As my contribution to Alberta’s centennial celebration 14 years ago, I penned an essay entitled, with a nod to Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Centennial Proposal: Let’s Get while the Getting’s Good”. Published in the Calgary Herald, it was my case for exiting this dysfunctional federation called Canada. While many Albertans voiced their agreement to me, those in charge of our province ignored my sage advice. Consequently, no effort was made to get when the getting truly was good – much better than it would be later, a deterioration I feared would set in if we ignored the only realistic long-term solution: independence. For then, the province was booming and humming.
Today, we’re well into Year Five of a downturn resulting from a triple-blow to our natural resource-based economy. First, the unfavourable turn in the global oil market, along with continuing low natural gas prices. Second, the difficulty in getting our product out of the ground and to the market due to the colossal ineptitude, indifference and outright hostility of a federal government run by a Liberal Party enthralled by a (supposedly) looming “climate change” disaster – its dumb adherents as true believers, the smart ones as sanctimonious window-dressers covering tax grabs and other political hijinks. Not that the particular policy they currently profess matters much, since most of them are innately disdainful of Alberta and opposed to its prospering in any circumstances, lest its baneful influence spread.
As if those conditions weren’t bad enough, the third blow came when Albertans, through complacency, indifference, or a fit of pique, allowed a minority of voters to exploit a fractured party system to elect an NDP government. Those of us who consoled ourselves with thoughts along the lines of, “Well, they can’t do much real harm in just four years,” received a rude comeuppance. On April 17, that sorry chapter thankfully came to a close.
Having recently re-read a post-election article by Kevin Libin, I couldn’t resist having another kick at the cat. Libin’s concise historical review of Alberta’s pipeline frustrations is an excellent reminder of our recent reality. Likewise, his reprise of the Rachel Notley government’s futile efforts to cajole a bit of decency from Trudeau Jr.’s Ottawa, an effort Libin too-kindly characterized as “the embodiment of naïve hope over experience”. He romantically entitled his commentary “Alberta Won’t Be Fooled Again”. If only! If only we could be sure that Libin’s prediction is not another triumph of naïve hope over experience.
This is what provoked me to recapitulate my case for the Province of Alberta becoming the sovereign Commonwealth of Alberta. For as fate would have it, certain external circumstances are eerily similar to 14 years ago. Then the federal government, historically dominated by the Liberal party centred in Ontario and Quebec, was preoccupied with the “Adscam” scandal. Now it’s a sequence of blunder, currently centring on the SNC-Lavalin affair. My, how things change – and don’t. One might notice that both episodes arose out the Liberals’ perennial concern to keep Quebec happy, since its ridings remain the key to their perennial electoral success.
The major perennial boondoggle is baked into Canada’s institutional structure: the notorious equalization scheme. It annually shovels billions of dollars out of Alberta and Saskatchewan into Quebec’s coffers. This year it will be $12 billion, with $13 billion scheduled for next year, allowing la Belle Province to fund its almost free daycare, token college tuition, over-generous EI and other welfare benefits while still projecting a budget surplus. Well-known political scientist (and friend) F.L. (Ted) Morton of the University of Calgary, in reviewing the book Fiscal Federalism and Equalization Policy in Canada in this C2C Journal article, provided a succinct history of how a modest program, begun in 1957 as “an attempt to break the fiscal and institutional isolation of Quebec”, morphed under the threat of Quebec separatism into today’s monstrosity.
Speaking of that, I was bemused by a recent analysis in the Globe and Mail. While noting that as a result of “the downturn in commodity prices in 2014…the gap between richer and poorer provinces has shrunk considerably”, the article concedes that a question naturally arises: “So why aren’t equalization payments shrinking as well?” Whereas, they are instead increasing! Meanwhile, the governments of the two so-called “have” provinces are admittedly “struggling” to meet their social commitments, running budget deficits as a consequence.
But, warns eastern Canada’s “national” paper of record, this is no reason to blame the equalization scheme, as the benighted citizenry of those Prairie provinces are apt to do:
Several commentators noted angrily that Quebec is forecasting a budget surplus next year, while Alberta is in the red. If Quebec has a surplus, they say, it must not need the money. In reality, it’s hard to imagine a more harmful way to think about equalization because linking equalization payments to budget deficits would create absurd incentive problems. Take Quebec, which has restrained government spending and eliminated its deficit in recent years. If balancing your budget, for example, disqualified you from equalization, governments might think twice about making hard budget decisions…Worse still are the misguided efforts to link the recent equalization announcement with Alberta’s fiscal state…Alberta’s large deficits are the result of policy choices in Edmonton, not Ottawa…Albertans should recognize that Alberta’s deficit problem is completely a separate issue and of their provincial government’s own making.
Faced with reasoning like this, we can’t win for losin’. Spelling out the Globe and Mail’s logic, Central and Eastern Canada’s recipient provinces will always qualify for equalization, for they will either need it to make ends meet or they will deserve it as a reward for their good fiscal management. Alberta, by contrast, will always need to pay, for when things are going well, we can afford to do so, and when they aren’t, it’s our own fault.
I too favour balanced budgets. But the fact remains, if the money we contribute to the equalization scheme stayed home, we could balance our own budget rather than Quebec’s, while having the fiscal room to provide subsidized daycare, free post-secondary tuition, free vision and dental care and other goodies, and still reduce our income tax rates considerably. Judging by history, the odds of that happening amicably within Canada’s current political arrangements seem low, to put it charitably.
Consequently, Albertans need to think seriously about taking the next, bolder step: reordering our entire relationship with the rest of Canada. Were the Province of Alberta to become the independent Commonwealth of Alberta, we could cut our tax burden in half and, practically overnight, become among the most attractive economic jurisdictions in North America. The transition from province to commonwealth would be coordinated and largely directed by the new Minister of Independence Preparation (MIP), along with a substantial staff and department, whose title upon Alberta’s separation would be changed to Minister of Independence.
Compare the economic implications of staying versus leaving. First, the costs of remaining in the present federation are very high. Alberta’s equalization contribution alone is enough to provide every family of four a new pickup truck (or car, if they so insist) every three years. While that may sound somewhat flippant, what is the money we currently pay for the privilege of membership actually used for?
Whatever of importance the federal government does for us could be done as well or better by the government of an independent Alberta – more efficiently, at lower cost, and in whatever manner suits us. In the short run, the savings in transfer payments, to say nothing of the enormous expense of supporting another whole level of unnecessary government, could be used to defray the costs of our transition to independence. Following this, the savings applied to tax reduction would, to repeat, make Alberta arguably North America’s most economically attractive locale.
This bears directly on the second set of considerations: the economic viability of an independent Alberta. Economists have repeatedly shown that Alberta would flourish, given our incomparable natural resource endowment, our hard-working and entrepreneurial people, and our being able to offer the continent’s most attractive tax regime. Even now, north-south trade is as important to the Alberta economy as east-west trade and, with independence, our advantages would only grow.
Even at our current population of 4.4 million (2019 estimate), an independent Alberta would be a substantial entity, with a population just slightly lower than that of New Zealand and higher than those of 100 other countries. Alberta would be every bit as viable, both politically and economically, as Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and numerous other small but advanced countries, though most are less advantaged in natural resources than we. With our GDP of US$251 billion (in 2018), we would be ranked 48th among the world’s 233 national economies (while Canada would drop from 10th in the world to 14th as a result of our departure).
Far more likely, Alberta’s population would grow and perhaps even double within ten years as we attracted Canadians of enterprise and sensible social views from coast to coast. The influx should supplant several times over the incorrigible sentimentalists still attached to a Canada governed primarily for the benefit of its two central provinces. We need not fear over-crowding, however, as Alberta is a very big place – larger than the whole of Central Europe – and of almost unlimited potential for rational development.
The economic benefits, as impressive as they could be, would not be the most significant advantage of independence. More important would be our gaining effective control over the social and political culture in which we live our daily lives. We would no longer, for example, be subject to the dictates of Liberal appointees to the Supreme Court of Canada pursuing a political agenda a majority of Albertans would reject were they given the chance to vote on it.
As citizens of what could then be a fairer approximation of genuine democracy, the laws and policies of an Alberta government – sovereign but smaller and much closer to its electorate – would better reflect the views of the people who live here and pay for it, regarding crime and punishment, marriage and other family matters, educational curricula, environmental protection, religious freedom, wildlife management, firearms regulation, our approach to narcotics and addiction, immigration, and relations with the rest of the world, including our most important trading partner and ally, the United States. All of this could be accomplished without regard to whatever “higher enlightenment” happens to be in fashion amongst Toronto’s pontificating class, Ottawa’s mandarins and Quebec’s political power brokers.
As an independent commonwealth, Alberta could promote and protect a social environment nurturing the qualities of character that many of us still naturally admire: self-reliance, enterprise, honesty, fairness, attachment to liberty, loyalty to friends. These are the qualities that have long made Alberta a “distinct society” within Canada – recognizably so, as visitors familiar with the rest of the country have so often noted (not always approvingly). It is a society of which each of us can be proud to be a part, one that is tolerant but principled, that stands for something positive. And so it should be governed accordingly. That is, by one paramount concern: the common good of Alberta, leaving the rest of Canada to shift for itself.
In framing laws and policies, our legislators would no longer be obliged to keep one eye on the feds, nor allow absurd and expansive interpretations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to determine our affairs. We could leave “the problems of Canadian federalism” and its endemic corruption (of which Quebec is the centerpiece) behind us, once and for all.
If, however, we remain subject to Central Canada’s overweening cultural and moral influence for another generation, we risk becoming suffused with the qualities that, since the Pierre Trudeau era, have come to define Canadian “national” character – sanctimony, envy, resentment, spite, hypocrisy and fecklessness, along with a tendency to preen and whine. What a contrast to the Canadian character of earlier generations, which stoically endured the Great Depression and defeated the Nazis, now barely remembered and even mocked by elites, particularly those in Eastern Canada.
For anyone who understands the political reality of Canada as presently constituted, the old Reform Party slogan of “The West Wants In” is a foolish irrelevance. Our slogan should be, “Alberta Wants Out!” Why stay? The central government is so feeble it cannot enforce its own writs in the face of any organized resistance, whether by provinces whose votes it relies upon, by Indigenous organizations, or by professional “environmental” lobby groups largely influenced and funded from outside of Canada. Why fritter away our resources in order to remain with eastern provinces so alienated from us that demonizing Alberta – portraying its people as rustic, benighted, intolerant, selfish, climate-change skeptics indifferent to pollution – is the Liberals’ most effective electoral strategy? They have already signalled that this odious tactic will again be employed in the coming election campaign. It is, indeed, likely to plumb new depths this time.
Beyond our dissatisfaction with the way Canada is governed internally, and what this has done to Alberta, Canada’s behaviour on the world stage is also cause for shame. Canada’s position internationally has become so near that of a nonentity that there is little advantage in remaining a part of it. Worse than that, there are serious liabilities resulting from the chronic chafing of our inescapable relationship with the U.S. Repeatedly disparaged by its NATO allies for its feeble contribution, and despised by the nation it relies upon to protect it, Canada has taken an unashamedly evasive posture towards its defence and security responsibilities. Will it ever get the modern ships, fighter jets and other equipment that are needed if the country is to maintain even minor military credibility? Or is perpetual postponement the unstated policy?
Simply compare Canada’s standing in the world right now with that of Australia: a robust, loyal, and proactive ally of the most powerful nation on Earth, and respected accordingly. Were we Albertans on our own, we would be able to forge a more productive and wholesome relationship with the U.S., including a proportional military component. Allocating 3 percent of GDP to national defence would provide the Commonwealth of Alberta with an annual budget of US$7.5 billion (without factoring in the economic growth unleashed with independence). This is more than one-third of what Canada as a whole currently spends on defence and exceeds the national defence budget of Norway, which is able to afford a substantial fleet of state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters.
Making the decision to seek independence would be a giant step for any thoughtful Albertan. The process will be difficult and controversial. But, to illustrate to fellow Albertans and thoughtful Canadians elsewhere just how problematic Alberta’s position has become within Canada, it might help to turn the entire question on its head, by borrowing an idea from a friend of mine. If Alberta were already an independent republic, would we apply to join the Canadian federation on the terms under which we currently serve? The very idea is laughable.
So why should Alberta stay in Canada under these conditions? This is a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer – not vacuous platitudes, passionate rhetoric and romantic sentiments but sober, solid, rational analysis addressing the economic, moral, cultural, and political advantages of staying. I do not believe such a case can be made. I’m aware that you, Premier Kenney, have declared yourself to be a federalist, and doubtless many Albertans feel as you do. Yet apart from the fact that leaving would involve some bothersome but temporary inconveniences, I believe there are simply no decisive advantages in staying.
Accordingly, I would hope that as you wrestle with the problems of governing Alberta within the present arrangement, you keep an open mind as to what would be best for the long-term interests of Alberta and Albertans. Trapped within the worsening confines of a nation with which the majority of Alberta’s people increasingly disagree, Alberta could never reach its full potential in remaining a province. Whatever dislocations would attend leaving are small compared to what we risk by doing nothing. Inaction is itself risky and in Alberta’s case entails allowing ourselves to be stripped of our wealth while being drawn ever further into the morass of contemporary Canada.
Our province has been a distinct political entity for well over a century. It has an established institutional structure and geographic integrity. But it remains subject to an alien power located 2,000 miles away – and which, let’s face it, doesn’t really like us. We should remedy this anomaly. Starting now, I call upon Albertans to petition you, Premier Kenney, to focus on achieving Alberta’s complete independence. This would begin with undertaking whatever studies and institutional changes are needed to advance this project. Independence is not a fantasy, but a perfectly viable option. It will, however, take time, dedication and planning.
Since declaring independence would involve major changes in how governmental business is done, it is not a step to be taken without having thoroughly thought through the practical difficulties and prepared accordingly. Thus we need a cabinet minister charged with that responsibility – the Minister of Independence Preparation (MIP). The MIP would need to be an exemplary man or woman of intelligence, energy, courage, and absolute determination to get the job done. For the job will entail a number of critical and challenging measures.
First of all will be establishing an independent provincial police force and, hence, negotiating an early termination of our rolling contract with the RCMP. Second, Alberta must become the tax collector of first resort, remitting to the federal government its (hopefully much reduced) share until our severance from the federation is complete. Third would be to replace the current Canada Pension Plan (and associated old age programs plus, if possible, unemployment insurance) with an independent Alberta version. You will recognize that, so far, several of these measures are drawn from the old “Alberta Agenda” (which also, unfortunately, became known as the “firewall strategy”), and the originating letter to then-Premier Ralph Klein in 2001 can be read here. Eighteen years later, its excellent suggestions still await implementation, and they would be of direct use to Alberta’s MIP.
Preparing for independence will, of course, need to go far beyond the Alberta Agenda. So fourth, Alberta should establish an independent and reconfigured universal health care system aimed at delivering timely and top-quality services, based on a partnership of public and private providers. Fifth, lay the groundwork for an Alberta Defence Force (ADF), an all-volunteer military organization professionally trained and equipped to meet Alberta’s unique geographical requirements while being largely inter-operable with the residual Canadian Forces and those of our allies (principally the U.S.). Sixth, review all of Canada’s treaties, alliances, and trade agreements, with an eye towards an independent Alberta’s confirming, renegotiating, or revoking same. Seventh, develop a policy position with regard to Alberta’s responsibility regarding “its share” of the national debt.
Equally important would be a sustained effort of public education to get the Alberta populace used to the idea of independence: clearly setting out how to deal with the risks in order to ease anxiety about its consequences, appealing to pride and a sense of enterprise and adventure, and detailing without letup the incorrigible moral bankruptcy of Canada as presently constituted and governed. So the MIP’s eighth area of focus would be to establish a public information office charged with educating Albertans regarding the costs and liabilities of remaining in the current federation versus the potential benefits of independence.
Ultimate success will depend on committed, shrewd and attractive political leadership. If the ground is sufficiently prepared, someone of suitable political qualification and ambition will see the opportunity it presents and seize it. The opportunity would be enormous: possibly becoming the father (or mother) of a new Commonwealth of Alberta.
We should undertake our move towards independence with a wholehearted intention of achieving it. Not, that is, as simply a tactic to obtain a temporarily “better deal” from Ottawa, such as reducing West-East transfer payments as a sop to our “Western alienation”. Albertans must understand that the current Canadian reality is profoundly prejudicial to the interests of our children and grandchildren – economically, culturally, morally, politically – and that there is no realistic prospect of improvement in their lifetime. There is instead every likelihood that it will get worse, as Canada drifts the way of Old Europe into stagnation, corruption, ennui and impotence.
Nor should we become mixed up with some amorphous “Western separatism” which, to succeed, would require creating an all-new political entity. This is a seductive prospect to some, but would be subject to almost limitless practical difficulties. If other provinces opted for independence, that would be their business, and we would wish them well and would work to develop amicable and mutually beneficial relationships. Or if other provinces or parts thereof should later wish to join an already sovereign and flourishing Alberta, that would be a matter for negotiation.
It’s quite likely that eastern and northern B.C. would consider doing so, thus making the new Commonwealth sovereign over the Yellowhead corridor all the way to Prince Rupert. In this vein, Barry Cooper and David Bercuson of the University of Calgary in March published a plausible piece of political fiction, entitled The rise of the Republic of the Northwest, wherein they imagine the flourishing situation 20 years after we declared independence and some of our neighbours chose to join us. In the meantime, our personal relationships with friends and family elsewhere in Canada, or anywhere in the world, need not be impaired by our independence.
The single greatest obstacle to our declaring independence is sentiment. Sentiment, and emotions generally, are of massive importance in politics. Achieving rational outcomes in today’s politics therefore depends on people coming to feel what their reason indicates they ought to feel. Albertans ought to feel indignation. But for now, Albertans’ sentimental attachment to Canada remains very strong. Successive polls have shown that Alberta is the country’s most patriotic province; this is part of our overall virtue, and we should be proud of it. But we could as easily – and far more justifiably – be proud, patriotic Albertans.
For the “Canada” Albertans still love is partly one of an illustrious but bygone history. Mainly, however, the “Canada” we love is the portion of it we know firsthand, and that is Alberta itself. Yet Alberta isn’t like the rest of Canada. It truly is a distinct society amidst the increasingly alien context of the postmodern Canada, which has been fostered primarily by the political, academic, media and cultural establishments of the central provinces. The weakness of these establishments in the very areas most needed to hold a country together – courage, patriotism, decisiveness – as demonstrated in their submissiveness towards Quebec separatism over the decades, would be to Albertans’ huge advantage as we sought independence.
We need have no fear of what could be a great adventure: founding a new country. Think of the advantages of becoming masters of our own political house. Is this not an enterprise that could engage the spirit of Albertans, young and old? The only real obstacle is in ourselves: our strong but misplaced sentimental attachment to a weak and pacifistic Canada, to be transferred to a sovereign Alberta, truly strong and free.
Leon Harold Craig is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Alberta.