Are the provinces trying to break Canada?

Max Fawcett
Ontario Premier Doug Ford participates in a discussion with future Alberta Premier Danielle Smith at the 2019 Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Feb. 1, 2024

Of all Pierre Poilievre’s familiar slogans, there’s one that stands above the rest: Canada is broken. There’s no shortage of irony there, not least because what little we know of his proposed plans and policies revolve almost exclusively around breaking things, whether it’s the CBC or Canada’s climate change policies. But the most ironic thing of all is that while Poilievre pretends Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are breaking the country, its conservative premiers are busy doing exactly that.

Take the federal government’s childcare agreement, one that provinces like Ontario and Alberta seem determined to undermine with deliberate mismanagement of the money they’ve been given. While Ottawa will send $3.8 billion to the Alberta government over five years to support its childcare ambitions, the provincial government hasn’t put in a single additional dollar of its own.

That's not all. According to Krystal Churcher, the chair of the Association of Alberta Childcare Entrepreneurs, the Alberta government is effectively asking childcare providers to lend it money every month. “Asking operators to carry 85 per cent of their revenue and wait 40 to 45 days to get it back is putting them in the position where they can’t pay rent on Feb. 1,” she told the CBC’s Matt Galloway. If you wanted to deliberately undermine the federal government’s goals here, this would be a pretty good way to do it.

But while this might be the most galling example of a provincial government trying to break some key aspect of our country, it’s hardly the only one. There’s also health care, where the Ford government has been consistently underfunding Ontario’s system, which appears to be ever more precariously perched on the brink of total collapse. That might suit the Ford government just fine, given its obvious interest in bringing more private-sector activity into the system. Other conservative governments across the country, from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the Maritimes, appear to be following similar playbooks.

On housing, the provinces (outside of British Columbia) keep adding fuel to a fire the federal government is desperately trying to extinguish. In 2023, Ontario saw 85,770 housing starts, a seven per cent decrease from the previous year and just 78 per cent of its stated goal of 110,000 new homes. That’s because, according to a number of Ontario municipal leaders, the province has effectively set them up to fail by not supporting the infrastructure needed to actually enable growth and new construction.

They’re not helping on the demand side of the equation either. By admitting an ever-increasing volume of international students — 240,000 in each of the last two years in Ontario alone — they’re adding another source of demand for housing, one that’s putting even more strain on rental markets that can’t handle much more of it.

So why are they bringing so many of these students into the province? Because they help fill the gap in the budgets of the province’s post-secondary institutions the Ford government has created over the last six years. According to Alex Usher, the president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, the combination of a funding cap and a 10 per cent tuition cut has meant Ontario post-secondary institutions have faced an effective cut of 31 per cent in so-called “government-controlled income” since Ford came to office in 2017.

Not surprisingly, those institutions tried to backfill that with revenue from international students, who can be charged nearly six times as much for tuition as their domestic counterparts. According to the 2022 Ontario auditor general’s report, international students made up 17 per cent of enrolment and 45 per cent of tuition in 2021 — numbers that are certainly higher today. Even then, that hasn’t prevented blue-chip institutions like Queen’s from being forced to make major cuts to faculty and programs, ones that were announced before the federal government decided to chop the province’s allotment of international student approvals in half. Those cuts, in other words, could be about to get a whole lot bigger.

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing effort by Prairie premiers to filibuster any federal policy on climate change, and their willingness to openly defy the law in order to do it. Perhaps they learned from Quebec here, which has openly flouted federal authority on a number of occasions with almost no pushback from anyone at that level, government or opposition. Whether it’s Alberta’s Sovereignty Act, Scott Moe’s attempt to refuse to collect the federal carbon tax on natural gas heating or Quebec’s pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause on its draconian language law legislation, there is a growing willingness on the part of conservative provincial governments to test the strength of our national fabric — and maybe even tear it.

Pierre Poilievre loves to pretend that Canada is "broken." So why won't he speak out against the provincial premiers who are actively breaking it? - Twitter


This should be an obvious place for the Trudeau Liberals to mount some sort of counterattack. Liberal governments have done well in the past when they go to bat for Canada. Underscoring the role that conservative provincial governments are playing in trying to break the country could help them use Poilievre’s own narrative against him. By framing the next election as a choice between those who want to keep building our country and those who are trying to break it, the Liberals might just be able to get out from under their own baggage.

[Top photo: Ontario Premier Doug Ford participates in a discussion with future Alberta Premier Danielle Smith at the 2019 Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang]