We’re still the poor cousins in Canada

Russell Wangersky
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Everything, they say, is relative. And they, whoever they are, happen to be right.

Last weekend, meeting with fellow Tories, Premier Kathy Dunderdale delivered an oft-repeated message, one this government tries to say often enough to make it true: that as a province, we’re more prosperous than ever. That the future’s so bright, we’ll have to wear shades.

“We’re doing so much better,” she preached to what could only be described as the converted. “We’ve come from have-not to have. We’re doing so well …”

And the fact is, she’s right, too. To a degree — and depending on the basis of that comparison.

In terms of our own economy, using the non-renewable revenues we collect from oil, parts of this province are clearly doing better than ever. Other parts — significant parts — are doing well from that rarely measured part of the economy, the people who work away from the province but bring their paycheques home.

Taxes have been reduced in some areas, and the minimum wage has increased.

It’s a far cry from the Peckford era, when then-premier Brian Peckford once told reporters that the province was truly on the edge of bankruptcy. A far cry from the Wells era, when Clyde Wells took the premiership, only to find that the coffers were bare and that his fledgling government would be forced to make almost-unparalleled cutbacks in government services and staff. A far cry from the Tobin era, when, in order to balance the books, we allowed the federal government to buy its way out of services they were committed to in perpetuity in exchange for quick cash.

In fact, it’s a far cry from the financial situation of almost any administration this province has seen, and in places, that prosperity is obvious: housing prices in St. John’s have risen so much that mill rates for municipal taxation are moving backwards, and there’s enough commercial construction in town to make it look like boom times.

But only through our own particular lens.


Because there’s a generation of catch-up to be done.


Lagging behind

It’s like the gross domestic product comparisons you sometimes used to see, where Newfoundland and Labrador is looking at, say, seven per cent growth while others were looking at one or two per cent. Sounds great, except for the problem that our total GDP is so much smaller than other provinces that their two per cent growth, in bare numbers, would equal a 20 per cent growth in ours.

I’ve just been through Calgary and Vancouver, and Toronto’s next: the growth in Calgary is astounding, and the sheer wealth of many individual Calgarians is staggering. The acreage of expansion around Calgary alone — residential, commercial and government highway infrastructure — not only outstrips our own, but outstrips it by a factor of 10 or more.

Vancouver, as well, is a veritable font of wealth, with no shortage of heavy trucks and cranes and flat-out construction work at almost any hour of the day.

And that’s a real eye-opener —  because, though we’re doing better, even with the petro-dollars we have, we’re not anywhere close to having many of the things Canadians in other places take for granted. We might be doing better, but we have in no way caught up.

Now, it’s more than easy to say “but you wouldn’t want to live in Vancouver or Toronto Calgary anyway,” and that’s true. There are clear benefits to living in this province —many of them nothing to do with cash or condos or construction — and those benefits outweigh many of the creature comforts that money brings in other places.

But it does put the lie to the hopeful claim that now, at last, we’re sitting at the big kids’ table. We’re not. And any suggestion that we are is just a kind pathetic and hopeful flag-waving.

Compared to ourselves, compared to our own past history, it’s not a bad time to be living in this province, at least as long as the oil revenues hold.

But in the great wide and uneven country we live in, we’re still

the poor cousins. And if we forget that, we’re only in for a harsh surprise.

Everything really is relative — and that includes the relatives in the federation.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Toronto Calgary

Geographic location: Canada, Calgary, Vancouver Newfoundland and Labrador Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Marth Tolkien
    January 23, 2013 - 18:39

    I know exactly how you feel! For some reason, calgary plumbers don't make a ton of money, and we are always on the shorter side. Thanks for the information!

  • JT
    October 24, 2012 - 09:42

    There is a kernel of truth to Wangersky's article, to deny it is whistling while strolling through the graveyard. Unless you are employed in the oilpatch, are a unionized tradesperson or an MHA, your annual take home pay is still below what the average Joe/Josephine takes home in the rest of this vast country. In my case, I still basically make the same salary now as I did five years ago. Since this time, housing prices have gone through the roof, property taxes are higher and going higher, energy and food prices have dramatically increased, and if heaven forbid, I need a plumber or electrician to do any work for me, I will pay through the nose for it. Disposable income is just a word that applies to somebody else, a fictional concept. Forget about freedom fifty-five, I will be working well beyond sixty-five if things keep going up in price. No-name cat food may may be a daily staple in the golden years, Friskies will be for special occasions.

  • Doug Smith
    October 21, 2012 - 17:55

    John Smith, your statement that we are doing well here in Newfoundland and it is not because of the petro dollars is just plain wrong. I guess you have forgotten that without the petro dollars and Alberta, the province would be not only a “have not “ again but really in a bad way. Doug Smith

  • Winston Adams
    October 20, 2012 - 16:58

    Relatively speaking, it seems stupid to me to embark on a energy program that will , relatively speaking, move our power cost from 50 percent more than Manitoba, Que., And B.C. ( who are hydro generation rich) to a level where we will soon be double their power cost. To gain 12 percent in hydro ( to move us from 86 percent to 98 percent) we will pay 50 percent higher in costs. Surely this is not well thought out.Low power costs is fundamental . From being competitive in business to basic cost of living,high power costs this puts us on a path, relatively speaking, to remain the poor cousins.

  • Christopher Chafe
    October 20, 2012 - 11:42

    For the first time I will agree with what a NDP supporter has wrote. We are not better off, not by a long shot. It turns my stomach when I hear politician's of any color say how good we are doing as a province. Development wise we are so far behind the rest of Canada (minus Atlantic Canada), it will take at least a generation to catch up and have the necessary services that we need to function on a daily basis. Perhaps we should be looking to the younger provinces and see what they did to make them where they are today, because just because we are an OLD province does not mean we have to live that way or look that way!

  • Skeptical Cynic
    October 20, 2012 - 09:58

    I disgree. Comparing NL to places like Vancouver (major Asian trade-hub), Calgary (major petroleum hub), and Toronto (major financial-hub) is like comparing the currently booming St. John's to somewhere like Grand Falls-Windsor... it's like the proverbial apples-to-oranges mode of comparison. Sure, everything is relative, but that's way it is and always will be. An oil sheik from Dubai UAE may well wonder how a Bay Street financier can manage to live by what the sheik perceives to be "relatively" modest means. If there are any "poor cousins" in Canada right now, it's a toss-up between the Maritimes provinces, and Quebec especially. Next time you're in Montreal, check out the overpasses. Yikes!

  • Jay
    October 20, 2012 - 08:36

    Russell, Your tongue had to be firmly implanted in your cheek when you were writing this one. Of course, we'll never be Alberta. We have a population of about 500,000 people (not the size of a medium sized city) widely dispersed in a huge geography. By virtue of this, we have to spend a great deal of money on necessary infrastructure such as more ferries, more schools, more expensive health equipment, more roads etc. Then we have to maintain of all of this infrastructure. As even Joey Smallwood found out, it is simply more expensive to operate this province than others. His answer was resettlement. While I agree that the old growth in GDP numbers point of view was insulting, yours is not much better.

  • John Smith
    October 20, 2012 - 08:11

    A lie Russell? Really? I don't think so. Anyway...great job on reminding us all of who we are...or at least who we should think we are. We have had a lifetime of listening to people like you Russell...those who want to continually point out the bad when comparing us to other provinces. We are barely 500,000 people Russell, the size of a Toronto suburb. We are doing well here, better than we ever have, and it's not just because of petro dollars. Keep reminding us of our place Russell, mainlanders have perfected that over the years, and you are doing a wonderful job keeping the tradition alive.