Transforming Provincial Politics: The Political Economy of Canada’s Provinces and Territories in the Neoliberal Era

Transforming Provincial Politics: The Political Economy of Canada’s Provinces and Territories in the Neoliberal Era

Bryan M. Evans and Charles W. Smith, Editors

Reviewed by Jamie Lawson

Provincial specialists can have crowded bookshelves. Because good material is dispersed and rare, many things grace my shelves “just in case.” But this anthology arrives just in time -- and I will work it hard for reference and teaching. Accessible and historical, it successfully foregrounds class, economy, parties, the state, and northern devolution.

Encounters with neoliberalism loosely unify the chapters. The contributors’ watchwords are diversity of experience and sober suspicion about inevitabilities. (For example, Don Desserud’s New Brunswick chapter centres on the interruption of electricity privatization, a core neoliberal doctrine.) Their diversity in approach will have both fans and critics. While Peter McKenna ably handles Prince Edward Island’s conflicts over budgetary austerity and gaming, little explicit analysis in his historical chapter links PEI, say, to Peter Clancy’s Nova Scotia history: Clancy’s structural remarks explain the evolving development policies and partisan constituencies he documents. Like Clancy, Byron Sheldrick works both analytically and historically: he sees Manitoba’s New Democrats blocking right-wing rivals by borrowing neoliberal ideas. But Clancy stresses what class and economy do to policy and parties, while Sheldrick, through two policy cases, also stresses what neoliberal “inoculation” of the NDP did to class.

Sean Cadigan targets Newfoundland and Labrador’s rentier politics. He explores the resource-revenue fluctuations that shape government spending and, in that context, considers Danny Williams’ donnybrooks and truces with government unions. Nationalism shapes this story, but two other chapters address it even more directly. Alisa Henderson and Graham White follow Inuit political culture as it entered government, and Peter Graefe explores Québec’s shifting nationalisms and fragmenting parties alongside social movements that engage neoliberalism.

Elections soon after a book’s publication can bedevil political writing. But the 2016 Saskatchewan election vindicate the analysis by Aidan Conway and J.F. Conway of the ascendance of the Saskatchewan Party. This interwove with the NDP’s revival and collapse and co-evolved with growing resource revenues and a transformed countryside. By contrast, Steve Patten did not foresee Rachel Notley’s NDP in Alberta, the divided conservative opposition, or the angry and diminished oilmen who are part of the “new normal” at the time of writing this review. But like Sheldrick on Greg Selinger’s now-defeated NDP, Patten unknowingly assesses a dying regime. Alberta’s “one-party state” meant weak legislatures and opposition parties. Patten also sees the right’s partisan crisis and traces newly restless social movements, precursors of the party re-alignment to come.

Dennis Pilon’s chapter on British Columbia’s enduring right-wing hegemony complements Patten’s on hegemonic decay. Patten stresses continuities and consequences for a fractured governing coalition; Pilon considers the repeated contingent restoration of unity. More like Evans and Smith on Ontario, Pilon writes his chapter as a chronicle of regimes: partisan constituencies shift while neoliberalisms modulate in government. At least in Evans and Smith’s Ontario, different teams get a turn.

For Henderson and White, Nunavut’s decolonizing hopes wilt but somehow endure before ongoing poverty and powerlessness; neo-colonialism secures neoliberal austerity. Gabrielle Slowey sees the Northwest Territories’ complex devolution largely as a broken promise, and in a separate chapter she shows that Yukon First Nations tied real treaty gains to mining expansion.

Canadian political economists should buy this book, especially if starting out or re-gaining their regional bearings after a move within the country. I found it weak on racialization and policing and modest on gender, and I dearly wanted an index. But what it does, it does well.

Transforming Provincial Politics: The Political Economy of Canada’s Provinces and Territories in the Neoliberal Era
Bryan M. Evans and Charles W. Smith, editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 456 pp. $36.95 paper           

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17