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.

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