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Alberta needs to step up and lead Canada’s nation-building projects: Peter Shawn Taylor

The “Alberta First” era is over

Calgary skyline just after sunset.

Now that it’s Canada’s economic centre of gravity, Alberta needs to champion national initiatives. (George Rose/Getty)

It’s time for Alberta to be the Big Man of the provinces.

According to anthropologists of the South Pacific islands, a Big Man wasn’t a king or chieftain who seized power by force; rather, he led his fellow villagers through a combination of persuasion, wealth and moral standing. A successful Big Man cajoled, bribed and compromised to get the rest of the village to follow.

Here in Canada, Ontario once played this role on the national stage, thanks to its economic clout and willingness to make concessions to further national objectives. “I have no interest in becoming some sort of mean prophet of the label ‘Ontario First,’” Premier Bill Davis declared in 1979; he knew a successful Ontario required a successful Canada.

Those days are long gone, of course, buried by a mountain of debt and the collapse of central Canada’s manufacturing sector. Having long since grabbed the mantle of national economic powerhouse from Ontario—that the oil province accounted for the entirety of Canada’s net job creation over the past 12 months being just the latest piece of evidence on that score—Alberta needs to take over Ontario’s Big Man leadership role as well. (Naturally, a Big Man could just as easily be a Big Woman today.)

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The link between a successful Canada and a successful Alberta has never been clearer. Getting landlocked Alberta’s oil and gas to foreign buyers obviously serves that province’s interests, yet it is crucial to the national economy as well—as the job stats prove. Bringing other provinces on board with pipeline expansion, plus a variety of other controversial issues such as temporary foreign workers, requires a national perspective on economic growth. And to get there, Alberta needs to focus more on coaxing and wheedling other provinces into seeing things its way, and less on defending a narrow “Alberta First” point of view. The results of that approach to date are mixed.

Earlier this summer, the premiers of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan encouraged the other provinces to follow their lead in breaking down provincial barriers to trade in goods and labour, barriers that impose real costs on the economy. The three western provinces already operate a reasonable facsimile of what an internal free trade regime should look like with their New West Partnership, which streamlines business regulation, smoothes worker mobility across provincial borders and establishes common transportation standards.

That same week, however, Ottawa also announced its latest solution to Canada’s lack of a national securities regulator: the Cooperative Capital Markets Regulatory System. Joining up for the premiere of this voluntary organization are Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Alberta was notable by its absence.

“We are not going to be bullied into signing something that’s not right for Alberta,” provincial finance minister Doug Horner huffed, arguing his province can’t afford to lose its expertise in oil and gas financing or the jobs that go with it to any national program. It’s an entirely parochial argument that ignores the broader national benefits of creating a single system to protect Canadian (including Albertan) investors, manage systemic risk and provide businesses with a uniform set of regulations.

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The new plan ought to be considered the financial services version of the New West Partnership—the sort of nation-building project any Big Man would want to get behind. Instead Alberta has chosen to focus on its own navel. (Although to be fair, Alberta’s ruling Conservative party is in the midst of a leadership contest and the front-runner, Jim Prentice, is a former federal cabinet minster who’s said kind things about a national securities regulator in the past.)

If Alberta wants a more efficient and cohesive Canada to move its oil and fill its jobs, it ought to recognize the benefits of national cooperation in other areas as well—and be prepared for the give-and-take that gets that done. It takes a Big Man admit when he’s wrong.

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Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues