Oct 6, 2012

The importance of culture in big decisions


I sometimes think we underestimate the difference in culture between the various regions of Canada. I was reminded of that last month at a meeting of the Union of BC Municipalities. The UBCM always has separate forums for local governments of various sizes. I always make a point of attending the Electoral Areas Directors’ Forum.

Electoral Area Directors tend to represent rural areas, often with sparse populations. And with their forum you usually get a level of candor that is often missing in the big cities forum which tends to be much more diplomatic.

One of the interesting things about most of these Area Directors is their rock ribbed commitment to the environment. It is a pragmatic environmentalism. They worry greatly about regulations that would bankrupt their constituents to put in small water and sewer systems. But they are deeply concerned about the living environment. It is why many of them live where they do.

It would be hard to imagine a better example of this than Tom Siddon. The former Brian Mulroney Cabinet Minister is now an Area Director for Area ‘D’, for the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen. And he was one of Canada’s most vocal opponents of the Harper government’s evisceration of environmental laws.

These were some of the people Enbridge ran into when they came to British Columbia to pitch the Northern Gateway Pipeline. And Enbridge, expecting rural BC would behave the same way as rural Alberta, had no idea what they were running into.

Similarly, BC’s government appears to have been equally culturally blind when it demanded a share of Alberta’s resource rents from the bitumen that flowed through a BC pipeline. The defense of provincial resource royalties and taxes is hard wired into the DNA of Albertans and has been since before the fight over a National Energy Policy decades ago. It is a value held as strongly as the defense of the French language is among Francophone Quebecers.

There are differences among other provinces too. I grew up in Saskatchewan and spent 20 years in Ottawa. I found Saskatchewan had far more in common with Ontario than either do with British Columbia. For many people in BC the mountains really are a barrier. We are far less likely to visit other provinces than Albertans. And I concur with the findings of the Vancouver Foundation about social isolation in Vancouver.

Culture does make a difference. People are now saying that the Northern Gateway pipeline is dead. Most British Columbians welcome this but if it is dead, utter blindness to cultural values should be one of the suspects in the police lineup.