What the Calgary Congress accomplished
Written by Link Byfield   
Sunday, 08 October 2006
The assembly of several hundred citizens from across Canada at the Calgary Congress last weekend was nothing if not unusual.

To see so many lay people engaged -- passionately -- in questions of economics and history was truly remarkable. It was remarkable to witness federalists standing up to cheer a western separatist, and to see separatists seeking to reform and preserve the federation.

The lesson of the weekend was that the key to Canada’s future lies in her past.

I don’t think the Reform Party understood this. The Reform Party appealed to the “common sense of the common citizen,” only to discover that there’s no such thing.

Common sense in the West is for weaker federal government. Common sense in Ontario is for stronger federal government. Common sense in Quebec is for less federal control and more federal money. Common sense in the Atlantic is that other Canadians should pay them to stay put.

But surely it must be asked, if there are no common values and expectations between all regions, why did we form a federal union in the first place?

The answer is surprisingly simple. There once were common values. We all wanted to be prosperous, each province and region in its own way, each responsible for itself; and we didn’t want to be American.

In short, we all wanted to be left alone within a secure national boundary. This understanding formed the foundation of Canadian federalism.

Two themes -- “responsible government” and “federalism” -- run like a great river through the history of Canada.

The first holds that governors and cabinets will be accountable to elected legislatures.

The second holds that “local and private” matters will be left to provincial legislatures. This includes all those things that politicians now consider national priorities, such as health, education, welfare and regional development.

The wisdom of our founders was that federal union depended on Ottawa staying out of these.

The wisdom of our present leaders -- most of them, anyway -- is that federal union depends on Ottawa heavily intruding in all of them. Yet the more they intrude, the less united and prosperous we are.

The focus of the Calgary Congress was to understand how this great reversal happened.

We heard from constitutional authorities that the shift from federalism to centralism occurred in the middle of the last century, borne on growing faith in socialism -- the idea that governments should manage the people rather than people manage governments.

We heard from economists from all the have-not regions -- the Atlantic, Quebec and Manitoba -- that Ottawa’s attempts to “equalize” social entitlements are hurting the provinces they are designed to help.

The achievement of the Congress was to form a resolution calling for three “Rs”: Restriction of federal spending and taxation; Reform of the Senate; and Restraint of the courts.

These three Rs would return us to the principle on which we confederated -- each province and region responsible for pursuing prosperity in its own way inside a secure national border.

How we get this to happen is, of course, a large question.

But that comes next. That’s the journey, and we must first know where we’re trying to get.

The achievement of the Calgary Congress was, for the first time, to accurately plot the destination.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.