Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Lives: The Atlantic Region and the West (5)

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The Atlantic region had been in decline relative to the rest of Canada since the 1880s. WWI offered a brief reprieve. The same was the case during WWII. Once war had ended a second time, the provincial government resolved not to loose the economic momentum brought by wartime industry. The federal government was brought on board with the idea of transfer payments, and the provincial governments were encouraged to deploy monies received to attract industry.

The province of Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949. The island had been a self-governing colony within the British Empire until it went bankrupt in 1934. In the years that followed, it agreed to be governed by a British appointed commission. Islanders were given the option of independence of joining Canada when the war came to an end. They narrowly voted to join, a decision helped along by generous promises from the federal government.

The region's post-war economy remained based on the development of natural resource, including mining, forestry, and fisheries. While there was moderate success in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, nothing the federal government could do was able to stabilize Newfoundland's long-troubled fisheries or to expand its industries. The inherent instability of the labour market, however, was brought to heel by generous federal social programs.

Federal programs was much more successful in the West--the further West the better. British Columbia found new prosperity as American markets opened up for lumber and minerals in the post-war years. Agricultural in the Okanogan Valley responded to new demand for fruit. Similarly, Alberta's modest pre-WWII oil wealth expanded rapidly with a major find at Leduc in 1947. The story was different in the other two prairie provinces. Saskatchewan had difficulty developing its coal and potash resources. Its economy remained focused on the uncertainties of grain prices. More populous than its immediate neighbors in 1940, the fact that it was the least populous in 1961 reflected the changing economic circumstances. The province of Manitoba was marginally more diversified and less dependent on the grain prices than Saskatchewan. But as the railway became less important, the capital city, Winnipeg, was losing its economically beneficial position as the gateway to the West.

The West's economic story of dependence on agriculture and extraction was paralleled by a much more diverse political history. Far from the traditional bases of power of both the Conservative Party and Liberal Party in the original member provinces of Confederation, Alberta was a hotbed of political innovation. In 1932, the province gave birth to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a coalition of farming, labor, and socialist interests. The CCF would reconstitute itself as the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. Then in 1934 the province brought forth the Western Social Credit League (later the Alberta Social Credit Party), which joined conservative economic policies and Evangelical Christian social values. The party won a surprise majority in provincial elections under its original leader 'Bible Bill' Aberhart in 1935. Social Credit decisively defeated its rival the CCF in the 1944 election, and remained the governing party under the direction of Ernst Manning until 1971.

The CCF fared better in British Columbia, where support for unions was stronger. However, it was in Saskatchewan that it had its most impressive victories. Under the direction of Tommy Douglas, the CCF established automobile insurance, hospital insurance, and finally, in 1962, the very first public health insurance program in North America. The accomplishments of the CCF were all the more impressive considering the Saskatchewan's relative economic weaknesses compared to other provinces. Like Aberhart, Douglas was a Christian pastor, but he was from the Baptist 'social gospel' tradition. Rather than a social conservative emphasis on individual self-reliance, social gospel saw a role for the state in the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.


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