It was a slap in the face, a kick in the teeth. People in Ontario were coasting along, humbly grateful for their prosperous life, when suddenly they were made to feel like nobodies, outsiders. There it was in Thursday's Globe and Mail, our shame compressed into one appalling sentence: "Ontario remains the only province never to have received equalization payments."
How could that be? Is that fair? This country believes in equalization if it believes in anything. For 48 straight years, through good times and bad, Ottawa has been sending thick bundles of cash to every corner of the country.
It was mortifying to be left out, the one kid in the class never chosen for the pick-up soccer team. But as this ugly fact became public, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce delivered what many in Ontario will consider good news. The chamber issued a report called Fairness in Confederation, and guess who was demanding fairness? Ontario, of all provinces. This was a change. Ontario considers fairness the quality with which it treats the other regions.
We may sometimes complain to Ottawa, and naturally we demand our share of whatever bonus money for health or education Ottawa decides to part with, but when it comes to equalization, we have never joined the queue.
Now the Ontario Chamber of Commerce reports that other provinces are bleeding us and if something drastic isn't done soon, Ontario will become, perhaps by 2010, a (choke! sob!) "have-not province" -- like all the others, except Alberta. The report, by David MacKinnon, rattles on about fiscal imbalance and fiscal deficit, fiscal this and fiscal that, but it hits the core of the argument with the bald statement that "we have over-equalized," an evocative term I have never heard before.
No one knows whether the money Ontario sends elsewhere in this over-equalization program has done what it was supposed to do. Worse, "the province's generosity has generated no goodwill in the other provinces." (Look, we never expected gratitude. We were just doing the right thing.)
But now that MacKinnon has outlined our predicament, we can happily embrace it. If we are victims, we'll enjoy ourselves, like the Maritimers. In this historic period victimhood has become the most desirable state for much of humanity. At one time or another everybody plays victim. Rich people are overtaxed, drivers of truck-size cars pay too much for gas, the middle class insists it's being "squeezed," directors of corporations are over-regulated by officious government agencies. I know a rich woman who can tell you, in all seriousness, that it's a burden to inherit a pile of money.
We Ontario people will make eloquent victims. Deep down, we know that behind every blue sky there's a black lining. As soon as we have a boom we start talking about the coming bust. In Toronto (you hear it all the time, so it must be true), house prices are so high that nobody can afford to buy one. A famous American saloonkeeper, Toots Shor, said of a rival establishment that no one went there anymore because it was too crowded. He would have been right at home in Ontario.
Have-not provinces traditionally establish their importance by threatening to separate from Canada, a terror tactic that rarely fails to get results. In Quebec, of course, it enriches key economic sectors, most recently the advertising business. Over the years Alberta and B.C. occasionally muttered about separating, the Maritime provinces developed separate-state advocates (a Saturday Night article, in the 1970s, argued for a new country called Atlantica), and you can't spend 10 minutes in Newfoundland without hearing that it entered Canada as the result of a trick.
But it's hard to see how Ontario can take that position. After all, we're the place that separatists threaten to separate from. It's not clear that anyone will be frightened if we announce we're separating from ourselves.
If we are to turn into true Canadians, we should whine about how badly we're represented in Ottawa. We should campaign to make one of our people prime minister (since 1968, all prime ministers who have held the job for a year or more have been from Montreal) but that's long-term strategy. We can begin now by creating a new provincial image. We need to start looking poor. We could use the design firm that the Toronto tourism people recently employed to make the city look, graphically, like Hicksville, Pa. We must lose our fear of being pitiable. There's money in it.