British Columbians like to think of themselves as far removed and different from the rest of Canada. Forty years ago, Gwen Cash, a journalist, wrote a book about her province and called it, "A Million Miles From Ottawa." Now 67 and retired, she says that time has not brought them any closer.
Most British Columbians would agree. Many believe, in fact, that time may be driving this Pacific province even further from the eastern centers of power in Canada.
"The people out here," provincial Premier William Bennett said in his office in the stately legislative buildings facing Victoria harbor, "feel a hundred years of resentment that they were a colony within a country."
The recent national election heightened the problem. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was returned as prime minister of Canada even though his Liberal Party failed to win a single parliamentary seat from British Columbia or from either of the two other western provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
This exacerbated the feeling of westerners that they have no real influence in the running of their country; that Ottawa rules without them. With bitterness, some British Columbians now deride Trudeau as "the prime minister of Eastern Canada."
"We don't matter," said Jack Webster, Vancouver's popular television correspondent who immigrated to British Columbia from Scotland in 1947. "The political alienation here is total and complete."
"The fever [of alienation] has always been there," said Iona Campagnola, a member of the Trudeau Cabinet in the days when the Liberals could manage to elect some members of Parliament from British Columbia. "But the election acted like a trip switch setting it off."
Some British Columbians find all this talk exaggerated. David Barrett, the socialist leader of the opposition in the provincial legislature, describes it as "nonsense."
"Anyone who talks about western alienation," he said, "is a fruitcake, a nut ball, a Tinkertoy, a jerk, you name it. Alienation is a typical media fascination. Ninety-nine point four percent of the people don't lose one night's sleep about the constitutional debate. Sure, British Columbia is different. Every part of the country is different."
It is easy for an outsider to agree. For anyone who knows the United States well, the differences between Vancouver, the metropolis of British Columbia, and Toronto, the metropolis of the rest of English-speaking Canada, although evident, are hardly startling.
Vancouver is warmer and far more beautiful; its skyscrapers rise by the bay against a backdrop of snow-topped mountains. Its people are somewhat friendlier and more relaxed. Vancouver does have the traditional North American western optimism.
"Out here," Premier Bennett said, "everybody still thinks everything's possible."
Yet Vancouver and Toronto seem to come from the same fount of English Canadian culture. A stranger would have a hard time telling a Vancouverite and a Torontonian apart. In fact, Los Angeles is probably far more different from New York than Vancouver is from Toronto.
But for most British Columbians, who like to call their province of 2.5 million people "Lotus Land," the differences are great enough. Few British Columbians, in any case, have seen the rest of their country.
Some British Columbians liken their discontent to that of Quebec.
"We're at the point," Campagnola said, "that Quebec was in during the sixties."
This kind of characterization stems from an English Canadian theory, especially prevalent in the west, that Quebec separatism and western regional alienation are really two sides of the same Canadian coin. But it is hard for anyone familiar with Quebec to see anything like the same kind of anger, fervor, and will in British Columbia.
British Columbia does have its separatists. Douglas Christie, 34, a Victoria lawyer with an Abe Lincoln beard and a self-deprecating smile, heads the Western National Association, a party calling for creation of a separate western Canadian country comprising British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Christie hopes to feed on the western grievances against a federal system that is dominated by the two most populous provinces, Quebec and Ontario.
"If there were no Senate in the United States, and New York and California were strong enough to control the House of Representatives, and that House picked the President," Christie said, trying to put the Canadian system in a U.S. context, "Americans wouldn't stand for it. But Canadians are docile, apathetic, even ignorant."
Christie has only a fringe following now -- "I'm not exactly the center of media attention," he acknowledged with a smile -- but his party does reflect dangerous discontent.
Provincial Premier Bennett seemed to be using the extremism of British Columbians, like Christie, as a weapon to pressure Trudeau and Ottaw into constitutional concessions that would strengthen the power of provinces.
"There is only one part of Canada that could economically survive any separation and form itself into a distinct unit," Bennett went on, "and that's British Columbia . . . It would be foolish of Canada to force people out here into thinking that way. I'm not advocating that. But I think there's a vacuum that if the government of Canada or central Canada politicians or those in all parts of the country don't respond to, the climate will change."
Separation, though still improbable, has become at least conceivable to a British Columbian. In 1977, Gordon Gibson, then head of the Liberal Party in British Columbia, told a seminar at Harvard University, "A Canadian union is a reversible arrangement, unlike the American one."
Although the differences between British Columbia and the rest of Canada are not startling, they are significant, and some are worth examining in detail. Most outsiders probably do not realize that British Columbia has a historical separateness. It was not settled by western migration from the rest of Canada. British Columbia was a separate British colony on the Pacific Coast populated by immigrants who came by sea, or by Californians looking for fur or gold.
But it fell on hard times in the last half of the 19th century. Victoria was losing out as a port to its rival, San Francisco. The colony, heavily in debt, joined Canada in 1871 only after the government in Ottawa promised to pay the debts, subsidize part of its works and administration, and build a railroad across the continent.
Although their province is rich now and has the highest wages in Canada, many British Columbians feel cheated by the 19th century deal and, in fact, by contemporary economic policies that, in the western view, still favor the east. Under the economic system imposed by Ottawa, British Columbia sold its salmon, timber and ore while national tariffs encouraged industrialization in Ontario and Quebec.