Why Ontario Plays Such a Central Role in Canadian Politics

The province is not only Canada’s most populous; it has an ability to swing elections between Quebec and the west.

The CN Tower in Toronto, Canada, September 25, 2013
The CN Tower in Toronto, Canada, September 25, 2013 (Stéphane Damour)

Canada is often considered to be a haven from geopolitics, a nation relatively free from economic want or political cant. But if by geopolitics we refer simply to the influence of geography upon politics, Canada may in fact be a prime place to study it, if only because the country posseses so much of the former when in comparison to the latter.

The basic fact of Canadian geopolitics is this: more Canadians live in the city of Toronto than live in the 2,500-kilometer expanse of land separating Toronto from Alberta.

(Or, to put it in the most Canadian possible of ways, there are a heckuva lot more people who would like to see Auston Matthews take the Calder than Patrick Laine.)

Canada is in this way divided in two: between Alberta and British Columbia on the one hand, in which around 25 percent of Canadians live and 30 percent of Canada’s GDP is generated, and Ontario and Quebec on the other, which account for roughly 60 percent of Canada’s population and GDP.

These two halves are, in turn, each divided in two. Alberta is separated from British Columbia by the Rockies; Ontario from Quebec by the Anglo-French divide. (The debate is still open as to which of these two barriers is the more venerable.)

However, while the British Columbia-Alberta split is pretty well balanced — Alberta’s GDP is a bit larger than British Columbia’s, but British Columbia’s population is a bit larger than Alberta’s — the Ontario-Quebec divide is tilted strongly in support of Ontario. By itself, Ontario accounts for an estimated 38.6 percent of Canada’s population and 38.4 percent of Canada’s GDP.

Dominant Ontario

View of the Sheraton Center Toronto Hotel, Ontario, Canada, March 15, 2012
View of the Sheraton Center Toronto Hotel, Ontario, Canada, March 15, 2012 (Wyliepoon)

These are large figures not just in Canadian terms, but also in global ones. Few provinces or states within major countries represent such a bulk of their respective nations.

Ontario’s provincial government has a budget that in recent years was larger than those of Quebec and Alberta combined and close to half that of Canada’s federal government (the capital of which, Ottawa, happens to be located in Ontario). The Ontario provincial budget is higher than those of all states in America apart from California and New York. It is higher than the budgets of fifteen EU nations.

Among other things, this makes the provincial election of Ontario that is scheduled to occur by 2018 a matter of some significance. According to current polls (yes, I know, polling cannot be trusted…), the Ontario Liberals likely will be thrown out of office for the first time since 2003, to be replaced with the Progressive Conservative party.

This would be noteworthy given that, at present, only Manitoba is led by a Conservative government. The rest are governed by Liberal parties with majorities in provincial parliaments, or else by the New Democratic Party (in Alberta) or Saskatchewan Party (in Sasketchewan, of course), both of which enjoy majority governments too.

In Canada, due to the country’s vast size and diffuse population, provinces possess a high measure of capital and clout. The combined budgets of the ten provincial governments, for example, is larger than the federal budget.

In the United States, by comparison, the fifty state budgets amount to less than half the federal budget. In Britain, the central government is far more prominent still.

So if provincial Liberals lose elections in provinces of considerable size — Quebec may have an election in 2018 as well and British Columbia will likely have one this year — it might unsettle provincial relations with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal majority; a federal majority likely to remain until at least 2020.

Fulcrum

Map of Canadian provinces, territories, major cities and waters
Map of Canadian provinces, territories, major cities and waters (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not, however, only Ontario’s size which tends to make it the fulcrum in Canadian politics. Ontario is also centrally positioned, both economically and politically, within the country.

Economically, the four provinces west of Ontario and Manitoba have around one third of Canada’s GDP while the four provinces east of Ontario have around one quarter.

The median line of longitude of the Canadian economy — the place where the GDP to the east equals the GDP to the west; the prime median, as it were — runs directly through the city of Toronto, Ontario’s capital.

Ontario trades nearly seven times more with Quebec than does any other province and trades three times more with Alberta than does Quebec. Ontario also trades more with Canada’s four Atlantic Maritime provinces than Quebec does.

Politically, moreover, Ontario shares a long border with French-speaking Quebec — a border Ottawa abuts and Montreal is just sixty kilometers from — yet shares a language with most of the rest of Canada.

(We’ve left out any mention of Canada’s Territories, Yukon, the Northwest and Nunavut, for the sake of simplicity. Combined they have a population of 113,000; smaller than the smallest province, Prince Edward Island, and just .32 percent of the Canadian population. By comparison, Alaska accounts for .23 percent of residents in the United States.)

Ontario decides

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada answers questions from reporters in Ottawa, October 20, 2015
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada answers questions from reporters in Ottawa, October 20, 2015 (Flickr/Justin Trudeau)

This is where we get to the real bacon of Canadian geopolitics: the somewhat uncanny reflection of geographical realities within Canada’s electoral outcomes; specifically, in the ability of Ontario to “swing” between either Quebec or western Canada during federal elections or else for Ontarians to vote for a party supported in neither Quebec nor in western Canada and yet still manage to have that party win (or at least, manage to avoid having any rival party achieve a majority government).

The four most recent elections, which saw Trudeau emerge with a majority government in 2015, Stephen Harper win his first-ever majority in 2011 and Harper gain only minority governments in 2008 and 2006, are ideal examples of this:

In 2011, Harper’s Conservatives won a majority by uniting Ontario and western Canada — including receiving 27 out of 28 seats in Alberta — even as they won only five out of 75 seats in Quebec.

In that election, Ontario and every province west of Ontario gave a large majority of their seats to the Harper while, with the exception of New Brunswick (the westernmost Atlantic province), none of the provinces east of Ontario came even close to giving a majority to the Conservatives.

Quebec, in contrast, gave 59 seats to the NDP, allowing that party to become one of the two largest in Parliament for the first time in its history.

2011 was a good example of Ontario swinging to the west. (Harper, not incidentally, was born in Toronto, attended university in Edmonton and represented a Calgary riding in Parliament.)

In 2015, on the other hand, Trudeau’s Liberals won an even larger federal majority by winning most of the seats in both Ontario and Quebec, even as they were crushed in both Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The Liberals won a large majority of seats in Ontario and in every province east of Ontario — except Quebec, where they won only a narrow majority — and also won exactly half the seats in Manitoba, the easternmost Prairie province.

But the Liberals did not come even close to winning a majority in any other province west of Ontario.

The large victory of Trudeau (who, by the way, was born in Ottawa, went to university in Montreal and represents a Montreal electoral district in Parliament) is a good example of Ontario swinging east.

While British Columbia did give a plurality of its votes to the Liberals in 2015, it only amounted to seventeen out of the 42 seats in that province. In contrast, in the Atlantic Maritimes, the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the four provinces of the region and in Ontario the Liberals won eighty out of 121 seats.

In 2008 and in 2006, Ontario did not give a majority of its seats to any party. Moreover, in neither of those elections did Ontario and Quebec give at least a plurality to the same party. This resulted both times in a federal minority government.

In 2008, Ontario gave a plurality of seats to Harper’s Conservatives, who won big majorities in every province west of Ontario, but who lost in every province east of Ontario except New Brunswick. Quebec meanwhile gave a large majority to the Bloc Québécois that year.

In 2006, when Harper’s minority victory was much narrower than in 2008, Quebec also gave a large majority to the Bloc Québécois, but Ontario gave a plurality to the Liberals rather than to Harper.

In 2006 the Alberta-British Columbia divide was also larger than in 2008 or 2011: the Conservatives swept Alberta but won only a plurality in British Columbia.

New Brunswick, however, did fall in line with its fellow Maritimers in 2006: all four gave a majority of seats to Liberals.

In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, every province west of Ontario gave majorities or pluralities to the Conservatives, while none to Ontario’s east (except, again, New Brunswick in 2008) did so.

While geopolitical patterns such as these vary over time and so are not certain to endure, still it is clear they run deep.

This story originally appeared on LinkedIn, February 27, 2017.

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