Burden-Sharing Across Canada

Regional tensions are flaring in Canada.

Regional tensions are flaring again in Canada. When I hear talk about separation from Alberta, I start to feel the same pit in my stomach as I felt the night I worked on Parliament Hill through the Referendum on Quebec Independence in 1995. My roots are in Alberta, but I also value Quebec – and beautiful B.C. – and the uniqueness of Newfoundland. As a citizen who cares first about following Christ but also deeply cares about all of Canada, I wonder if there is anything in Christian teaching that can help at this moment in time. 

One big trigger for Alberta’s grievance is the allegation that a program called equalization is unfair to Albertans. In 1995, Quebec nationalists used charges of unfairness in equalization to stir up anger against “Ottawa.” I have followed this issue for years. Many media stories are so distorted it is hard to tell they are describing the same program. That in itself suggests a problem.

Equalization, in short, transfers tax revenues from all Canadians to help poorer provinces. In 2018-2019 almost $19 billion was transferred to six provinces. The purpose of equalization, as part of the Constitution, is to help ensure a reasonable level of services for all Canadians. It expresses the principle of not leaving a neighbour behind. That’s a sound principle; most Canadians broadly support it; and it resonates for Christians. Why does it threaten national unity? 

IN GOOD TIMES AND BAD
On one level, the problem is lack of transparency. A common joke is that only 10 people really understand the calculations, and five of them are dead. At one point I researched the details for some Western MPs. It was a tough job! Furthermore, there is no public accountability for how provinces use the money. 

Another problem is that the rules and the results are easily manipulated by political leaders for partisan gain. In 2009, for example, a ceiling was installed, largely to prevent Ontario from qualifying. Numbers about who benefits and who pays are used by populist politicians who love to rally anger against “Ottawa.” It’s easy because most Canadians know little about it, unlike health care, for example. 

The Constitution is often cited as a reason the program can’t be changed. Just mention re-opening the constitution to cut short debate and foster resentment. Significant change could be made without changing the basic principles in the Constitution. 

At its root, the central principle is burden-sharing through good times and bad. Fair burden-sharing is always subject to tension. The apostle Paul dealt with that in the early church. In a modern economy, gaps in access to essential services run within as well as between provinces. Geographic boundaries are less significant; rural areas across Canada face similar challenges, for example, as do urban centers. A modern program for the purpose of ensuring everyone can participate in Canadian society would not look like the current equalization program. 

Other burden-sharing programs, such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement for poor seniors, are broadly supported and do not threaten national unity. Transforming equalization to be a transparent, mutually accountable covenant between Canadian citizens rather than a deal between warring provincial politicians would be more productive than railing against “Ottawa.”  I suspect Canadians from coast to coast could get behind it.  

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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