Regionalism may refer to the distinctive local character of different parts of the world or to a people's perception of and identification with such places. The concept is rarely applied, for example, to differences between parts of a city or to those between continents or countries. Rather, it is usually used as an intermediate scale. In Canada the term has acquired a particular vogue as a result of many recent tensions between national and more local economic, institutional and emotional attachments. Generally the phrase "Canadian regionalism" refers broadly to the vitality of regional differences within Canada.
That regionalism is an inescapable component of society, economy and politics in Canada is hardly surprising; a national organization was imposed over a vast territory and scattered different peoples little more than 100 years ago. The nature of Canadian settlement and the spatial structure of the Canadian economy have ensured the persistence of a complex regional texture alongside the increasingly standardized late 20th-century technology, the functionally integrated economy and the national sentiments that are also part of Canadian life.
Canadian settlement developed within confined spaces characteristically bounded on the N by inhospitable land, and to the S by the US, between which are the discontinuous patches of land capable of supporting more than a handful of people. European settlers arrived early in the 17th century when a few fishermen were left behind in rockbound Newfoundland harbours. Simultaneously, a few French settlers occupied the marshlands of the Bay of Fundy, and more began to farm the narrow borders of cultivable land along the St Lawrence R. Much later, Irish, Scots and English, propelled by Highland clearances, Irish famine or the technological and demographic changes of early 19th-century industrialization, filled up the Ontario peninsula and the fishing harbours, the lumber camps and the meagre agricultural patches of Atlantic Canada (see IMMIGRATION). The descendants of all these settlers soon faced a common predicament. The patches of settlement were small, their agricultural possibilities circumscribed, and as numbers multiplied in still rural preindustrial societies, there was soon a shortage of land. The pioneer fringe ran into rock. Until the end of the 19th century, there was no western safety valve, only the granitic Canadian SHIELD and other already settled patches of British America. The surplus young faced the choice of striking N into rock and spruce or S into the US. In Atlantic Canada, Québec and Ontario, most went S where they were absorbed into a larger America; N of the border, local societies that now exported people bypassed the mixing effects of the migrations they had launched. Only when the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY reached Winnipeg in 1881 did Canada really acquire a West, but one that would be cut off to French Canadians by the Protestant outburst over Louis RIEL and by the collapse in Manitoba of French educational and linguistic guarantees. Although Ontario would be better represented there, the Canadian Prairie was settled over a short generation before WWI by migrants from eastern Canada, emigrants directly from the British Isles and from the northern fringe of the late 19th- and early 20th-century peasant migration to America from central Europe, and with a wave of American settlement moving northward along the eastern flank of the Rockies. In BC the mix was different again; much less of continental Europe, a good deal of Ontario, something of Atlantic Canada and, on the Pacific Ocean, elements from the Orient.
This was how the patches of arable land between an implacable North and the US were settled. There was no continuous, expansive Canadian experience with the land. Settlement proceeded in patches. One patch would fill up, then people would emigrate, S more often than N because the US was more inviting than the Shield. Until the last century, there was no settlers' West. The next Canadian patch was inaccessible or occupied, and when a West finally did open, the eastern settlements would be partially represented and much diluted there. The process of Canadian settlement had imparted striking discontinuities. Canada did not expand westward from an Atlantic beginning. Different patches were settled at different times by people of different backgrounds who depended on different technologies and economies.
This pattern of settlement sharply differentiated the Canadian experience from the American. There the land was perceived as a garden as readily as wilderness, and it attracted far more settlers and focused European dreams. There eastern seaboard beginnings could migrate westward to desert margins over 3000 km inland that were the first major environmental obstacle to an expanding agrarian civilization. There the West was a lure for 300 years. As different streams from the initial settlements along the colonial seaboard, augmented by newcomers from Europe, moved westward, different ways met and substantially merged. As it gathered momentum in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the American occupation of an essentially welcoming land had the capacity to mold different peoples into a relatively homogeneous culture as it spread them over an astonishing area. But in Canada, where all of this was checked by the physical limits of settlements, the country's underlying population structure was disjointed and discontinuous.
The spatial structure of the Canadian economy also worked to strengthen Canadian regionalism. In the late 19th century an industrial technology with the capacity to integrate the bulky products of a large area within a single market was superimposed on the patches of Canadian settlement. Such spatial integration could create metropolitan centres where there were clear economies of agglomeration and distribution, and extensive resource and market hinterlands. Railways and factories would impose this economic structure on Canada; the only issues were at what scale and in what direction. The decision to create a Canadian market was implicit in Confederation and explicit in the NATIONAL POLICY that followed it. Protected by tariffs from the US, the metropolitan centre (see INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY) stabilized in the St Lawrence-Great Lakes lowland where most of the market was located and where there was optimal overall access to the hinterlands to the E and W. The rest of the country would consume the manufactures of the core, and would supply it with some raw materials. This structure could be intensified by public or private policy, eg, by changing freight rates, but given the pattern of Canadian settlement at Confederation and the character of industrial economy, it followed in all essentials from the decision to create a Canadian market. Canadian settlements achieved a considerable functional economic integration; most secondary industry and associated financial institutions were concentrated in Montréal or around the western end of Lk Ontario, resource-based primary industries were scattered across the land, and core and periphery were linked by growing commercial and financial networks. Economically, such integration encouraged sharp regional specialization, reflected, for example, in the Prairie wheat economy. Emotionally, it laid the basis for strikingly different regional perceptions of Canada. Those at the core tended to feel expansive about the country on which their economy relied and over which their institutions exerted much influence, although French Canadians, who worked in the factories but did not own them, would have no entrepreneurial enthusiasm for a transcontinental country and a good deal of cultural suspicion of it. But for most English speakers in the core a British Canada from sea to sea, which would reinforce their traditions as it expanded their markets, seemed authentic and just. On the other hand, those on the peripheries would be suspicious of the core, their suspicion stemming from a sense that local circumstances were controlled from afar, and from the conviction that by being forced "to sell cheap and buy dear" they were subsidizing central Canada and absorbing the cost of Confederation. What was a National Policy in central Canada could easily be interpreted by the Maritimes as Upper Canadian imperialism, and in the West as the manipulation of James and Bay streets. From a Prairie or Maritime vantage point, the "Big Interests" and "Special Privilege" lived in central Canada.
The pattern of Canadian settlement and the tensions between core and periphery inherent in a national economy are sufficient to account for a strikingly regional Canada, but factors such as distance, the varied physical geography of a vast land and, in many parts of Canada, the considerable, growing presence of native peoples, also contributed. Canadian regionalism has not always expressed itself in the same fashion, however. Since Confederation regional feelings have been associated with local settlements, with substantial parts of provinces (eg, Cape Breton I), with provinces, and with such amorphous, poorly defined territories as the Maritimes, central Canada and the West. Among these, the provinces are now the primary exponents of the country's fragmented structure. Settlements that once provided definition and defence for traditional ways have been overridden by modern transportation and communications, while the state has assumed a growing symbolic and practical importance. In this situation, the Canadian province, with its constitutionally defined power, tends to replace both the local settlements that no longer define Canadian life and the broader but amorphous regions that have no clear political definition. It is this simplified and thereby politically more powerful regionalism that increasingly confronts the concept and the sentiment of Canada.
The consolidation of regional sentiment in the provinces occurred while governments were assuming a larger role in Canadian life and while the evolution of the Canadian economy was changing the significance of some of the terms of the BRITISH NORTH AMERICA ACT (now CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867). Provincial governments have played a growing role in the economy, and the provinces a growing role in Canadian feeling. Many activities that were once organized at different regional levels are now organized provincially. Simultaneously, federal power has increased as Ottawa has expanded its services and its economic presence. The result of this growth of provincial and federal governments is an increasingly polarized debate between national and more regional conceptions of Canada that is also a debate between 2 levels of government. The political consolidation of regionalism in provincial governments is felt across the country, but is probably most obvious in Québec. The culture of a French-speaking, Roman Catholic people was once defended by the local community, by a variety of nationalistic societies, and above all by the Roman Catholic Church. For some, the clearest defence of culture was a rural life and a high birthrate, and from this perspective the provincial government could do little more than encourage colonization. In recent years government has assumed the defence of culture; many French-speaking Québecois have concentrated on increasing the political power of the Québec government. The protection of the French language, a central element of the regional variety of Canada, has become an essentially political issue dependent on different conceptions of federal and provincial responsibility. The economy is an even more pervasive source of federal-provincial conflict. The location of oil and coal fields and the growing economic importance of the Pacific basin have challenged economic assumptions held by Canadians for almost 100 years. Core and peripheries seem to have come unstuck and in a country like Canada it takes only the possibility of this change to raise the ghosts of 100 years of spatial tension. For some provinces it seems their turn has come - as long as the natural momentum of different circumstances is left to run its course. But if federal political power resides in the core, and if the Constitution Act leaves ample opportunity for federal influence on resource policy, then the economic advantages of the peripheries can be compromised by the protective instincts of the core, which accounts for the aggressiveness of western provinces and Newfoundland over resource control. As long as the federal government is elected in central Canada, as it is likely to be, a conflict over the spatial economy is immediately translated into a conflict between different levels of government.
Canadian regionalism is now most vigorously promoted by provincial politicians and is most stridently expressed in federal-provincial debate, but underneath this rhetoric lies the far more subtle regional texture of Canadian life. It is expressed in the distinctive landscapes of farm, village and city, across the breadth of Canada. It is expressed in different accents and different memories of different pasts. It is expressed in the ways of life associated with different resource-based economies in different physical settings. It is expressed in the relationships of towns to different hinterlands and to different positions in the urban system. And it is expressed most sensitively throughout Canadian painting and literature.
See also FEDERALISM.