By Donovan Makus
Decades after the last resurgence of Western Canadian separatism, the movement is once again gaining strength. Be it former conservative politicians wading into the debate or a lingering feeling of separatism from everyday Albertans, separatist sentiments have reappeared in the political landscape. With their goal of changing the structure of Canada, these movements and their supporters present a significant challenge in Western Canada, and in particular, Alberta. Separatist movements introduce considerable uncertainty and hurt the competitiveness of the affected region’s economy. At the same time, an effective split would create a governance nightmare for Alberta and any other provinces taking this path. There are no easy answers to over a hundred years of Western alienation. Perhaps increased local sovereignty through Canada’s existing federalist framework would help placate upset Albertan separatists by providing more benefits than separating could ever hope to.
Separatist feelings across Western Canada are on the rise. According to one survey done prior to the recent federal election, fifty percent of Albertans see separatism as something that could happen or is likely to happen. Canada-wide, separatist feelings are strongest in Alberta. These feelings are not new, dating back to when the prairies were primarily agricultural. Factors for this are complex and range from feelings of being shut out of federal politics–Albertans, in particular, have a tendency to vote for conservative parties that tend not to hold power in Ottawa–to feeling that Alberta is an economic driver of Canada that does not receive a “fair” share of federal attention and services in return. No matter the cause, the fact stands, many Albertans feel a disproportionate dissatisfaction with their province’s role in the current Canadian federal system.
While some of the reasons provided by Albertans for their alienation may represent valid concerns with federalism, the solution is not to separate from Canada. The cost of such a move would be high, as are the costs of maintaining high separatist support. Economic development is best in stable political environments, and separatist notions raise concerns in investors. While ongoing issues, such as the (failed) approval of the Teck project, also play a factor in this, they also further inflame Albertan separatist notions. The impact of the separatist movement should not be understated. Moving past the uncertainty caused by the movement itself, if separatists were successful, it would only be through a long and challenging process of negotiating with the federal government and Indigenous groups. If Alberta and other Western Canadian provinces were to join together, the economic success of this new small country would be far from certain as Alberta would need to rebuild a federal state with an economy heavily tied to volatile oil prices. Taken together, these obstacles all suggest that a separate Alberta, or larger Western Canadian state, would face significant challenges.
With the high cost of separating on one side and growing discontentment on the other, an easy solution is not readily apparent. The answer to this solution will require compromise and a political readjustment in Alberta and from the other provinces which make up Canada. Perhaps the answer to pacifying today’s renewed separatist sentiments can be found in recent history. “The West Wants In” was the slogan of the predominantly Albertan Reform Party, which gained popularity in the 1980s. Instead of leaving, Reform advocated for a changing the Canadian federal model, with greater autonomy for Alberta. This movement was successful in, at least partially, sublimating Albertan separatist tendencies through the 1990s towards a goal of changing Canada instead of leaving. Despite Reform’s controversial stances on other issues, and any negative feelings toward the movement, this example shows that Albertan separatist sentiments can subside, given a greater sense of control and engagement. A similar goal can be accomplished today; there should be a renewal of federalism, not a push to leave the entire Canadian project. Decentralizing power from the Eastern-based national government to individual provinces would give Alberta greater control and reduce feelings of alienation. The exact means of doing this vary and would require significant debate and policy development. However, there are some starting points.
The exact methods needed to increase Albertan self-government vary, and would require extensive research and debate. Relatively small steps, such as a provincial police force, would be a valuable first step. Other potential solutions include more control over revenue collection. While more drastic measures would be useful, they would require federal level support, which is highly unlikely. While equalization’s purpose (ensuring the same quality of life throughout Canada) is helpful, excluding hydroelectric income (a renewable resource) while including oil royalties (a non-renewable resource) leads to questions related to the entire purpose of equalization. The exact nature of which changes should be explored still requires debate, which the current Albertan government is pursuing through it’s Fair Deal Panel. However, this panel is largely politicized, with current United Conservative Party Members of the Legislative Assembly, and past conservative figures such as Preston Manning (PC CC AOE), serving on it. While the ideas suggested by the panel, including additional measures such as a provincial pension plan, deserve exploration, a more bipartisan solution is also needed. Left-leaning Albertans may suffer from fewer feelings of political alienation but still, earn the opportunity to contribute meaningful ideas for increased Albertan sovereignty. While the panel allows for public feedback, a further, broader, bipartisan effort would be valuable. There may be some who would be skeptical of a panel with the former leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning (PC CC AOE) sitting on it. In the end, the question comes down to one of fairness between provinces and between provinces and the federal government. As well, it is a question of ensuring that Alberta receives fair and equitable treatment within Canada should be a bipartisan issue.
Some may argue that these steps are not taken far enough, that the solution is to pursue even greater autonomy within Canada or full-blown separatism. Yet, as previously noted, the cost for separatist sentiments is high, and devolving control of revenue-related federal programs to the provinces is within the scope of the existing federal model. Additionally, transferring higher powers to provinces, even if politically feasible, could hurt Alberta and the West in the end. Were provinces more responsible for inter-province commerce, for instance, it may become more challenging to get Albertan oil products to the international market. This is especially true as far as reluctant provinces such as British Columbia are concerned. As a result, this ends up hurting the Albertan economy. The most crucial objective of any policy change must ensure that Western concerns are being recognized. Furthermore, these changes should not create a significant negative influence that could further inflame Albertan separatist notions.
The Western separatist movement, with its nexus in Alberta, is misconceived and presents both a current and future threat to Alberta. Alberta separatism hurts Alberta’s economy, while a successful separatist movement could inflict significant and lasting economic damage on the province. Despite these high costs, the solution to this complex issue isn’t to ignore separatist views and hope they go away. Instead, the answer is for Albertans to seek a more substantial role within confederation with more federal powers devolved to the province. While this is one possible solution, future study is still required, as is bipartisan work on finding an equitable place for Alberta within Canada. Canada is a complex country with diverse provinces and territories possessing their own unique problems and issues. As such, it doesn’t engender easy solutions. Western alienation reflects a long history of perceived marginalization. This complexity, however, should not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle. Instead, it is an even greater reason to study the issue. Through searching and debating, we will hopefully find solutions that keep Canada intact.