A recent post on Bouquets of Grey got me thinking about western separatism – does such an animal exist, and if so, how pervasive is it?
I can understand Quebec separatism.I don’t agree with it, but I can understand where the sentiment comes from. I run the risk of gross over simplification, but as a founding “nation” in the Canadian federation, Quebec (or Lower Canada) entered into a federal union with three other colonial territories to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867. At some point in the last 140 years, the Canadian federal union has become something other than that which George-Etienne Cartier envisioned. The concept of a federal union of founding nations runs deep in Quebec. There has always been a nationalist element in Quebec that in the past, to greater or lesser degrees has been content to embrace both Quebec and Canadian national identities. However the building of a strong, independent, modern state, free from its colonial ties to England and under expansionist pressure from the United States required a strong federal government. Lacking the strict division of powers between the federal and provincial governments that is so clear in the US Constitution, Parliament set about nation building. However the Judicial Committee of the Privy Counsel of the British Parliament, (which was the final appellate power in Canada), in the colonial tradition, tended to resolve the division of powers in favour of the provincial governments. The Privy Counsel ceded its final appellate authority to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1949. Since then, the Supreme Court has tended to favour a strong federalist constitutional interpretation and has allowed Parliament to increasingly extend its reach into area previously thought to be the jurisdictions of the provincial Legislatures. This is to my understanding where the roots of Quebec separatism began.
I have to confess however, as a person who has grown up and lived in three of the four western provinces, I honestly don’t understand western separatism. Certainly the Trudeau government sowed some of the seeds of western discontent with the National Energy Program (NEP) and the one finger salute in Salmon Arm BC. But objectively, the NEP was completely dismantled by 1988 and it was not responsible for the collapse of world oil prices in 1981 that devastated the Alberta economy. Certainly Trudeau was arrogant, but it is hard to imagine that anger at one man who is 25 years removed from Canadian politics is the basis of a separatist movement. Further, separatist sentiments are not a Western phenomenon, but an Alberta phenomenon.
Equalization payments have been a long running point of grievance for Albertans. Personally I think it is beneath the dignity of a province so richly endowed with natural resources to be so begrudging of the billion dollars (give or take) it contributes to equalizing the health and social transfers to less endowed provinces. These equalization transfers from the federal government are used to balance regional disparities in national income that would otherwise create provincial ghettos within Canada.
I also doubt that more than a tiny minority of Albertans have any real passion for secession. With the Alberta economy now booming and in-migration to the province at an all time high, many Albertans have much deeper connections to other regions of Canada than to Alberta.
A 2003 investigative piece by Joe Obad On the Trail of Alberta Separatists, recent annual meetings of the Western Canada Concept (WCC) and the Separatist Party of Alberta (SPA) drew audiences of 9 and 13 people respectively. The Alberta Residents League (ARL) fared somewhat better, drawing 350 people to its annual meeting in High River. But then unlike the WCC and SPA, the ARL advocates for more autonomy within Canada – the so called Alberta Agenda, rather than secession. As Bouquets of Grey pointed out as well, just over 4000 Albertans voted for separatist candidates in the last Alberta Election.
The latest two planks in the separatist’s canoe are same sex marriage and the Kyoto Accord. Or are they multiculturalism and the gun registry or the war in Iraq and US relations? Now it is no secret that social conservative themes have found fertile soil in Alberta. In most of Canada, George Bush is a pariah, but in Alberta, his policies are admired. But even in Alberta, the separatists represent the lunatic fringe. White papers on the WCC web page talk about the “planned genocide of European Christian culture” and the need to protect a “genuine national culture true to our existing European heritage and values”. I think we now know where the bigots that Preston Manning expelled from the Reform Party ended up. Consumption, waste, intolerance, violence and greed are not family values, nor are they European Christian values. You certainly do not build a nation, if that is their goal, by dividing, nor can you add by subtracting.
No politician is going to make the mistake of being honest at the risk of sounding arrogant and dismiss Alberta separatism for what it is, petulant, selfish whining. So we should expect to hear all of the national parties lay out their strategies to improve representation and address regional concerns. Some of this discussion is profitable as Canada is geographically vast and extremely diverse, so regionalism, alienation and disparities are inevitable. But lets not give too much air time to Alberta’s separatists. They are a grossly over represented minority.