On this day, Canadians have a lot to be thankful for

Economy is booming, there are jobs galore and federal-provincial tensions are low

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, October 8, 2007

There is much for Canadians to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving. We live in a time of plenty. Our country is experiencing an exceptional period of harmony. Our governments in Ottawa and Quebec are in minority postures, which are notionally unstable but surprisingly functional most of the time.

On Friday, StatsCan put out the best labour-market report in 33 years, which is to say in nearly two generations. Unemployment fell to 5.9 per cent in a country in which six per cent, because of our generous social safety net, is considered full employment. In September alone, the economy grew by 51,000 jobs.

Employee earnings are up 4.2 per cent over a year ago, while the consumer price index is up only 1.7 per cent. While there's more money in the system, inflation is so far being held in check, with no consumer-driven pressure to raise interest rates. With the loonie at par with the greenback, there are no rate raises in terms of protecting the buying power of our dollar. If anything, purchasing power parity is lagging the loonie's flight.

Ottawa is so awash in petro-dollars that it just paid down $14 billion, or three per cent, of the national debt, in one shot. Indications are that the surplus will exceed $20 billion in the current fiscal year, allowing a margin for both debt reduction and tax cuts in the next federal budget.

There is a job for everyone who wants one. If anything, there is a looming labour market shortage that can be addressed only by an open-door immigration policy, as well as by Ottawa and the provinces finally moving to recognize foreign professional credentials, so that engineers from Pakistan aren't driving cabs in Canada.

In the three bellwether provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the employment numbers are stunning. In Quebec, where unemployment historically runs two to four points above the national average, the unemployment rate is only 6.9 per cent. Memo to Jean Charest: ça va bien. For heaven's sake, say so, at every opportunity.

In Ontario, which has become a laggard rather than a leader, there is finally some good news. Unemployment dropped by two-tenths of a point to 6.2 per cent, as the province created nearly 30,000 new jobs last month alone.

That's a huge month. Long the driver of the Canadian economy, Ontario has been hit hard by the loss of more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years. But Ontario is also benefiting from Alberta's good fortune, throughout the services sector. For Premier Dalton McGuinty, looking at an election on Wednesday, these numbers are a big Thanksgiving present. A strong economy always favours an incumbent.

And Alberta, well, what can you say about an economy with a jobless rate of only 3.6 per cent, while fast-food restaurants continue to close because they can't find people to flip burgers? Let the good times roll.

Then, in terms of the Canadian federation, the only flash point at present is the spat between Newfoundland and Ottawa over offshore and equalization. This is an issue only because Premier Danny Williams has decided to blow up his relationship with Stephen Harper.

Williams will win a massive majority in his election this week, but his incendiary rhetoric has blocked all the federal-provincial files. You don't get to call the prime minister a liar and call for the defeat of the leader of your own national party, and get your phone calls returned. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. Grandstanding comes at a price.

For the rest, Quebec's eternal national question is for the moment being framed as an identity debate. Reasonable accommodation chez nous. Who are nous? That's a marketing statement by Pauline Marois in an attempt to reclaim ground lost to the autonomist forces of Mario Dumont. Thanksgiving is a good moment to recall Réne Lévesque's definition of a Quebecer: "Someone who lives here."

Western separatism? It's dormant for the moment. Ça va bien in Calgary, too. The West is in, in Ottawa. And in two Quebec by-elections off the island of Montreal last month, a guy from Calgary won a strong majority of francophone votes.

This is one of the reasons Stéphane Dion is not counting his political blessings on Thanksgiving. He is in a very bad way as leader of the Liberal Party, and Harper has just challenged him to join the other opposition parties in toppling the government over the Throne Speech. Dion does not want an election but can't appear to be afraid of one.

But perhaps Harper's sabre rattling and the prospect of an election will have the salutary effect of interrupting the Liberal leadership crisis, and unite the party behind the leader going into a campaign.

And in a way, Jean Chrétien's heart surgery might have reminded Liberals that they are a family. For him, our Thanksgiving wish is obviously a big bonne santé. Get well soon, sir.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 
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