When the Bottrel General Store south of Cremona, Alta., first opened its doors in 1901, Sir Wilfred Laurier was Canada’s prime minister and leader of the federal liberals.
Laurier oversaw Alberta’s entry into confederation four years after the store opened for business.
The old wood structure off a dusty rural road is one of the longest running general stores in the province. It’s seen many politicians and prime ministers come and go. This will be the 34th federal election it’s seen.
But nowadays, the local ranching and farming families it serves with its lone gas pump, packs of domestic beer, snacks and essentials say Albertans talk much more about alienation and separation than they do confederation in 2019.
“I hear more talk about separation than I’ve ever heard here,” said Duane Needham, who has been keeping the shelves stocked and working behind the counter at the general store for the past 16 years.
“I’m personally not in favour of it, but it’s just frustration. The vast majority are probably just upset because of the situation we’re in now.”
The Alberta situation, Needham says, includes a perceived lack of progress on pipelines, feelings of alienation from the rest of Canada, fewer oil and gas jobs and Alberta’s economy failing to recover from the new reality of significantly lower global oil prices and less demand.
Needham suggests those expressions of alienation and separation are a way to voice frustration, rather than as actual goals or desires. This is an idea that’s already been expressed by some conservative thinkers.
When you ask people around the store, and in the community, nobody seems able to offer any deep insights into how separation would help, what it might look like or how it would get Alberta oil to tidewater and to international markets any faster. But talk of the idea has been getting plenty of traction around here lately nonetheless.
People stopping by the Bottrel General Store say they feel abandoned, misunderstood and misrepresented by Ottawa and “out East.” They’re hurting, angry and they want the rest of Canada to know about it.
Premier Jason Kenney has touched on the topic of separation recently, mentioning it in recent social media posts targeting Justin Trudeau.
“Rather than focusing on Alberta separating from the Canadian federation, I’d like to focus on separating Justin Trudeau from the Prime Minister’s Office,” Kenney said in one video, talking about the “unfair deal” Albertans get from federation in other posts, referencing a vote on equalization in another.
This kind of talk appears to be finding some welcome listeners. Earlier this year, two separate polls carried out across the Prairies on broader western alienation suggested growing support in Alberta for leaving. Billboards also popped up asking Albertans to consider ditching the rest of Canada, pointing to a separation referendum.
There’s also a group called Wexit Alberta that’s busy pushing the separatist agenda, gathering support, organizing meetings and recruiting unhappy Wexiteers across the province.
“We took care of Canada for a number of years and now it feels like we’re being left behind and ignored,” said Neeham.
He harks back to the Harper era when a western conservative leader made many Albertans feel a stronger bond with the rest of the country. He says they haven’t felt that way for a while.
Despite purchasing and approving the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, the Liberal government under Trudeau was unable to win over many rural Albertans. They say they still fear the project might never be realized unless something changes — namely the government.
“Oil is what makes this province run and without it we’re in trouble,” he said.
Drive through the long stretches of prairie landscape and you can see dozens of active pumpjacks, but also plenty of orphan wells dotting the rolling landscape.
Needham says he wants a prime minister who will back Albertans and get Alberta oil to tidewater, and quickly.
“We need someone who’s actually going to back our oil, not play around with our heads and promise one thing and do another,” Needham said.
He’s not alone. Here at the Bottrel General Store, an old red truck pulls up outside alongside the battered Pepsi machine and threadbare old chair out on the front porch. The locals that pull up for gas and beer, primarily men, generally share Needham’s frustrations.
“To say we’re treated different is to say that there’s segregation in Canada and a difference between Canadians, between East and West. And I think that’s one of the problems that exists, and it creates other problems,” said Mark Stewart.
Stewart says Canada could use more unity.
Another customer, Kim Butler, parks his tractor and equipment in the distance, striding down the dirt road toward the general store with an afternoon snack on his mind.
He’s happy to stop by the front porch and talk politics. He says Western Canada’s concerns aren’t being taken seriously in Ottawa.
“I don’t think the West has a lot of trust in Justin Trudeau,” he said.
“Most Western people would have told you that when he got elected last time,” Butler said with a smile.
As Butler gets back to his idling tractor, another local, a bearded man in a GMC ball cap called Kelly, pulls up for an ice cream.
Stopping to chat on the porch, he watches his ice cream carefully. But he’s also concerned about a different type of meltdown: Alberta’s economy. And how it can recover.
“We’ve got to get back on track. For far too long, it’s not been a priority,” he said. “We need to get people working again.”
“People are feeling like the province hasn’t been appreciated, we’ve been kicked around, we’ve been working hard but jobs have been disappearing,” he said.
“The sad reality is the federal government hasn’t paid any attention,” said Kelly.
Needham has heard it all many times before, but he does have one new concern this time around.
“The worst possible thing for us now would be a Liberal minority,” he said.
“Then nothing really would get done.”
That’s the newest worry here. And the concern, along with the re-emergence of an Alberta separatism movement of sorts, is not isolated to small towns, but rather growing around the province.