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There is a political tug of war between the East and the West. [Photo © Victoria Christie]

The recent rise of Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer to the top of their respective political parties has been considered the mark of a new era for Canada’s politics, but also continues a decades-long issue in the political system.

Since the formation of the NDP in 1961, the three major parties in Canada – the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP – have mostly chosen party leaders from within their party’s political power base, creating an Eastern versus Western Canadian divide in federal politics.

Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University, said the trend is part of what he called an “echo chamber effect” in Canadian politics.

Carleton political science professor Jonathan Malloy says the political tug of war is a cyclical issue [Photo © Victoria Christie]

“If you’re popular in one region of the country you’re more likely to have MPs and leaders from that one part of the country, and those people are generally going to focus on the interests of their region,” Malloy said. “They’re just going to be less attuned to what’s happening elsewhere.”

By most definitions, Eastern Canada consists of Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. Provinces in Western Canada include Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

While elected MPs from the NDP are mostly spread out across the country, the majority of MPs from the Conservative and Liberal parties come from Western and Eastern Canada, respectively.

Malloy said parties have been struggling to overcome that divide for decades, calling the issue “cyclical” as parties fail to break through to opposition strongholds in certain parts of the country.

“All parties try to find different ways to find different representation … that’s sort of the eternal question for them,” he said.

Historical differences in politics

The Conservative party has had ten leaders out of Western Canada since 1961, including the leaders of the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party of Canada.

The Liberals haven’t had a party leader from outside of Quebec and Ontario during that same time. And most of the NDP’s leaders have also come out of Eastern Canada.

Political tensions between the East and West is not a new development in Canada. A popular bumper sticker reading “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark” emerged in Alberta in the 1980s after Pierre Trudeau implemented federal energy policies on Alberta oil prices.

Malloy also noted that a lack of Liberal MPs in the west was also an issue during Pierre Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister.

Those sentiments are still around today, as shown by the backlash on the political and social media stage when Justin Trudeau neglected to mention Alberta in his Canada Day speech. Politicians from Alberta including Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean were quick to take to social media to degrade Trudeau for his mistake.

The Liberals did make some strides in Western Canada during the previous election on their way to a majority government, rising from only 16 seats in 2011 to 61 in 2015.

The Liberal Party of Canada said in an emailed statement that their recent inroads into Western Canada have been due to the party’s “positive plan” to help Canadian families with new tax reforms, and called the Conservatives “deeply out of touch.”

Western centre of power

On the other side, new Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has shown he’s aware of the historic tensions between the East and West. As someone born, raised, and educated in Ottawa, he’s no stranger to both sides of the argument. But as a politician out of Saskatchewan, his position is all too clear.

When Scheer won the leadership race in May, his victory speech targeted “connected Ottawa insiders” of the Liberal party – and reminded his party of the West’s historical feud with the family in charge.

“One of the things that has motivated me so much in this campaign is the very strong belief that I cannot allow Justin Trudeau to do the same thing to my five children that his father did to my generation,” Scheer said in his speech.

For the Conservative party, Scheer’s victory over the favoured candidate Maxime Bernier was a shock back in May, but gives the party another Western Canadian leader.

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh says he’s excited to have a party leader from his own province. [Photo © Victoria Christie]

Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kevin Waugh called it “exciting” for the new Conservative Leader to come out of Saskatchewan.

“(Saskatchewan) and Alberta have always been strong,” Waugh said. “I’m excited for the possibility of having a Prime Minister from the province of Saskatchewan.”

Waugh added that he felt the “Conservative movement” in Canada tended to start in the west and move eastward.

Hope for the Orange Wave

Aditya Rao, a former NDP staffer originally from Alberta, said that feeling of “alienation” from Canada’s seat of power in Ontario drives a lot of political decisions in the west.

Former NDP staffer Aditya Rao says Jagmeet Singh has the potential to unite Canada. [Photo © Victoria Christie]

“The east versus west debate in Canada is fundamental to Canadian history,” Rao said. “It’s hard not to look at any federal issue and not be able to tie it in some way to some kind of regional angle that shaped it.”

Jagmeet Singh, from Brampton, Ont., adds to the plethora of Eastern Canadian political leaders in Canadian history. The newest leader has been lauded for being the first permanent visible minority leader of a federal party in Canada’s history. But he will face the same job as his predecessors: gain ground in Western Canada.

But Rao pointed out that the NDP’s original party leader was Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, and said the rise of Singh has the potential to bridge today’s geopolitical gap.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is the first visible minority to lead a major Canadian party. [Photo © Victoria Christie]

“Even when he goes out to places like Alberta, Jagmeet has been received really, really well,” Rao said. “He’s not viewed as just another Easterner that doesn’t understand alienation.”

Whether Scheer or Singh will have the ability to unseat Trudeau’s Liberals in the next election is yet to be seen. But according to Malloy, these geopolitical battles will be a point of contention for years to come.

“It’s not going away, it’s never going to go away,” Malloy said.

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