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A new vision for the country? Harper's federation of fiefdoms will drive Canadian traditionalists nuts LAWRENCE MARTIN From Thursday's Globe and Mail July 31, 2008 at 9:21 AM EDT Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been knocked for not giving the country a sense of direction, for visionlessly plotting and plodding, politics being his only purpose. Not true. Something has been taking shape - and it just took further form with pledges from Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon on the dispersal of federal powers. Yes, Matilda, the Conservatives have a vision. A federation of fiefdoms. Stephen Harper - headwaiter to the provinces. The firewall guy has curbed the federal spending power, he's corrected the so-called fiscal imbalance in favour of the provinces, he's doled out new powers to Quebec and now, if we are to believe Mr. Cannon, more autonomy is on the way for one and all. Mr. Harper has always favoured a crisp reading of the Constitution. He has always been - and now it really shows - a philosophical devolutionist. His nation-of-duchies approach will drive Canadian traditionalists bananas. They will see it not as nation building, but nation scattering. They will roll out that old bromide about the country being more than the sum of its parts. They will growl that we are already more decentralized than the Keystone Kops and any other federation out there save Switzerland, and that only rigorous paternal oversight can hold us together. But do these long-held harmonies still hold? Or are they outmoded, in need of overhaul? Has the country not moved beyond its vulnerable adolescent era to the point where now, like a normal family, it can entrust its members with more responsibilities? After 141 years, is there not a new sense of trust and maturity in the land? Identity? History is identity. If you don't know who you are at 141, if you still think some provinces have stars and stripes in their eyes, the shrink is in the waiting room. Now even Liberals don't think the new Canada is as dependent on the centre as the old. The old parts were fragile, in need of nurturing, in need of national and protectionist policies. But now there is more wealth and more equality, a levelling of the braying fields. Little guys like Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, with their newfound riches, are no longer little guys. They are not as beholden and their new level of maturity requires new thinking in Ottawa. Treat them like teenagers and they'll be more inclined to rebel. Give them space and they'll be more inclined to be part of the whole. Not to say that a balkanization of the federation is in order. Not to say that you want a host of provinces running off and negotiating treaties with other countries or that you want better north-south transportation systems than east-west or that national programs are not worthwhile. But a recognition of modern realities is in order. When we get more meat on the bones of Mr. Harper's plans, we'll know how they stack up. There's plenty of room for cynicism. It's well known that the PM will do anything to woo Quebec politically. Letting the province negotiate a unilateral labour-mobility agreement with France can be seen as some rather timely toadying. Shouldn't he be doing more for labour mobility between Ontario and Quebec? Extending his autonomy push to other regions smacks of smart politics as well. Headwaiter to the provinces? How about head cashier at the polling booths. Westerners will lovingly see it as a kick at the Toronto-Ottawa dictatorship. It's gravy for la belle province and down East, loud guys like Danny Williams won't be complaining. The PM needed something to take the focus away from Stéphane Dion's attention-grabbing Green Shift. This raw-boned conservative stuff might do the trick. Joe Clark was the original headwaiter to the provinces. Pierre Trudeau mocked him mercilessly. But of course it was Mr. Trudeau's great centralist grab, the national energy program, that backfired. Brian Mulroney undid some of Mr. Trudeau's work and tried to go further with his province-friendly constitutional accords. Under Jean Chrétien, the Grits got in the act, forsaking economic nationalism. Mr. Harper is following and hastening the trend line. We needed - thank you, England - grandparents. We needed - thank you, John A. - a national policy. We needed measures to keep us independent of the United States and our social security systems and national institutions. Thank you, other leaders. All part of growing up. But now? Noteworthy is that while in more recent times we have seen a trend away from centralized powers, unity is now well intact. Many would argue the country is more unified today than at any time since 1967. The big centre is still needed. It's still needed for infrastructure, uniform social programs, defence and multifarious other initiatives. But, with the old family having a better sense of its bearings, it isn't needed the way it was before.