Opinion

Vancouver Island Our 11th Province? Why Stop There?

BC's own Brexit? Likely not. Still, secession movements tell us something about the regional mood.

By Crawford Kilian 25 Jun 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Quebec separatism may be moribund these days, but other kinds of secession are very much alive and kicking.

The United Kingdom has just gone through a traumatic "Brexit" referendum over leaving the European Union -- and this on the heels of a near-separation of Scotland from the rest of Great Britain. Catalunya (as the Catalans spell Catalonia) is itching to leave Spain.

Closer to home, the Texas Nationalist Movement wants to make Texas an independent nation, as it was from 1836 to 1845. And some still call for carving Cascadia out of Oregon, Washington, and parts of British Columbia.

Part of the charm of these movements is that they're impossible (well, except for Brexit, I suppose). Just as some of us love maps of imaginary Middle Earth and Westeros, some of us love North America re-mapped. Granted that the vastness of North America contains many regional cultures very distinct from one another, the political boundaries are far too fixed, and the economic relationships too lucrative, to be changed by a few malcontents.

But what about re-mapping a Canadian province into two? That's the motivation of the Vancouver Island Party, which wants to return to the status quo of 1857 or so, when the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was politically quite distinct from the Hudson's Bay Company territory on the mainland, generally known as New Caledonia.

Merging the two entities was an administrative convenience for Britain. The gold rush of 1858 had drawn thousands of Americans north from California to the Fraser River. James Douglas, the governor of Vancouver Island, was an old Hudson's Bay official who knew the mainland well and wanted to keep it British. He'd seen what had happened to Mexico, which lost two-thirds of its territory after the Mexican-American War.

So Douglas became the governor of something Queen Victoria was pleased to call British Columbia -- a vast territory populated by a few hundred British subjects, thousands of aboriginal people, and a dangerous number of Americans. They were all theoretically ruled from Victoria.

British Columbia survived the U.S. onslaught and went on to join the new Dominion of Canada. But the terms included a railway line that ended at Vancouver, and that made it the economic hub of the new province. Victoria remained the capital, but real political power shifted to the growing population on the mainland.

An economic backwater

So Vancouver Island became an economic backwater. If the provincial capital had moved to Vancouver or New Westminster, Victoria may be little more than a theme park today. Out of B.C.'s 4,683,000 residents, only about 765,000 live on Vancouver Island -- about half in the Capital Regional District. What's more, the island's workforce has been declining since 2008 while the population 65 and older has risen by 17 per cent since 2010.

Economically and politically, then, islanders are not that important, and it doesn't help the current governing party that workers in the region's extractive industries tend to vote for the NDP. The provincial Liberals have been in power for 15 long years and don't often throw money into communities that vote against them.

Nor do they pour much money into BC Ferries, the system that Vancouver Island and nearby islands depend upon. As ferry service gets more expensive and less frequent, islanders get understandably angry -- especially when service cuts hurt tourism. As a region of small cities and rural towns, Vancouver Island often feels its urban relatives have forgotten it.

That sense of being neglected underlies most separatist movements, all the way back to the American Revolution and countless Irish rebellions. It certainly underlies Quebec separatism, and the Reform Party built its foundations on Alberta's alienation and sense of exploitation.

So it's not surprising that talk of Vancouver Island separatism might arise from time to time. Interestingly, the V.I. Party doesn't want to become its own country, but simply another province -- albeit one with 12 MPs, up from the current seven, and up to 10 Senators. The party also proposes that Ottawa will pay off Vancouver Island's share of provincial debt, as well as paying for at least one connector bridge to the mainland.

Bigger than three current provinces

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Ottawa (and the B.C. government) agreed to these and other demands. The whole country would go to considerable trouble and expense just to provide 765,000 aging islanders with their own province. Vancouver Island would be larger than Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick, and somewhat smaller than Nova Scotia.

Fine, but what's in it for everyone else? Why should B.C. move its capital to Vancouver (or Kelowna)? Why would Ontario and Quebec want to help pay for a bridge across the Salish Sea?

For that matter, Vancouver Island isn't much different from the rural regions of most provinces. How about a Greater Yukon, including B.C. down to Prince George? Or a North Alberta based on Fort McMurray, with its own environmental regulations for the oil sands? Ontario ought to be good for five or six provinces, plus Toronto as a province of its own. The same with Quebec and Montreal.

Push the idea hard enough, and it pushes back: Why bother with 10 provinces? W.A.C. Bennett long ago proposed ditching our present system and creating five regions: B.C. to the Arctic Sea, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. That would at least give each region a bigger population base and increased political power. Well, they didn't call him "Wacky" for nothing.

Vancouver Island separatism may be a total non-starter, but it should at least remind urban Canadians that the rest of the country isn't just a big woodlot. Our regional cultures are lively and worth getting to know, whether in the Gaspé or the Eastern Slope of the Rockies, or the Avalon Peninsula. A lot of Canadians really like living away from cities; they regard a visit to Vancouver or Toronto as, by definition, a bad trip.

Give young Canadians (especially immigrants) more reason to settle in such regions -- jobs, housing, some urban amenities like universities -- and we'd see a surprising boom in forgotten parts of the country. That boom would in turn attract more people, not just to exploit some finite resource but also to build sustainable communities with much to contribute.

Or would that be just another pipe dream of urbanites crammed into high-priced high-rises because that's where the jobs are?  [Tyee]

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