Chapter 4 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Regionalism and Political Cultures

Canadians are in general agreement that region and regionalism are significant dimensions of politics in Canada. This territorial notion of identity was present in the colonies prior to Confederation and has since remained a significant factor.

To use an old cliché, everybody seems to recognize the presence and importance of regions in Canada. However, there is considerable disagreement as to how to define Canada’s regions. Given their separate histories and political institutions, it is quite common to use provincial boundaries as being coincidental as regions. Some Canadians, however, find it useful to group certain provinces together as being distinct regions, while others identify separate regions within a province.

The socio-psychological connection with region, or regionalism, stems from people living and working together in a geographical area, sharing a historical connection, and being governed by a common provincial or territorial government. Despite the existence of regional political cultures, many Canadians connect more strongly with the local community or country as a whole rather than region. Yet, other Canadians identify less with territory in favour of gender, ethnicity, class, or another cleavage factor.

While it is still common practice to use provinces as the demarcation of regional political cultures, some scholars use other demarcation criteria. At the same time, it is quite common for the federal government to divide the country into other decentralized regions for the administrative implementation of programs. Meanwhile, during election campaigns, political parties are now focusing less on regions, and more on the distinction between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

Although regionalism has existed throughout Canadian history, mainstream regionalism comes in three general strains: sectionalism, nationalism, and secessionism. The first category, sectionalism, refers to an emotional connection with one’s homeland, rather than with one’s country. This often leads regional leaders to protect a region’s interests or to enhance a region’s influence in Canadian politics. The second category, nationalism, refers to a unifying ideology among people who share a common homeland, ancestry, and language or culture. Finally, secessionism refers to the widely held sentiment that a province or territory should leave the Canadian federation.

Three alternative explanations are commonly used to explain the roots of regionalism in Canadian politics. First, settlement patterns hold that Canada’s regions were settled at various times by immigrants who possessed different cultures that became the basis of distinct regional cultures. Formative events theory, on the other hand, holds that regionalism is based on major, transformative events in a region’s historical evolution. Finally, natural resources (or staples) may be viewed as critical to the development of regionalism as each region’s economy is of critical importance to its pattern of life, generation of wealth, and expression of interests and concerns.

Regardless of the explanation of the origins, regionalism persists because of socialization. In addition, institutionalization emphasizes the importance of government institutions, as in the form of federalism, provincial governments, and government programs that serves to entrench regionalism. Lastly, the persistence of regionalism may attributed to the fact that political leaders tend to engage in the politicization of regional identity and interests.

The chapter ends with a brief discussion on how regionalism affects national unity in Canada and the unique ability of Canada as a country to maintain peaceful relations between provinces despite the regional differences.  Finally, this chapter also profiles Professor David McGrane, whose work as both an academic specializing in regional politics and social democracy and his role as a community environmental activist, has contributed immensely to the study and understanding of regional political issues in Canada.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • identify Canada’s regions;
  • clarify what is meant by regionalism and explain why regionalism is so strong in Canada;
  • identify the varieties of regionalism as found in Canada;
  • describe the sources or basis of regionalism in Canadian politics; and
  • comprehend the consequences of regionalism in Canadian politics.
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