Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 3, 2001
Chretien's call to social justice
Alberta has to be conscious of effects of its wealth on others
By SENATOR DOUGLAS ROCHE
Last week in Edmonton, when he tried to apply those words to the people of Alberta, the roof fell in on him. The right-wing press went into a frenzy. Hot-line radio shows lit up. Politicians, who should know better, shook their heads gravely.
What was the terrible thing the prime minister said?
"What is going on in Alberta is causing a lot of problems to the government of British Columbia, the government of Saskatchewan. We will have to start to work collectively to make sure that there is no dislocation in the nation because of the fortunate position of this part of Western Canada at this moment."
Then he added: "We have to make sure that every person in every part of Canada benefits from the potential and the wealth that belongs to the people of Canada. They have the right to have their share of these opportunities."
Immediately, the prime minister was charged with opening the door to another National Energy Program or some form of carbon tax to punish Albertans for their resource wealth. He was reminded that Alberta is already a net contributor, by $7 billion a year, to the equalization formula whereby the richer provinces contribute to the "have not" provinces.
The prime minister's essential message - that Alberta has to be conscious of the effects of its wealth on others - was drowned out by the knee-jerk reaction of those who think Alberta has a God-given right to pile up its riches.
As an independent senator - that is, one not a member of the Liberal Party - I want to say that the prime minister was right and he should talk even more about how Alberta should approach social justice issues.
Moreover, judging from the reaction I received, there are many Albertans who feel as I do. But our voices are not heard in a climate where the media focuses on the dissenters.
It is a fact that our neighbouring provinces worry about how they will hold onto doctors and nurses when Alberta pays them more money. It is a fact that other provinces cannot afford to lower taxes as Alberta does. It is a fact that Canadian unity is threatened by extreme dislocation in the regions.
That is what the debate should be about, not yelling back at the prime minister because he dares to raise the subject of social justice.
The voices of the great majority of Albertans, who speak moderately for a stronger Confederation, must be reinforced. National programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Health Act could be strengthened, and Alberta could lead the way.
Alberta speaks from a position of strength. Real GDP growth reached 5.5 per cent in Alberta last year and is expected to grow another 5.7 per cent in 2001-02, by far the fastest growth in the country. The treasury is booming, the debt will soon be eliminated, unemployment is the lowest in Canada. Per capita disposable income is the highest in Canada, and there is no sales tax.
Contrast these blessings with stark world figures. Of the 4.6 billion people in developing countries, more than 850 million are illiterate, one billion lack access to clean water, and 2.4 billion do not have basic sanitation.
More than 30,000 children under age five die every day from preventable causes. Around 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day, and 2.8 billion or less than $2 a day. The statistics of poverty in the world are truly staggering.
Last week, the federal government announced the opening of a regional office of the Canadian International Development Agency in Edmonton. That's a sign that many people in Alberta are indeed interested in international development.
Alberta has a lot to offer our neighbouring provinces and our neighbours in other lands.
The prime minister's words amount to a challenge for us to think constructively about ways to extend social justice.
(Douglas Roche is an independent senator from Alberta. former editor of the WCR and author of Bread Not Bombs: A Political Agenda for Social Justice.)
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