One of Alberta’s most prominent conservative voices and a former leader of the province’s opposition is calling on Ottawa to acquiesce to a series of demands — or risk separation.
Brian Jean was the former leader of the Wildrose Party before it merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2017 to create the United Conservative Party, losing the leadership race to Jason Kenney.
Jean has stayed largely out of provincial politics since then, denying rumours in 2019 he might soon return.
But the former Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA, in a column posted by the Edmonton Journal Saturday, calls for four “absolute necessities” from Ottawa — and stresses if those demands aren’t met by Canada, then Alberta should leave.
“I believe, right now, that most Albertans believe that Canada is broken,” Jean said in an interview with CBC News. “There are some fundamental problems with our Confederation, with our country, and Albertans, for the most part, want to fix it.”
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Those necessities, as outlined by Jean, include some familiar echoes to measures currently being studied by Alberta’s “fair deal” panel, which is due to present its recommendations in less than a month.
In all cases, Jean advocates for implementing constitution changes — four “fundamental things” that he feels most Canadians will agree with:
- Changing Canada’s constitution to “require that every province is being treated fairly and equally.”
- Requiring the House of Commons or the Senate to have true representation by population.
- Establishing an amendment that would prohibit the federal government from passing a law that would impact one province without majority consensus of the MPs and senators of that province.
- Require the constitution to state that no province can prevent any province “to have access to tidewater or trade with the rest of the world.”
While Jean said he is “not a separatist,” he said he believed Albertans have reached a breaking point.
“I think it’s fair to say if you’re in a marriage where one spouse is continually abusive to the other, that you should look for a better place to be if they’re not going to listen to reason,” Jean said. “No one should stay in an abusive relationship. Right now, the majority of Albertans believe it is somewhat of an abusive relationship.
“Certainly, a good portion of them believe it is unfixable.”
Throwing support behind Kenney
The person best suited to bring these demands to Ottawa, Jean said, is Kenney — a notable suggestion considering the checkered history between the two men.
In February 2019, Jean demanded Kenney retract statements that claimed all campaigns operated voting stations, declaring that his team “never cheated.”
Leaked internal UCP documents obtained by CBC News in March 2019 revealed that the leadership campaign of Jason Kenney collaborated with fellow candidate Jeff Callaway’s campaign during the 2017 leadership race, targeting Jean’s campaign.
“Premier Kenney, in my mind, is one of the staunchest Canadian federalists in the scene, and politically, is best positioned to represent us in constitutional discussions right now,” Jean said.
Asked why now he is throwing his support behind Kenney, Jean said he couldn’t think of anyone better positioned for the task.
“He’s been a former federal cabinet minister for 10 years,” he said. “He is very well positioned to know exactly any movement that could be taken by the federal government or other provinces, and I would believe he would be successful in arguing that position.”
When asked whether he would run himself in a scenario where Alberta separated from Canada — or support Kenney or someone like Wexit Leader Peter Downing — Jean said “it’s up to the people.”
“Right now, I have a lot of family responsibilities. But I recognize, living in Fort McMurray and in spending time in other great cities in Alberta, that there are other people very serious about this movement, such as Mr. Downing and others,” he said. “Sooner or later, if it’s not solved … then someone will rise.”
Column is ‘grossly problematic,’ professor says
Melanee Thomas, an associate political science professor at the University of Calgary, said though she recognizes some Albertans are frustrated, that is not the same thing as “federation being broken.”
“I think that this column is grossly problematic … I’ve been candid on the public record that what I’ve been seeing since the middle of the federal election to now are certain political elites in Alberta working really hard to stoke a particular form of angry alienation,” Thomas said. “I think it’s irresponsible because it doesn’t actually match a lot of things that we’re seeing in terms of public opinion.”
Thomas also took issue with Jean referring to Alberta as an “unappreciated colony” in his column.
“When we’re talking about colonialism, we need to be very careful in Canada that we use the correct reference, and the reference in this case would be to Indigenous people,” she said. “There is nothing in Alberta’s experience with federation that merits the use of the term ‘colony.’
“It’s usage in this case is completely racially tone-deaf in terms of what actual colonialism looks like.”
She added that entrenched constitutional law is extremely difficult to change, so Jean’s confrontational approach is unlikely to pay dividends.
“If this is actually about amending the constitution, the audience needs to be other Canadians. I don’t think that these kinds of approaches show Alberta in a productive light, where other Canadians can be confident that we’re actually going to be sensible negotiation partners,” Thomas said.
“I think it’s a reasonable question for Albertans to ask, ‘Why are these political elites working really hard to make us angry at the federal government?'”
In his column, Jean cites the “more than $20 billion we contribute to equalization annually while [Canada] simultaneously [seeks] to prevent our future prosperity.”
Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said that though Jean references equalization multiple times in his column, each time, “he does so in error.”
“[He] repeats some broadly held but incorrect beliefs about how the program works and who funds it,” Tombe said. “For example, the very opening line of the piece notes that Alberta contributes $20 billion into the equalization program, but that’s simply not the case. The entire national program is only $20.6 billion this year.”
Tombe said Alberta taxpayers pay more in federal revenue than is received in the form of federal spending in the province, but that is a consequence of high income levels that exist in Alberta.
“Alberta pays about 17 per cent of the federal budget in recent years, but its roughly 17 per cent of the Canadian economy for most federal revenue, because it is tied to income through income taxes or sales taxes,” he said. “It naturally results in higher income individuals paying more, and Alberta is home to more higher income individuals than most other provinces.”
It’s undeniable that there is some real frustration in Alberta, Tombe said, but he’s not sure Jean’s column helps that case.
“There are some important policy issues around pipelines in particular, they have raised a lot of concern and is the subject of legitimate debate,” Tombe said. “But if he’s going to invoke misleading and outright false statements around how equalization works or how federal transfers work or who pays the federal budget in general, that’s not helpful.”