Even Albertans and Quebeckers are showing a profound commitment to the nation, say politicos Peter Donolo and Allan Gregg

From the Manitoba schools question in the 1890s to the 1995 Quebec referendum, Canada’s peaceable history has been punctuated by regional conflicts that threatened to tear the country apart. Such tensions are evident to this day and often dominate the national agenda. Whether it is Newfoundland’s Premier, Danny Williams, banishing the Canadian flag to protest Ottawa’s “betrayal” over offshore resources or Alberta Premier Ralph Klein telling the rest of Canada to “keep your hands off” his province’s oil, regional grievances have come to be accepted as a permanent part of the Canadian condition.

It’s high time Canadians see past the clichés and recognize that when these grievances surface, they are often a function of self-serving sabre-rattling rather than a lack of commitment to the nation; a misconstrued stereotype rather than any deep animosity by citizens in one region toward those in another.

A good example is the most recent survey we conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV, released last week. It reveals a reality — particularly regarding Alberta and Quebec — that is much more nuanced than the rhetoric we often hear from politicians and political commentators. The results show a level of commitment to Canada by those provinces that belies the long-held view of Quebec and Alberta as the “crybabies” of Confederation.

One of the first casualties should be the old notion that Alberta’s prevalent attitude is “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” In fact, our survey shows that Albertans could more likely vie with Ontarians for the title of “Most Generous Canadians.” When they were asked about the principle of sharing resource royalties with other Canadians, almost half (47 per cent) felt that at least some of the royalties should be shared nationally and 13 per cent even felt the proceeds should be shared equally with other Canadians. All told, almost two-thirds of Albertans were in a sharing mood — even with a question that specifically reminded them that the Constitution gave their province exclusive rights to those royalties.

Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Albertans did agree with the statement that their province “contributes more to the rest of Canada than it gets back in return.” However, fewer than half of those said they thought this was a “bad thing” — hardly reflective of an aggrieved population.

The survey also raises a number of interesting points about Quebec attitudes. A solid majority of Quebeckers believe their province contributes the same or less to the rest of Canada than it gets back, while only 37 per cent say their province contributes more than it gets back.

Proof that Quebeckers recognize that their province is a recipient of equalization payments? Perhaps, but it also flies in the face of arguments that prevailed among those on the Yes side in the 1995 referendum that claimed Quebec was the “cash cow” of Confederation, and is at odds with the current Quebec government’s position on the “fiscal gap.”

Also noteworthy is the identification with Canada expressed by a large majority of Quebeckers. Fully 58 per cent said they thought of themselves either equally as Quebeckers and Canadians or as Canadians first, while 40 per cent said they thought of themselves as Quebeckers first. This attachment to Canada also shows up when asked about reactions to the handling of natural disasters. A majority of all Canadians felt “the Canadian government would have responded better” to a Katrina-like situation than the U.S. government did.

The region that holds this view most broadly (58 per cent) was Quebec. One reason may be its experience with the 1998 ice storm, in which the Canadian Armed Forces carried out highly visible disaster work, and national institutions came to be appreciated.

These results should not be overstated. The survey still shows that a sizable majority (60 per cent) of Quebeckers support “opting out” of national programs such as health and education (unlike the majority of other Canadians), and it shows that two-thirds of Albertans specifically oppose using their budget surplus to offset rising energy costs elsewhere in Canada. But such attitudes don’t add up to conflicts, and don’t need to rend the national fabric — unless politicians pursue that approach.

No one should be surprised that Albertans would resist an assault on their treasury, when their Premier is making incendiary claims that is about to happen. (Never mind that he is the only one suggesting it.) And why would many Quebeckers not express a loyalty to their region when they have been told for four decades that their needs are so distinct? Equally, it would defy logic if the majority of Ontarians didn’t believe there was a fiscal imbalance in the national accounts, considering their Premier’s campaign on the subject.

What is surprising is that even in the face of exhortations from their leaders, a majority of Albertans believe provincial natural resources “belong to all Canadians,” that Ontarians are the most likely to say they see themselves as “Canadians first” and that 60 per cent of Quebeckers report a continuing affinity to Canada. The bottom line is that Canadians — even in the most “alienated” regions — view their country as something more than a balance sheet or chequebook.