Enbridge needed to hear this. Friends don’t have to agree, but they should listen to one another.

The broader point is that regardless of how the discussion on Northern Gateway proceeds, the larger relationship should be protected. The western provinces need one another and they need to stand united to advance western Canadian interests within Canada and abroad. They should do this as friends.

British Columbia is tremendously blessed with people and resources. It can certainly do quite well “going it alone.” But why be alone when you can be with friends and do even better?

Dylan Jones

President and CEO, Canada West Foundation