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Scrooge exists
Oct 01, 2004

When Scrooge was asked for a donation for the poor in Charles’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, he querried whether the prisons and poor laws had been abandoned. After being told they had not, he replied that was a good thing because he supported these institutions with his taxes and so would not be providing any donation despite the dire need expressed by the gentlemen. When the two gentlemen said many would rather die than go to the workhouses, Scrooge replied that “they  had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Last week, Barry Cooper, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, in a National Post article, referred to Manitoba and other provinces not blessed with scads of oil money to keep their economies chugging merrily along as “unproductive have-not raiders.”  Their sin, according to Cooper, playing Scrooge to the have-not province’s Bob Cratchit, is to think that people in Alberta should spread the wealth around. 

The provinces and federal government are soon going to be meeting to discuss equalization payments which make up a significant portion of the have-not provinces’ budgets. For example, transfers from the federal government account for more than a third of Manitoba’s budget.

Without the transfers, have-not provinces — Ontario and Alberta are the only “have” provinces — would not be able to deliver health care and education that is virtually comparable across the nation.

With the price of oil now topping up to the US $50 mark, Alberta’s economy is booming. The province’s Finance Minister, Pat Nelson, said, “It’s great to be in Alberta ... We are very, very lucky to be living in this province.”

Actually, Alberta was at one time one of those have-not provinces, though only during the time before the major oil discovery at Leduc on February 13, 1947. After Leduc No. 1 became a gusher, it turned a new page for Alberta in Confederation. Without the constraints of having to accept hand-outs from Ottawa, it was free to complain bitterly about how it was being treated in the overall scheme of all things Canadian.

When it was a have-not province, Alberta Premier William “Bible Bill” Aberhart announced the province’s intent to default on the principal of a $3.2-million bond — chump change today. “We haven’t the money,” he said. “I’m sorry; we must default.” It was the first time in Canadian history that a province had defaulted on repaying a bond.

Of course, this was during the Great Depression when everybody was hurting, but it serves as an example of how oil can change the fortunes of those so blessed by Mother Nature.

The rise in the price of oil has given a further $1-billion boost to an already overflowing government royalties kitty. Soon, Alberta will be Canada’s only debt-free province. Not bad for a province that at one time had to go begging hat-in-hand to Ottawa for money to pull it out of financial oblivion.

With so much wealth, Alberta added 13,700 jobs last month and attracted 41,000 newcomers during the last fiscal year. In Saskatchewan, it’s called a good year if no more than a few hundred people leave. 

Copper calls Alberta “a fiscal superpower.” Because of this status, it should be flexing its mighty muscles to prevent Ottawa from squeezing more money out of Alberta to help lowly Prince Edward Island or any other province. What he is proposing is a system of conditional grants to Ottawa — he says $2 billion for four new frigates — and the provinces. The conditions of these grants would be that Ottawa end the Canada Health Act and “such dependency-inducing policies as equalization grants, adopting balanced-budget and tax-and-expenditure laws ...”

Well, Manitoba already has balanced budget legislation and a no-new-taxes without a referendum law, so that’s a no-brainer suggestion. But, I’m quite sure that a few Manitobans would object to doing away with the Canada Health Act. As well, such a condition would be a non-starter for the NDP Gary Doer government despite their constant need for more money from anywhere. I’m also quite sure that most Ontarians wouldn’t support an end to the CHA even though they are a “have” province like Alberta. 

Wealth does strange things to some people, especially the policy wonks at the University of Calgary, who also proposed building a “firewall around Alberta” because Ontarians and other Eastern Canadian voters had the gall to return the federal Liberals to power. 

While it may be great to be an Albertan, according to Cooper and company, it isn’t so great to be counted among the ranks of those “unproductive have-not raiders.” 

I’m pretty positive that people in Nova Scotia and Manitoba see themselves as productive and contributing to the well-being of their respective provinces. They just have to try a little harder because they don’t have the good fortune of living in a province that through a fluke of nature has money spewing out of the ground.

What would Manitobans be like if they had the oil of Alberta? I’m not sure — it could have a corrupting influence  — but I would like to think that we would be  a little more willing to share our wealth in the true spirit of Canadian co-operation that built this country in the first place.