corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

01 Feb '12

Canada West Foundation rewrite history: Think tank tracker

Canada West Foundation senior economist Michael Holden wants us to believe his think tank is the only one “dedicated to being the objective, non-partisan voice for issues of vital concern to Western Canadians.” This is laughable.

For the record:

  • The Canada West Foundation is where the Reform Party got started.
  • The Canada West Foundation is backed by Western Canada’s biggest business tycoons.
  • The Canada West Foundation is pro-market, anti-union, anti-environmental and anti-social justice.

If it’s the voice for Western Canadians, it’s a small group of Western Canadians. The West’s one percenters perhaps?

In an op-ed published in the Province, Holden makes the case that ideological biases are wrecking public-policy debates. I agree and thought he was going after the Fraser Institute because there’s no question the Fraser’s market fundamentalists, with their ideological blinkers, have distorted many public-policy debates.

But no, it was those nasty environmentalists who are resorting to “fear, ideology, intentional misrepresentation and pejorative language” to win the day and prevent further development of the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park.

Sorry, environmentalists, you’ll have to wear this judgment because it comes from an objective and non-partisan source like me, Holden is telling us.

But an analysis of Canada West’s origins and activities paints a different picture of the organization, one that’s not so objective and non-partisan. Here’s what I wrote about the think tank in my book Not A Conspiracy Theory:

The Canada West Foundation think tank helped organize the Reform Party… It was supposed to be non-partisan, but became a rallying point for those angry enough with the Liberals and Conservatives to entertain the notion of a new, western-oriented party. It was created after a conference to study the feasibility of creating one large prairie province to give the region more political clout was held in Lethbridge in 1970. The conference concluded this was not possible, but research on the West should be expanded by a new organization. Financial backing for the foundation came from some of western Canada’s wealthiest tycoons: Fred Mannix (Calgary billionaire construction, coal and energy magnate); James Richardson (Winnipeg stockbrokerage business, seed and fertilizer, grain elevators, oil and gas); Max Bell (newspapers, oil and gas); and Arthur Child (chair of Burns Food, left a million dollars to the Reform Party on his death). The foundation researched the economic and social characteristics of the West (including B.C. and the North) and made proposals for how the region should develop. The Canada West Foundation differs from the Fraser Institute in that it accepts government grants for its work—about a third of its budget—and it developed connections to western political parties, which the Fraser did only behind closed doors. The CWF is not a neoconservative or libertarian propaganda organization, because its proposals often suggest a role for government in economic development. But, like the Fraser Institute, it cultivated important business connections.

Stan Roberts, CWF president, was an early promoter of a new western party. He had been a marketing consultant, former president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, active Liberal and vice-president at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. The big money came from eighty-four-year-old Francis Winspear, a Victoria accountant and millionaire who had lived in Edmonton. In 1980, Roberts and Winspear organized a Canada West Foundation conference in Calgary to discuss western grievances and consider the creation of a new party. That conference went nowhere. They teamed up again in 1987, when Winspear gave Roberts $100,000 to get the new party going. Through their CWF contacts they linked up with other groups wanting political realignment. Preston Manning was already being seen as the right leader for the party. Roberts became a candidate for leader, but dropped out when he saw how conservative it was becoming under Manning’s influence.


While the libertarian propaganda machine was bulking up during the nineties, the Canada West Foundation was nourishing and embellishing an enduring narrative of western alienation, based on Calgary School scripts. Under cover of this concern for regional grievances, the CWF promoted the same corporate and conservative ideas as the Fraser and the Calgary School.

During the federal budget consultations that led to the deep spending cuts in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget, the foundation organized a meeting in Calgary of 108 western Canadians to meet with Martin. “We have here women, the disabled, immigrants, racial minorities,” Canada West president David Elton said in introducing the meeting. “But we hope everybody sees themselves not as spokespersons for special interest groups but as Canadians.” However, one special interest group did prevail, one that wasn’t even identified by Elton: business, which was unanimously opposed to any kind of tax increase to cut the federal deficit. Business voices were the only ones quoted in media reports of the consultation. Don’t raise taxes, cut program spending instead, was the message sent to Ottawa from the West, or at least Canada West’s version of the West. It’s not known if women, the disabled, immigrants and racial minorities signed on to the business agenda, which would mean deep cuts to social programs that largely benefited them.

Three years later, the CWF supported the Klein government’s drastic cuts to social services by promoting the idea of a “welfare society.” A report entitled “Issues and options for change: social services for the 21st century,” distinguished between a “welfare state,” where the government plays the central role, and a “welfare society,” where the community is predominant. “We’ve made it too easy for people to say ‘let the government look after it,’ especially when there is no real financial need,” Elton explained. “We’re trying to find a way that will make the system work even better than solely under government.” But Elton was wrong to claim welfare was provided “solely under government.” Many not-for-profit and for-profit organizations participate in the welfare state. And there’s a precedent for community-provided welfare: the nineteenth century.

Under the cover of regional alienation, the CWF also pushed for a two-tier health system. Canadians are tired of federal-provincial jurisdictional wars, claimed Professor Roger Gibbins, the Calgary School chronicler who replaced Elton as president when Elton moved to the Max Bell Foundation. They are more concerned about “a slippage of responsible government.” And to make matters worse, he  said, politicians “have an irresistible attachment to public funding as an aspect of our national identity.” We need an “alternative view,” one that doesn’t see the solution as simply providing more money. While surgical waiting lists lengthen, “the debate over healthcare is increasingly sterile,” Gibbins  claimed. To make the debate more fecund, one supposes, simply allow a greater role for for-profit health care.

Canada West Foundation’s pro-business slant was evident even in a major initiative it called the Natural Capital Project. This project was supposed to help close the “counterproductive gap that exists between environmental interests on the one hand and business interests on the other,” the foundation wrote in its 2004 annual report. How would the foundation achieve this laudable goal? By ignoring environmental interests and focusing solely on what business wanted. The external advisers Canada West selected for this project proved the point. They were stacked with representatives from forestry and oil and gas companies. There wasn’t one representative from a genuine environmental organization, aside from Ducks Unlimited, which restores marshlands so that oil and gas executives and Calgary School professors can shoot ducks. Close the gap between two groups by eliminating one of the groups. Gap closed!

Published in on 1 February 2012

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