The question to ask of Alberta’s current political predicament is the one that is impossible to answer: How seriously should we take Wexit?
Any amateur student of history will note that western alienation — and its cagey stepdaughter, western separatism — is a cyclical phenomenon in this province. Provincial ennui tends to become most forceful when a Trudeau holds court in Ottawa.
According to a poll by Ipsos, a third of the province could be quietly agitating for separation; depending on one’s hopes and leanings, that could be very high, or very low.
More Albertans want out of Canada than Quebecers, which may be saying a lot, or very little. Those inclined to think 33 per cent seems high, will note that baseline support for separatism is present in this province despite the lack of an established separatist party.
A separatist movement with political talent, resources and time, a leader with some charisma, organizers with lists of supporters, would look at that number and plot a plausible path toward majority support.
Those who see 33 per cent as a low number would prefer to test it against history.
Alberta has been angry, to a greater or lesser degree, for a century. We have a track record of grievance, but not of revolt. In part, that is because this province has produced politicians who have channelled that anger into more productive avenues.
The most obvious modern antecedent is the Reform Party.
Facing the separatism sentiment of the ’80s, Preston Manning and his fellow travellers honed that anger into a federal political party that would topple the Progressive Conservatives, and eventually put a westerner — Stephen Harper — into the prime minister’s chair. How quickly we seem to have forgotten.
Four years ago, the west was in.
On Saturday, at the Manning Centre’s conference in Red Deer, Premier Jason Kenney began to repeat history. He announced a “Fair Deal” panel to look into several ideas to stick it to the East.
Among them, an Alberta-made tax collection agency, police force, and pension program.
Much of it echoed the firewall letter penned by the likes of Ted Morton, Tom Flanagan, and Harper in 2001. (It’s not hard to trace a little Reform DNA in some of these proposals, either.)
Many of these proposals were examined under Ralph Klein, who convened a similar panel in 2003; the response from committee members at the time was that very few were practical.
Collecting taxes and managing our own pension plan would likely introduce administrative costs, for example, that would become additional burdens to the Alberta taxpayer.
Regardless, Kenney’s “Fair Deal” speech may prove to be a watershed moment in his tenure as premier. While it would be fair to quibble with a few of his points, he presented a compelling case of the province’s grievances to Confederation.
“We feel that we have made a hugely oversized contribution to the rest of the federation; that we do not begrudge our fellow Canadians the benefit of the resources, hard work, and innovation of Albertans. All we ask is the right to develop those resources, and time and time again, that right and ability has been thwarted,” he told the conference.
Former Premier Rachel Notley was blunt in her assessment of Kenney’s proposal.
“Today’s remarks by Premier Jason Kenney are dangerous. He is intentionally stoking the fires of western alienation in order to advance his own political objectives. He did not campaign on any of these issues,” Notley said in an emailed release.
With respect to Ms. Notley, I don’t believe that Kenney is a secret separatist. Nor do I think anyone who harboured the faintest hope of becoming Prime Minister one day could have delivered such a speech in Red Deer.
Channel the anger
I believe Kenney has a coherent strategy behind his “Fair Deal”; the purpose behind his promise of a referendum to reconsider equalization is discernable, even if the referendum itself is dumb and pointless. (Alberta simply cannot unilaterally strip equalization from the Constitution; nor will a successful referendum provide any real leverage for re-negotiating the formula by which federal transfers are paid.)
Kenney is trying to channel the anger felt towards Ottawa into a comparatively harmless set of policy studies and town halls — most of which will be deemed too inefficient or too costly to the Alberta taxpayer to seriously consider.
If Albertans want to move forward with these ideas, despite the added inconvenience, cost, and time, well, that will actually be the most straightforward gauge Kenney could devise for the seriousness of the separatist sentiment.
If Albertans aren’t actually willing to sacrifice national symbols like the RCMP, or shoulder the added financial burden of collecting taxes and managing a pension plan, then all this talk of separation is just the stock standard generational kabuki.
It’s a big game of separatist chicken.
If, on the other hand, further study finds a province willing to suffer for its independence, then Kenney’s proposals will continue a decentralization that began in Quebec and migrated west.
Nothing new here
After all, this “Fair Deal” isn’t asking for anything that hasn’t already been granted to Quebec and Ontario. There is nothing new here.
Conservatives are generally in favour of placing power as close as possible to the governed; there is nothing to be feared, then, in the idea of smaller and smaller governments, and more of them.
The irony in all of this is that a threat to Confederation as it’s currently imagined is coming from the very progressives who condemn Kenney for this separatist “stoking.”
Take, for example, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s short-lived proposal to grant provinces veto powers over pipelines. This would be a radical abnegation of federal authority. And absent a federal government with jurisdiction over interprovincial infrastructure projects and trade, what’s left to cede to the separatists?
What we would have is a collection of provinces increasingly minding their own electorates, and negotiating amongst themselves for trade, road, railway, and pipeline access. Heck, we could throw full First Nations autonomy into the mix and re-jig the concept of provinces altogether.
All that would be required, then, is a new financial settlement between the provinces.
Canada: a nation in nothing but name.
Quasi independent states
In some ways, this would be a Conservative ideal: a patchwork of loosely allied, quasi independent statelets. If I squint, I can see some vision of pan-partisan national unity around these principles.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember that there were a few grievances studied by that 2003 panel convened by Ralph Klein that no longer seem quite so germane; the federal gun registry and the Canada Wheat Board. Both were abolished after Stephen Harper formed a majority government under the Conservative banner.
That was not so long ago.