Roger Gibbins, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.
It makes no sense at all that Manitoba is excluded from the New West Partnership the premiers of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan forged this past spring. Their basic intent was to extend the existing BC/Alberta Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) to Saskatchewan, and to embellish it with accords on international cooperation, innovation and government procurement.
The determination to lower interprovincial trade barriers is to be applauded. Although a national effort in this respect (which Manitoba has championed) would make even more sense, the 10 provincial premiers as a group have made pitiful progress at best over the past two decades.
It’s safe to assume national progress will only come if the western premiers lead by example, something they are doing, first through the TILMA and now through the partnership.
The partnership’s commitment to greater interprovincial co-operation on trade promotion, innovation and procurement also makes sense, for here western Canadians run up against harsh global realities.
As a region, it’s already small and fragmented on the global stage, with a four-province regional population roughly equivalent to metropolitan Chicago and more than 500 cities in the world that have populations larger than either Saskatchewan or Manitoba.
Everything in the global economic environment cries out for greater co-operation, not fragmentation.
So why is Manitoba not a part of the New West Partnership?
The key issue here is not the adverse economic consequences of exclusion for Manitoba, which may not be trivial, or whether the partnership would be even stronger through Manitoba’s inclusion, which it would. More importantly, Manitoba’s exclusion violates our basic understanding of Western Canada’s history and future. The West framed by the existing partnership, a West without Manitoba, makes no sense.
Manitoba is where the non-aboriginal West began, or at least the Prairie West. It was the staging ground for Prairie settlement, the gateway through which central Canadian migrants, immigrants and investment flowed into the broader region.
Winnipeg was the urban metropolis for a rural West, the financial and professional centre.
Manitoba, and more specifically Winnipeg, provided the intellectual heartbeat for the region, the wellspring for the political radicalism that came to define the West on the national stage. The markers put down by the Winnipeg General Strike, J.S. Woodsworth, T.A. Crerar and the Progressive Party were indelible political markers for the region as a whole.
Some might argue that was then and this is now. In the current world the region’s economic heart beats more forcefully in the three provinces further west. Perhaps, and yet the geographical, social and economic integrity of the region remains. The West is a region that shapes our aspirations and it’s an identity that we all share even if it is often overshadowed, quite properly, by our provincial and national identities.
Although being a western Canadian doesn’t mean everything, it does mean something.
None of this is to say the Government of Manitoba should leap aboard the New West Partnership without careful assessment. After all, it took the Government of Saskatchewan four years to move from initial opposition to the TILMA to inclusion in the New West Partnership, a move Saskatchewan was prepared to make only after it could leave a mark on the new agreement; hence the partnership, and not simply an expanded TILMA.
Perhaps, then, we are witnessing the slow, prudent and evolutionary eastward drift of the partnership framework. Perhaps, with the passage of time, a way can be found to include Manitoba just as a way was found to include the province in what is, essentially, an expanded TILMA. Prudence and due diligence make sense.
However, the prospect of Manitoba’s exclusion over the long run is deeply troubling. A West without Manitoba —New West Partnership without Manitoba—cuts western Canadians off from their past and limits the future.
The Old West began in Manitoba. The New West should not stop at the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border.
Dr. Roger Gibbins is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank that targets issues of concern to western Canadians. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.