Canada is often considered to be a haven from geopolitics, a country relatively free from economic want or political cant. But if by geopolitics we refer simply to the influence of geography upon politics, Canada may in fact be a prime place to study it, if only because the country posseses so much of the former when in comparison to the latter.
The basic fact of Canadian geopolitics is this: more Canadians live in the city of Toronto than live in the 2500 kilometer-wide expanse of land separating Toronto from Alberta. (Or, to put it in the most Canadian way possible, there are a heckuva lot more people who would like to see Auston Matthews win the Calder Trophy than Patrick Laine). Canada is in this way divided in two: between Alberta and BC on the one hand, in which around 25 percent of Canadians live and 30 percent of Canada’s GDP is generated, and Ontario and Quebec on the other, which account for roughly 60 percent of Canada’s population and GDP.
These two halves, in turn, can also be divided into two parts. Alberta is separated from BC by the Rockies; Ontario from Quebec by the Anglo-French divide. (The debate is still open as to which of these two barriers is the more venerable). However, while the BC-Alberta split is pretty well balanced — Alberta’s GDP is a bit larger than BC’s, but BC’s population is a bit larger than Alberta’s — the Ontario-Quebec divide is tilted strongly in support of Ontario. By itself, Ontario accounts for an estimated 38.6 percent of Canada’s population and 38.4 percent of Canada’s GDP.
These are large figures not just in Canadian terms, but also in global ones. Few provinces or states within major countries represent such a bulk of their respective nations. Ontario’s provincial government has a budget that in recent years was larger than those of Quebec and Alberta combined, and also close to half that of Canada’s federal government (the capital of which, Ottawa, happens to be located in Ontario). The Ontario provincial budget is higher than those of any states in the US apart from California or New York. It is higher than the budgets of 15 EU nations.
Among other things, this makes the provincial election of Ontario that is scheduled to occur by 2018 a matter of some significance. According to current polls (yes, I know, polling cannot be trusted…), the Ontario Liberals likely will be thrown out of office for the first time since 2003, to be replaced with the Progressive Conservative party. This would be noteworthy given that, at present, only Manitoba is led by a Conservative government. The rest are governed by Liberal parties with majorities in provincial parliaments, or else by the New Democratic Party (in Alberta) or Saskatchewan Party (in Sasketchewan, of course), both of which enjoy majority governments too.
In Canada, due to the country’s vast size and diffuse population, provinces possess a high measure of capital and clout. The combined budgets of the ten provincial governments, for example, is larger than the federal budget. (In the US, by comparison, the 50 state budgets amount to less than half the US federal budget. And in Britain, the central government is far more prominent still). So, if provincial Liberals lose upcoming elections in provinces of considerable size—Quebec may have an election in 2018 too, and BC will likely have one this year— it might unsettle provincial relations with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal majority; a federal majority likely to remain until at least 2020.
It is not however only Ontario’s size which tends to make it the fulcrum in Canadian politics. Ontario is also centrally positioned, both economically and politically, within the country. Economically, the four provinces west of Ontario have around one-third of Canada’s GDP, while the five provinces east of Ontario have around one-quarter of Canada’s GDP. The median line of longitude of the Canadian economy — the place where the GDP to the east equals the GDP to the west; the Prime Median, as it were — runs directly through the city of Toronto, Ontario’s capital.
Ontario trades nearly seven times more with Quebec than does any other province, and trades three times more with Alberta than does Quebec. Ontario also trades more with Canada’s four Atlantic Maritime provinces than Quebec does. Politically, moreover, Ontario shares a long border with French-speaking Quebec — a border Ottawa abuts and Montreal is just 60 km from — yet shares a language with most of the rest of Canada.
This is where we get to the real bacon of Canadian geopolitics: the somewhat uncanny reflection of geographical realities within Canada’s electoral outcomes; specifically, in the ability of Ontario to “swing” between either Quebec or western Canada during federal elections, or else for Ontarians to vote for a party supported in neither Quebec nor in western Canada and yet still manage to have that party win (or at least, manage to avoid having any rival party acheive a majority government).
The four most recent elections, which saw Trudeau emerge with a majority government in 2015, Stephen Harper win his first-ever majority in 2011, and Harper gain only minority governments in 2008 and 2006, are ideal examples of this:
In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority by uniting Ontario and western Canada — including receiving 27 out of 28 seats in Alberta — even as they won only 5 out of 75 seats in Quebec. In that election Ontario and every province west of Ontario gave a large majority of their seats to Harper’s Conservatives, while, with the exception of New Brunswick (the westernmost Atlantic province), none of the provinces east of Ontario came even close to giving a majority to the Conservatives.
Quebec, in contrast, gave 59 seats to the NDP, allowing that party to become one of the two largest in Parliament for the first time in its history. 2011 was a good example of Ontario swinging to the west. (Harper, not incidentally, was born in Toronto, attended university in Edmonton, and represented a Calgary riding in Parliament).
In 2015, on the other hand, Trudeau’s Liberals won an even larger federal majority by winning most of the seats in both Ontario and Quebec, even as they were crushed in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Liberals won a large majority of seats in Ontario and in every province east of Ontario—except Quebec, where they won only a narrow majority—and also won exactly half the seats in Manitoba, the easternmost Prairie province. But the Liberals did not come even close to winning a majority in any other province west of Ontario.
The large victory of Trudeau (who, by the way, was born in Ottawa, went to university in Montreal, and represents a Montreal electoral district in Parliament) is a good example of Ontario swinging east. While BC did give a plurality of its votes to the Liberals in 2015 too, it only amounted to 17 out of the 42 seats in that province; in contrast, in the Atlantic Maritimes the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the four provinces of the region, and in Ontario the Liberals won 80 out of 121 seats.
In 2008 and in 2006, Ontario did not give a majority of its seats to any party. Moreover, in neither of those elections did Ontario and Quebec give a plurality or majority of their seats to the same party. This resulted in both cases in federal minority governments.
In 2008, Ontario gave a plurality of seats to Harper’s Conservatives, who won big majorities in every province west of Ontario but who lost in every province east of Ontario except New Brunswick. Quebec meanwhile gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois that year. In 2006, when Harper’s minority victory was much narrower than in 2008, Quebec also gave a large majority to the Bloc Quebecois, but Ontario gave a plurality to the Liberals rather than to Harper.
In 2006 the Alberta-BC divide was also larger than in 2008 or 2011: the Conservatives swept Alberta but won only a plurality in BC. (New Brunswick however did fall in line with its fellow Maritimers in 2006: all four gave a majority of seats to Liberals). In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, every province west of Ontario gave majorities or pluralities to the Conservatives, while none to Ontario’s east (except, again, New Brunswick in 2008) did so.
While geopolitical patterns such as these vary over time and so are not certain to endure, still it is clear they run deep. Quebec’s political leanings in particular may deserve special attention in this regard, given that province’s size and unique identity. For over ninety years, from 1891 to 1984, Quebec gave a plurality of its parliamentary seats to the Liberals in 25 out of 26 elections. This long era ended only when Pierre Elliot Trudeau resigned in 1984, leading later that year to the victory of Brian Mulroney, the only Quebec-born Prime Minister ever to have led a Conservative Party.
Mulroney not only triumphed over Trudeau’s successor John Turner, but did so by winning 211 seats in Parliament, the most in Canadian history. In all eight elections since then — until the most recent election in which the new, younger Trudeau emerged and secured 51 percent of Quebec’s parliamentary seats — the Liberals were unable to recapture the province. Before Justin, they fell behind the Bloc Quebecois there during six out of seven elections, and fell behind the NDP in the seventh.
This feat alone displays the unique mantle that Trudeau now wears. Quebec will probably remain very much on his mind in the years ahead, especially if the Conservatives or the NDP nominate a leader from the province, like Maxime Bernier or Guy Caron, to take over their parties this year and face down Trudeau in the 2019 election. Indeed, in spite of of all the noise I’ve made here about Ontario being a decisive force in Canadian politics, Quebec has been nearly as successful in getting its preferred candidates elected PM. It has done so in 28 out of 42 Canadian elections; Ontario in 30.
In Part 2 of this 3-Part essay, we will attempt to analyze the modern Canadian economy, and in Part 3 we will discuss how technological changes may impact the country.