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Canadian Provincial Political Cultures

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3607 words Published: 9th Jan 2018

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Canadian political culture is multi-layered and diverse. Three great countries have influenced the development of this culture – The United States, The Great Britain and France. Thus, when it comes to Canada, it can not be studied in isolation from the rest of North America and Europe. Even though the expansion of North America was just a phase in extending the political and cultural dominance of the European superpowers, nonetheless, it helped to establish a course of economic change in Canada. During the last two hundred years, Canadian political culture has been shaped by five distinct waves of immigration – all of which have left their own economic and cultural marks on the entire country (Easterbrook and Aitken, 1988: 3).

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The formation of Canada economically, culturally and politically is best described by Louise Hartz’s “fragment theory” who argues that colonial societies, those like Canada, originated as fragments of larger European societies and that those societies remained marked during their history by the conditions of their origins. The word “fragment” implies that those new societies would not be the complete replicas of their parent ones but they would rather consist of the parts of those parent societies – represented by those who decided to emigrate (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 68). Further, the discovery of strategic natural resources in Canada like oil, gas, gold and others, created a dependency theory which is truly unique to the country – staples theory of economic growth. Harold Innis, the originator of the theory, argued that the development of Canada consisted of the series of dependencies upon the natural recourses – fur, fish, timber, minerals and others, all of which, in turn, have dominated the economy of the country and were the primary export products at a time (Marchak, 1983: 21).

The Maritimes

The societies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island vary in the rates of development significantly. This region could be considered as the most traditional and conservative in Canadian political culture as a whole. The Maritimes are a rare example of how customs, traditions and beliefs are favoured over innovation and change. After the formation of responsible government in the 19th century, there were only marginal changes in practices and procedures of politics (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 10-11).

First settlers were immigrants who came directly from Britain – Yorkshire, Ireland and Highland Scotland. The prize of relocating was worthy of a risk, the Maritimes offered something that Europe, settled and overpopulated, could not – free land. Politically, Maritimes resembled their American neighbours rather than those back in Britain as the entire region remained under the firm sphere of influence of the New England. Despite that fact, Tory ideology in the region was strong before and after the American Revolution up until the third wave of immigration, when it was influenced greatly by the British liberals – the same wave that brought Sir John A. Macdonald to Canada. Civil War in the United States had forced the Maritimes to re-think the idea of Confederation as it offered security and economic stability (Dunn, 2006: 17-18).

Nova Scotia is the most advanced of all Atlantic provinces in respect to social, economic and political development. Halifax, Nova Scotia’s largest urban centre, has a higher rate of industrialization than other areas in the region. When it comes to staffing the bureaucracy there is less usage of patronage and the decisions are made solely on the principle of merit (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 11). Religion comes as an integral part of the Maritimes’ political culture. There are four political parties in the PEI – Conservative, Liberal, Catholic and Protestant. For years, it has been considered to be a tough task to predict which party would take the upper hand during the elections. One thing was for certain though – fixed numbers of Catholics and Protestants would be elected every time regardless of which party would win the election (Dunn, 2006: 18-19).

The Maritimes’ political culture is partially frozen in the 19th century. Today, just like two centuries ago, the government is considered as a negative force in the economy and society – something that is not to be trusted. To confirm this, professor S.D. Clark has noted that “the fisherman of Nova Scotia were simple folk who had little understanding of the complexities of the economic, political and social world around them. Their problems seemed simple enough, made difficult only by the interferences of the government far removed and beyond their reach.” (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 16).


Newfoundland is a province that stands out from all the others. The province suffers from the old scars in its history and competing visions from the previous governments and up until today it tries to find a balance between integration and self-reliance. Rejecting the Confederation at first in 1867, which was a popular decision as home rule was favoured over industrial capitalism, the province accepted it in 1949 (Tomblin, 1995: 67-68). Escaping the bankruptcy in the 1930’s, Newfoundland asked for a direct British rule by surrendering its self-governing dominion status gained previously by the Statute of Westminster. Unlike Canada, Newfoundland found itself automatically involved in World War II alongside Britain (Dunn, 2006: 16). Post war era, however, brought political change not only to Europe but to Canada as well. Weakened by the war, Britain was in decline and could no longer support Newfoundland financially, as Valerie Summers noted – “In the post-World War II period of political adjustments and British dollar shortages, the interests of the British government in eliminating the cost of maintenance of Newfoundland’s administration led to Newfoundland’s movement out of the British domain into Canadian jurisdiction” (Tomblin, 1995: 68).

Newfoundland is quite distinct from the other provinces in its economic, social and cultural development. Being isolated from Canada and the rest of North America for many years it was greatly influenced in its traditions by the United Kingdom. Newfoundlanders were oriented toward the non-materialistic values of West Country England and Ireland – their parent communities (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 3-4).

For centuries Newfoundland’s economy was centered on cod fishing. The province’s population was mostly rural composed of enclaves which were called outports. The majority of outporters lived in a semi-feudal relationship with the fish merchants called the “truck” system. To put it in a few words, the “truck” system was a barter system of economic relationship, which has eliminated the concept of money from the outports completely. Since the confederation, the government began the program that encouraged vacation of the outports and moving their inhabitants to bigger cities (Ibid. p.4).

Another distinct feature of Newfoundland is its extreme nationalism and cultural duality. While Irish Catholic immigrants flocked to St. John’s and Avalon Peninsula, the English Protestants preferred north of the island and the outports (Dunn, 2006: 15). This has created one of the most serious cleavages in the province – split between the Irish and the English population. Newfoundland could be considered as “rurally fundamental” and only partially secularized society where religion still plays an important role in day-to-day activities. It remains more “British” than any other province in Canada (Bellamy, Pammett, Rowat, 1976: 7-8).


The settlements in Canada’s New France were emerging slowly in the early days of colonization; however, immigrants began to move in higher numbers once the fur trade became one of the most important staples in the region. After the treaty of Utrecht, all French North American lands were transferred under the control of the British. French-speaking population resented such a change thinking that it would threaten their ways of life, their culture and language (Croats, 2002: 18-19).

Losing its North American lands, France remained far away in Europe, preoccupied with wars and matters in its remaining colonies – Quebec appeared to be cut off from its parent country. The Catholic Church has served as a guardian of Quebec’s values at that time and the Catholic clergy were seen as a New France’s societal leaders. Even though the British were officially in charge they guaranteed the continuation of Quebec’s culture and traditions in return for loyalty to the Crown (Dunn, 2006: 20).

This partnership lasted for many generations up until 1960’s, when the rise of unprecedented nationalism in Quebec resulted due to collision of English liberal ideas and conservative views of the French. With receding conservatism and rising liberal ideas in Quebec in 1960’s, the province began its quest for national self-determination in a spark of worldwide decolonization. Fair to say, it was rather a chain reaction to events that were happening in a number of former French colonies at a time, particularly in Africa (Ibid. p. 22).

The passing of Bill 101 in 1977 by the Quebec’s National Assembly has been seen as a sign of relief to the French; The Bill was the first solid document to ensure the permanence of their culture and language. The authors of the Bill sought to make French dominant in the province and to reverse the demographic trends which seemed to be working against them. Such a drastic change has affected the English-speaking population of Quebec negatively; even though there has been much resistance to the new laws by public services, mass media and labour movements – the institutional discrimination in Quebec is still present at large (Clift and McLeod Arnopoulos, 1984: 186, 201-2).

Quebec’s conservatism, liberalism and radicalism have been shaped by its unique nationalist context which, in a way, explains why its links with its English-Canadian counterparts has always been weak and unstable. Culturally descending from the New France, Quebec is simply ideologically different than any other province in Canada (Dunn, 2006: 23). The presence of cultural pluralism is painful for both English and French Canadians in the province, which is exactly why the French community is not likely to take any fundamental steps which would worsen the situation even further (Clift and McLeod Arnopoulos, 1984: 201).


Ontario differs from the other provinces in two major ways. First of all, with the population of almost twelve million people – no other province comes close to it in terms of number of residents, diversity and size of its economy, accumulated wealth, its financial, corporate and media power concentrated in province’s large urban centres. Secondly, there are also significant differences in political culture due to Ontario’s historical experiences, its economic interests, and evolution of its cultural, social and political institutions (White, 1997: 49).

Political culture of such an old and multilayered society as Ontario is far from being a uniform construct. When small Ontario [rural] communities are taken as an example, it is hard to find an ‘Old Ontarian’ political pattern in perfect coexistence with others more of recent origin due to result of suburbanization, economic change and media influence. There are also distinct regional differences, most strikingly in Northern Ontario, and countless fissures of group rivalries and conflicting economic interests (Ibid, p.51).

Ontario’s founders were American counter-revolutionists, conservative liberals and Crown loyalists – the supporters of strong executive government. Rejecting extreme liberalism, popular in the United States, refusing to separate religion and the state [as it was done in the US], Ontario’s fathers wanted a province that would not resemble their southern neighbour in any way. Interestingly enough, it was in fact American liberalism that influenced Ontario’s political culture greater than others. Province’s policymaking officials have followed the examples of their American counterparts whether it was concerning education or structure of the government (Dunn, 2006: 22).

Ontario, situated intimately close to Quebec, has been more sympathetic to its ambitions than any province located to the West; furthermore, along with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, Ontario’s legislature recognized Quebec’s ‘distinct’ character in the resolution passed on the day of Quebec’s referendum of 1995. Unlike Eastern, Western legislatures were not as eager to continue this trend (White, 1997: 437).

. Surprisingly, Ontarians, so diverse and fractioned, have always had a clear appreciation of their common interests and highly developed ability for social cohesion; undeniably complex, Ontario’s political culture has been consistently sustained for over two hundred years (Ibid. p.51).

The Prairies

Just over a century ago the prairies were archaic with little trace of habitation (Francis and Palmer, 1992: 27). It was not until the 1890’s when the prairie west realized that capitalism, individualism and private property were the part of the environment, like the river valleys and the plains (Friesen, 1987: 242). With millions of square kilometres of land and millions of inhabitants the west represented enormous economic and political interest to ‘Old Canada’. It was planned to create a ‘new investment frontier’ and all hopes lied on the pioneer-farmer who would relocate to the West and initiate an economic take off. To encourage settlement Canadian government promised to build a transcontinental railway system to unite Canada form coast to coast (Ibid. p.162).

Manitoba, the most sensitive to Quebec of all prairies, entered Confederation as a bicultural and bilingual province. Ontario has been the most influential of eastern provinces to affect Manitoba’s policymaking. Urban socialism and agrarian liberalism outweighed toryism on the new frontier. However, due to the number of Ontario’s settlers who moved into province, Manitoba’s toryism has been considered as on of the strongest in the west. The fourth immigrant wave brought in English labour-socialists and land-hungry Eastern Europeans who avoided the east and headed to relatively empty prairies (Dunn, 2006: 26-27). After the 1940’s Manitoba was able to achieve a significant economic diversification. Provincial political life was stable up until 1969’s elections when NDP was able to win popular support and overwhelm their Liberal rivals (Friesen, 1987: 219, 221).

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Saskatchewan is often depicted as a Western Canadian Britain. While majority of English immigrants passed Saskatchewan and headed for bigger cities, the province’s rural farm community grew rapidly – it had more farmers than all other prairie provinces combined. These conservatively liberal Britons were mobilized enough to create a strong farmers’ union of the land – Saskatchewan’s Farmers Union. Similarly to other prairie farmer movements, those of Manitoba and Alberta, it had one idea in mind, which was to create a socialist farm organization based on equity. However, when Farmer-Labour party emerged out of Saskatchewan’s ILP and united farmers the economic and thus political interest was shifted to cities rather than farms. Since that time socialist became steadily dependant on larger towns rather than rural communities. Two political parties have been competing for power in the recent decades, Saskatchewan’s social democrats and conservatives (Dunn, 2006: 28-29).

Just like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Alberta was a land of opportunity for new settlers. Since the 1940’s Alberta has been considered as Canada’s Cinderella. No other place has seen the growth more rapid, the accumulation of wealth so inevitable and the confidence so obvious. The discovery of oil in 1947 was a significant event as the province entered a new phase in its development. One of direct consequences of the oil boom was its impact on province’s population increase – Alberta became the most populous in the prairie west (Friesen, 1987: 427).

Alberta imitated the politics of the Great Plains state and tied itself closer to the US than any other prairie province. Due to a high volume of immigrants from the south in the early 1900’s, there has been a higher number of American-born Albertans than those whose parents descended from Britain. American ideas have also dominated Alberta’s politics as more and more Americans settled in the province’s rural areas where radical liberalism have been espoused. Great Depression and discrepancies between prairie’s farmer unions led to the creation of Social Credit which was particularly strong in Alberta. This has further divided Saskatchewan and Alberta ideologically – one was pro-socialist and another thought of a socialism as its enemy (Dunn, 2006: 30-31).

British Columbia

The completion of trans-Canada railway has been a paramount condition of British Columbia’s entrance into Confederation. It has been a major plan of the federal government to unite both east and west coasts by a key transportation route (Carty, 1996: 33). BC’s resource-based economy was highly dependent on transportation and the opening of Panama Canal, in addition to Canadian Pacific railway, have significantly boosted province’s economy. Resembling Australia and its politics, BC’s settlements inherited ideology of labour-socialism. The well organised political force was structured around major mining, lumbering and fishing industries of the remote one-industry towns. BC’s agriculture has been quite fragmented, isolated and diverse, that is why the creation of United Farmers of BC as a political body has not been perceived seriously (Dunn, 2006: 31-32).

Just like in Alberta, the CCF appeared in the 1930’s depression years and quickly gained popular support. 1940’s were characterized as continuation of cleavage between BC’s working and privileged classes. Social Credit took control during the 1950’s and like in Alberta was extremely anti-socialist (Ibid. p.32).

British Columbia has always been seen as a ‘spoilt child’ of the Canadian Federation and its relations with the central government has always been called ‘touchy’; as Norman Ruff observed in the early 1990’s, “Ottawa-Victoria relations … have long been characterized by misunderstanding and bemusement, by suspicion and anger and, worst of all, by periods of mutual indifference and detachment” (Carty, 1996: 32-33).


If to compare political culture to a number it would not be constant – but rather a variable that changes over a period of time, keeping some attributes and gaining some new ones. Throughout its history, Canada remained uniquely united politically, despite fragmentation, severe regionalism and separatist threats. Canadians today do not think the way their predecessors thought a century ago, as their values and beliefs, though slowly, but changed over time. Canadians became less ‘British’, more liberal [in terms of worldview], favouring individualism rather than collectivism, fighting for equality of rights, generally accepting multiculturalism and diversity (Brooks, 2008: 1, 5, 30-31).

Works cited

Bellamy, David J., Pammett, Jon H., Rowat, Donald Cameron. 1976.The Provincial political systems: comparative essays. Agincourt, Ontario: Methuen Publications

Brooks, Stephen. 2008. Canadian Political Culture. Department of Political Science, University of Windsor, November 29, 2009 < http://www.mystfx.ca/academic/dev-studies/2008/Stephen%20Brooks.pdf >

Carty, Kenneth R. 1996. Politics, policy, and government in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press

Clift, Dominique, McLeod Arnopoulos, Sheila. 1984. The English fact in Quebec. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Croats, Rennay. 2002. Quebec. Calgary: Weigl Education Publishers Ltd.,

Dunn, Christopher. 2006. Provinces: Canadian Provincial Politics. 2nd ed. Toronto: Higher Education University of Toronto Press

Easterbrook, William Thomas, Aitken, Hugh G. J. 1988. Canadian economic history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Francis, R. Douglas, Palmer, Howard. 1992. The Prairie West: historical readings. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press

Friesen, Gerald .1987. The Canadian prairies: a history. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Marchak, M. Patricia. 1983. Green gold: the forest industry in British Columbia. BC, Canada: University of British Columbia

Tomblin, Stephen G. 1995. Ottawa and the outer provinces: the challenge of regional integration in Canada. Toronto: James Lorimer & Co. Ltd., Publishers

White, Graham.1997.The government and politics of Ontario. 5th ed.Toronto: University of Toronto Press


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