Canada's political power shifts westward with population

The latest Census figures show Canada's political attention shifting westward along with its population, as debates over national unity, bilingualism and the fisheries recede into the background.

Political reality reflects growing economic power of Western Canada, observers say

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves following his victory speech in Calgary on election night, May 2, 2011. Census figures show a demagraphic shift toward Western Canada that is bringing with it more political power. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The plane zipping Prime Minister Stephen Harper westward this week with a gaggle of journalists and corporate executives could be seen as a sort of metaphor for Canada's new demographic —and political — reality.

On his way to China, Harper flew over his own political heartland, the region that makes trade with Asia his government's new imperative. The oilsands, potash, the diamond mines and the demands of the western premiers now occupy the national media's attention more than ever before.

The latest census results show that for the first time, more Canadians now live west of Ontario than east of the province — 30.7 per cent compared to 30.6 per cent. Yukon had the biggest growth spurt at 11.6 per cent between 2001 and 2006, followed by Alberta at 10.8 per cent, nearly double the national average.

Slowly but surely, the country's political attention has turned in the same direction. Debates over national unity, official bilingualism and the troubled Atlantic fisheries continue to recede into the background.

Former Reform party leader Preston Manning, the CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, said Ontario casts its eyes west more and more because of its tremendous vested interest in the oilsands and the manufacturing the oilpatch is creating.

"The political centre of gravity of the country shifted from the old Laurentian axis — which is really Quebec and Ontario being able to determine who the government was — to the new alignment between Ontario and the West, with the vast majority of government seats coming from Ontario and the west," Manning said.

Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, said the census numbers are finally reflecting how the Canadian economy has been shifting to the west over many years.

Not only are Canadians moving to western Canada and staying there, he noted, but new immigrants are also choosing to come directly to the region rather than starting their lives first in Ontario.

Immigration helping drive population shift

For example, population growth doubled in Manitoba over the last census period, mostly due to the fact that twice as many immigrants chose the province this time around.

And with these moves west come more service-oriented jobs that help root people in a particular region for the long haul.

"We don't bounce back and forth in terms of where we live. These kinds of transformations are slower moving than economic transformations, but significant because they have a staying power that's really important," said Gibbins.

"I think we're seeing an amalgamation of things that are all reinforcing one another in terms of the growing demographic and political and economic importance of the region."

Parliament partly recognized the demographic shift last December, when it passed a bill that would add seats to the fastest growing provinces — Ontario will get 15 more seats, Alberta and British Columbia will each receive six more seats, and Quebec three to maintain its proportional representation.

All this plays well into the political fortunes of the Conservatives, who managed to keep their hold on Western Canada while snapping up huge swaths of Ontario during the last election on May 2. They won a paltry five seats in Quebec.

Western impact 'not a blip'

Harper's focus on some of the most ethnically diverse ridings in the Greater Toronto Area wound up paying off in spades. Those areas are expected to gain more seats when the new maps are drawn up — take Milton, Ont., which saw its population grow by 56.5 per cent in five years, or the Whitchurch-Stouffville area northeast of Toronto, which grew by 55 per cent.

But perhaps even more notable is the rapid growth of western Canadian cities. Fourteen of the 15 census areas with the highest growth were in the West, and 10 of them in Alberta.

"I think it just means that the western Canadian impact on national politics is not a blip, it's not going to go away," said Gibbins.

"It's getting harder and harder to imagine a national government being formed that doesn't have strong representation from western Canada, just because the demography has reached the point where you can't do the math."

Where exactly then does this leave the opposition parties, which have huge challenges in Western Canada?

The Conservatives hold all but two seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and 11 of 14 in Manitoba. In British Columbia, 60 per cent of the federal seats went to the Tories.

Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, says the key for the NDP and the Liberals will be to emulate what the Conservatives have done to survive.

"They have targeted particular ridings with particular ideological makeups or interests or ethnic makeups and have developed strategies to appeal to those specific ridings," said Mendelsohn.

"I think that kind of micro-campaigning is part of the reality now...one would see the NDP or the Liberals not trying to appeal to the West but to identify interests, communities, constituencies, where they have something compelling to offer."

How to further entrench the support of certain "near customers" of the Conservative party across the country will be one of the topics of the Manning Centre's upcoming networking conference in Ottawa.

Manning, who helped articulate the frustrations of Western Canada while at the helm of the Reform party, said there's still a concern with all this shift in focus.

"I think one of the worries in all of this is the region east of the Ottawa River is declining in political influence, but more seriously declining in its economic capacity," he said.

"That should be a worry not just to folks east of the Ottawa River or the federal government, but of concern to every part of the country, including the West."