Yukonomist: What have the feds done for us lately?

What do Canadians really think about our federation?

Reg (at a meeting of the People’s Front of Judea, 33 A.D.): “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

If you’re one of those people who can recite Monty Python scenes by heart, or are lucky enough to be married to someone who can, you’ll recognize that famous scene from The Life of Brian.

It came to mind as I read the recent Environics survey of 5,732 Canadians and their attitudes to our federation, which asked people whether their province or territory got its fair share of federal spending.

Fifty-four per cent of the people from the Northwest Territories who answered the question said Ottawa was shortchanging their territory. The figure for Nunavut was 49 per cent. An astonishing 60 per cent of respondents in both Nunavut and the NWT agreed that the federal government has “become virtually irrelevant for me.”

Keep in mind that the federal per-person transfers to those two territories were $30,704 and $43,790 last year, respectively.

I hesitate to even write those numbers down, in case a taxpayer from Ontario accidentally ends up finding this column in a Yukon outhouse while on vacation here.

In comparison, Alberta got $1,465 per person. The province that gets the most generous federal transfers is PEI, and it only got $4,160 per person. To look at it another way, around half of Canadians who reported income to the tax authorities in 2016 made less than the average per-person grant given to the territories.

A Nunavut government official once told me they were planning to hire lobbyists in Ottawa to make the rounds of ministers’ offices arguing for more money. A Yukoner with me remarked that it was probably better if only the people in Finance writing the cheques knew how big the numbers were.

Yukoners are more grounded in reality. Our transfer payment was $25,650 per person, and only 14 per cent of Yukoners who answered the question thought we were getting short-changed. Only 27 per cent thought the feds were irrelevant.

Forty per cent of Yukoners who answered the question thought we were getting more than our “fair share.” Almost half figured that our transfer — remember that this is roughly six times what PEI got and 17 times Alberta’s take — was a “fair share.”

Sometimes you hear Yukoners saying that our big transfer is justified because our presence helps Canada assert Arctic sovereignty. This sounds nice, but as an argument is somewhat shaky.

First, depending on how you define “Arctic,” most Yukoners don’t actually live in it. Probably less than one per cent of Yukoners live north of the Arctic Circle. If you define “Arctic” by the treeline, the number is similarly small. If you’re a fan of the 10 C isotherm line definition, which counts only places where the average summer daily temperature does not rise above 10 C , then the number of Yukoners standing on guard for Arctic sovereignty falls even lower.

We do, I suppose, provide Canada with lots of “Taiga Sovereignty,” but this product is in much less demand at global geopolitical summits.

No one is trying to take the Arctic islands from Canada. The harsh fact is that our negotiating position on things like the Northwest Passage and extending our undersea claims in the Arctic Ocean would be just as strong if the feds transferred half as much cash to the territories.

If we really wanted to beef up our presence in the Arctic, Henry Kissinger would probably tell us to draft a few hundred territorial policy analysts into the military, and station them at a new special forces base on Ellesmere Island.

The eyebrow-raising statistics in the Environics poll didn’t stop at the 60th parallel. There were some disturbing findings about the attitudes of Canadians in the Lower 10 provinces as well. A worrying 42 per cent of Canadians agreed that the federal government was “virtually irrelevant to me.”

Only 57 per cent of Canadians agreed that Canadians in all regions share the same values. About a quarter thought they had more in common with Americans in neighbouring states than with other Canadians. The number of Canadians who said they identified as either “province only” or “province first, then Canada” was 27 per cent, up from 21 per cent in 2003.

Only half of Canadians surveyed agreed that “Canadian federalism has more advantages than disadvantages.”

That’s shocking.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, since it’s a longstanding strategy for politicians to score points locally by slagging the feds.

If there is one thing that would be an existential threat to the Yukon economy and our public services, it would be any kind of major weakening of the Canadian federation.

Looking across our circumpolar neighbours, the big three strategies for northern economic activity are government, oil and gas, and the military. Canada’s military presence in the Yukon is minimal. We have virtually shut down oil and gas exploration, either on shore or off. If the federal money plane delivered smaller bags of cash because of some kind of federal crisis in Canada, we would feel it immediately.

It’s not time to panic. One should take polls with a grain of salt, especially online polls like the one mentioned above. It’s easy to be a bit cranky when taking an online survey, and your attitude might be different if you were in a ballot box facing the choice between a mainstream Canadian politician and someone pushing regional populist buttons.

Nonetheless, the poll findings and what one hears politicians saying in Alberta and Quebec these days shouldn’t be ignored. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump show what can happen when supporters of the status quo get complacent. There are plenty of disgruntled Canadians out there, and not just in Quebec and Alberta.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

Yukonomist

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

A Housing First building on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street will be taken over by the Council of Yukon First Nations and John Howard Society later this month. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CYFN, John Howard Society take over downtown Housing First residence

The organizations have pledged culturally appropriate service for its many Indigenous residents

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. Politicians return for the spring sitting of the assembly March 4. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Analysis: What to expect in spring sitting of the legislature

They’re back on March 4, but election speculation is looming large

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read