Forget Wexit – How About a Bloc Québécois for the West?

Barry Cooper
November 10, 2019
Another federal election, another devastating outcome for the West. This time around, however, Western Canadians aren’t feeling much like putting up with being shut out. ‘Wexit’ is one response to the perpetual hammer-lock central Canada has on Ottawa. Here’s another – the re-tooling of the federal Conservatives into an exclusively western-based party that fights for regional interests as aggressively and single-mindedly as the Bloc Québécois does for Quebec. University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper takes a close look at how a Bloc West party could come about, and the obstacles it would face.

Forget Wexit – How About a Bloc Québécois for the West?

Barry Cooper
November 10, 2019
Another federal election, another devastating outcome for the West. This time around, however, Western Canadians aren’t feeling much like putting up with being shut out. ‘Wexit’ is one response to the perpetual hammer-lock central Canada has on Ottawa. Here’s another – the re-tooling of the federal Conservatives into an exclusively western-based party that fights for regional interests as aggressively and single-mindedly as the Bloc Québécois does for Quebec. University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper takes a close look at how a Bloc West party could come about, and the obstacles it would face.
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The combination of Liberal mendacity and Conservative timidity brought us a universally frustrating election result. It achieved nothing decisive and postponed many serious decisions. The Liberals return to office with the smallest vote share of any government in Canada’s history. Previous and precarious minorities all had greater popular support. And the Conservatives? Despite the remarkable series of (once again) Quebec-centred corruption scandals and the Prime Minister’s bizarre personal behaviour, the Liberals were still able to take advantage of the Conservatives’ shortcomings.

The Trudeau Liberals took the 2019 federal election by successfully (and falsely) labelling Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Ontario Premier Doug Ford as northern Trumpians.

While that’s deeply disappointing to Conservative-favouring areas, such a loss ought to have been bearable. After all, it’s happened many times before. But it was the manner of the Liberal victory that some, perhaps many – especially in the West – now find unendurable. Rather than attempting to defend an indefensible record, the Liberals attacked Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as a continuation of the liberally-detested Stephen Harper. They claimed Scheer and the Ontario premier, Doug Ford, were northern Trumpians. The job of Liberals, they signalled, was to ensure that Canada remains a “progressive” northern bastion against nativism, polarization, authoritarianism and the demonization of enemies, all evils they attributed to the Trump Administration.

Anti-Americanism has been a hardy perennial of Upper Canada politics, but linking Scheer to the alt-right, let alone to the American president, seems preposterous to normal people. And outrageous to many Westerners. Yet Scheer took the bait and tried to distance himself from all things American – despite being a dual citizen, and despite the Trump Administration’s pro-energy policies, such as pushing for the badly needed Keystone XL Pipeline. It still proved for naught in Ontario and Scheer fared even worse in Quebec, actually losing seats.

“Screw the West, we’ll take the rest:” Keith ‘the Rainmaker” Davey’s famous political advice still holds true in Canada today.

Election statistics sometimes speak for themselves, and the October 21 result was a loud declaration. The Conservatives won 68 percent of 104 seats in the West. The Liberals won 60 percent of 234 seats in the non-West. It was as if the Liberals had conjured the 1980 advice of Liberal campaign mastermind Keith ‘the Rainmaker’ Davey from beyond the grave: “Screw the West, we’ll take the rest.” It worked for the first Trudeau and now it’s worked for his son, who then had the temerity to accuse Alberta Premier Jason Kenney of fomenting national division and disunity. As Trudeau’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, famously tweeted from a St. John’s bar: “if you say it loud enough and often enough, people will believe you. For sure.” Thank you, Dr. Goebbels.

It’s natural at this point for Westerners to feel angry, frustrated, confused or rejected – perhaps a combination of all four. This time, however, we are taking it personally, and not a few of us are concluding something along the lines of, “Screw the East, let’s rally the West”. The imperative is to cast off the yoke of Laurentian Canada − and soon. A “Wexit” rally held on a dreary early November day in Edmonton drew a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 800. An event planned for Calgary on November 16 will almost certainly be larger, perhaps much larger. The nascent movement has already begun the process to register as a federal party.

A standing-room-only 'Wexit' rally in Edmonton earlier this month
A standing-room-only 'Wexit' rally in Edmonton earlier this month
A standing-room-only 'Wexit' rally in Edmonton earlier this month

The strength and emotion of this response are certainly understandable factors. The divisions in Canada – not merely political, but social – have grown so deep that not only are Westerners consigned to losing elections over and over, Eastern Establishmentarians no longer even hide their disdain. Our role is to shut up, take it and look within ourselves for what we did wrong. At least that’s the advice given to their country cousins by the deep thinkers of Toronto’s national newspapers.

Albertans, wrote Eric Reguly in The Globe and Mail, should have been “sophisticated” like the corrupt electorate of Quebec and voted strategically to “keep the federal favour-train running.” Instead, Alberta “rendered itself totally defenceless in Ottawa” and now must “prepare itself to take a few lashings.” As if Bills C-69 and C-48 (the ‘no more pipelines ever’ and the ‘tanker ban’ laws, respectively), passed over nearly desperate opposition from the West, were not lashings already – just more reasons to vote Liberal!

Toronto’s mighty political influence looms large over Western Canada.

Reguly’s colleague, Marcus Gee, explained that “Toronto and the dynamic communities in its orbit have become the key to winning elections in this country.” This, of course, is a good thing for, as Gee continued, “Whether Canada succeeds depends on whether its biggest city succeeds.” Accordingly, “Toronto deserves every bit of its growing influence. Sensible Canadians will cheer it on.” As for the insensible rest of us: “Well, get used to it.” Like it or lump it, the shining star of Laurentian triumphalism rises and sets on TO the Great.

Even the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, who is often sensible, said Ottawa is not to blame for the destruction of the Alberta economy. Low oil prices are (but then why is the U.S. in the midst of an energy boom?). The federal carbon tax is “good policy in the national interest.” The courts and activist groups, not the Government of Canada, are responsible for the absence of new export pipelines.

It is becoming more than merely arguable that the old way Westerners approached things – competing dutifully under the existing rulebook, stoically enduring the ignorance and contempt of the Laurentians, electing as many MPs as we could even though our region’s number of seats always lagged our rapidly growing population, depending on our Western premiers to protect our interests as best they could – has failed. Today, talk of exiting the federation is everywhere, and repeated polling suggests the talk is backed by a whopping percentage of the region’s population. Is there anything short of this “nuclear option” that could strengthen the West’s position to fight for a better deal within Canada?

Here too, the electoral math might provide the answer. It starts with recognizing that, for better or worse, the Conservative Party of Canada is, like its forebear the Reform Party of Canada, largely a Western party. This is where people are the most inclined to be small-c conservatives – not merely by their policy preferences, but by temperament and lifestyle. This works hand-in-glove with the nature of the economy, based on the resource-rich nature of the land itself. The region has the nation’s youngest demographics, including the majority of Canada’s Indigenous people. By contrast, the high-density, aging urban populations of increasingly post-industrial southern Ontario (as well as B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island) are dominated by Malthusians who don’t believe in the future. The Atlantic demographic death spiral is even more advanced.

As Ted Morton pointed out in the Calgary Herald on October 26, the problem is also structural and not merely episodic. The West, and especially Alberta and Saskatchewan, are intrinsically vulnerable to fiscally-predatory policies originating in Laurentian Canada. The Government of Canada has not looked out for Western interests for many years. And because so much resource wealth is located in the West, which one might have thought would command the positive attention and encouragement of Ottawa, the federal government has not really been looking after the national interest either. Since 2010 what it has done (and this is not news) is remove $20 billion per year from the Alberta economy and a pro-rated amount from the economy of Saskatchewan. Moreover, two-thirds of every dollar extracted from the West ends up, by way of equalization, in sophisticated Quebec. 

Same Old Fuddle Duddle: Academic Ted Morton argues Western Canada’s political problems are structural and permanent.

Either way, the individual provinces – much less the individual territories – are too small to carry this fight on their own. The whole region must stand together. Not only the provinces, but the territories and as many First Nations as possible – many of which actually favour natural resource development. People who still believe in a future of growth and opportunity. The whole West, perhaps even one or more territories as well – the whole Northwest.

In recognition of current realities, constraints, threats and opportunities, the Conservative Party should focus itself – policies, leadership, electoral goals – on expanding and consolidating its hold across this region, and dedicate itself entirely to defending and advancing its core region’s interests. The Northwest offers over a hundred House of Commons seats, admittedly not enough to win the next election.

But, given the Bloc Québécois’ (BQ) ongoing presence, it would be enough to guarantee weak minority governments that would sometimes and perhaps often require the Western group’s support for policies and legislation, including budgets. If not enough to stall the Laurentian-based agenda altogether, it could be enough to blunt and decelerate it, while obtaining at least some policies favourable to the Northwest. Let’s remind ourselves, for example, that the Inuvialuit desperately wanted the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline to proceed, and were outraged when eastern-based bureaucrats and activists killed it through delay.

The Conservative Party of Canada, then, would transform itself into an openly and officially regional party, the “Bloc West” (or the “Northwest Bloc”). Perhaps a more imaginative or uplifting name would come along later. Advocates of this approach would naturally look to the BQ and its estimable success as the model to emulate. The Bloc West wouldn’t have to be anti-Canada or even pro-independence; it could be more defensive than offensive in nature. Rather than tearing down Canada, its goal would be to strengthen and promote the entire Northwest region. That might even strengthen Canada as a whole. A strong Northwest economy would support plenty of manufacturing jobs in Ontario and rich investment returns for eastern-based pension funds. It has happened before – continuing right until Trudeau came along, in fact.

The formation of the BQ in June 1991 by the mercurially charismatic opportunist Lucien Bouchard, five other Progressive Conservative and two Liberal MPs, hit Ottawa like the political equivalent of a Richter Scale 8 earthquake. It very nearly destroyed the Mulroney government on the spot. Keeping his remaining caucus unified and restoring its morale required an extraordinary effort by the Prime Minister, including an immediate new round of massive constitutional concessions to Quebec, the Charlottetown Accord. The BQ then, was nothing if not effective. Of course, Mulroney was in government at the time and had a huge Quebec caucus, so he had an intense personal stake in the matter.

Nonetheless, in the following election the PCs were all but wiped off the electoral map, winning just two seats (the NDP was also badly mauled), while the BQ won 54 seats. That was two seats more than the fast-rising Reform Party (with a far smaller share of the popular vote), which instead of becoming Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, becoming the third party – or, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien liked to gleefully sneer, the “turd” party.

While the BQ has had its ups and downs, it has had an incredible influence on Canadian politics, in bending policies to favour Quebec, in sending money Quebec’s way, in devolving ever-more powers to the provincial government (Quebec, of course, no longer refers to itself as a province at all), and in helping the provincial Parti Québécois bring Canada to the brink of breakup in 1995. 

While some would counter this proves it was unsuccessful – after all, Quebec is still in Canada – the BQ has been a survivor. Nearly 20 years later, it is still unabashedly and unapologetically advancing Quebec’s interests, is still trumpeting Quebec’s threats to leave, and La Belle Province is still raking in the goodies showered upon it by Ottawa, largely paid for by Alberta. Might a well-motivated, determined Bloc West, one immune to the scorn that would be heaped upon it by the Laurentian Establishment, deliver similar benefits to its region?

Why is equalization so unequal? Two-thirds of every dollar extracted from the West ends being delivered to Quebec via federal equalization payments.

The concept of a Bloc West seems to have developed a sense of traction already. An Angus Reid poll taken almost a year ago found a clear majority – nearly three out of every four – of Westerners thought Ottawa didn’t treat them fairly. British Columbians, at least those in the Lower Mainland, identified more with Washington State than with other provinces (Go Seahawks! Go Mariners!).

Shachi Kurl, executive director at the Angus Reid Institute, told Global News that the West “does not see itself reflected or represented in our so-called national institutions.” She added that there can “sometimes be a false narrative that suggests that the Conservatives are the voice of Western Canada” but this is not so. Neither the Trudeau government nor its predecessor, the Harper government, she said, were sufficiently attentive to projects and priorities supported by Westerners, especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The context for Kurl’s interpretive remarks lies the formation of the Reform Party and its slogan in the 1988 federal election: “The West Wants In.” She argued that a “Western Canada Party” contesting a federal election “would have a stronger chance at drawing votes in every Western province save for Manitoba.” The evidence she adduced was that, when asked about a Western Canada Party, 35 percent of all Westerners would vote for it, versus 29 percent for the Conservative Party (with 15 percent voting Liberal and 13 percent NDP). “The fact that you see potential for bleed from all three main parties to a hypothetical Western Canadian Party, says to me this isn’t just a Conservative problem, it’s an everybody problem,” Kurl added.

On the surface, a Western regional party looks like a straightforward and common sense solution to an obvious problem: the intractability of Laurentian Canada regarding Western interests, needs and self-understanding. But to succeed a Bloc West would have to surmount two major problems and one unexplored implication.

The first problem is historical. We’ve already had a clearly regional party: the Reform Party. But it wouldn’t stick to its original mission, and very soon decided to “go national”. But its efforts to become the single national voice of the centre-right failed. What followed were years of infighting, including various splits, reformations and at last the merger of the Reform/Alliance Party with the Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

Preston Manning’s Reform Party began as a highly successful regional protest movement, but exceeded its grasp by going national.

But this new party, as Kurl points out, “seemed to tilt to Ontario and Quebec in terms of the place that needed to be the centre of gravity for Conservative votes.” Since the split between the two non-Liberal/non-left parties was a guarantee of endless rule by the now utterly corrupt Liberal machine (remember the Sponsorship scandal? Remember the Gomery Commission?), a merger in effect saved the country from complete degeneration. Western needs, interests and goals were once again subordinated to national demands. At the time, that might have seemed to Western Conservatives a price worth paying. No longer.

A second problem with the Western Canada Party, as Kurl said, is that it’s hypothetical rather than real. When the Reform Party began in 1987 the remnants of the Mulroney PC coalition were already falling apart in the West, largely because of policies that favoured (to use no stronger a term) Quebec. In addition, Reform had solid intellectual and financial backers. The modern-day analogs are nowhere in sight today, although it’s possible they might emerge. As Norm Atkins, a long-serving Conservative strategist from Ontario, once said: “Politics is about friends, loyalties, and ideas. In that order.”

For the present, a Western Canada Party is simply an idea. Its best and most obvious prospects to become an actual party and movement would seem to lie in a major reorientation of the current Conservative Party. That is a lot to ask, to put it mildly.

‘Don’t Let Calgary Decide for Quebec’: A Bloc Québécois election ad from the 2006 federal election offers a primer on how to ruthlessly stand up for regional interests.

Despite these two obvious limitations, let’s explore the implications of a Bloc West analogous to the BQ. The BQ was created around the time that the Reform Party rose to national prominence, but for opposite reasons. Formed in 1987, Reform opposed the Progressive Conservatives, in part, because they introduced the Meech Lake Accord, which would have made the Province of Quebec as special in law as many Quebeckers already thought it was in practice. Conversely, the BQ was created because the Meech Lake Accord ultimately failed.

It claimed to promote the sovereignty of Quebec in the federal legislature much as the Parti Québécois did provincially. It could have been considered a temporary operation fated to disband following secession. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in their favour, though they came close in 1995.

The early 1990s were also the times of the Liberal Government of Quebec under Robert Bourassa and his policy of fédéralisme rentable – which is as crass as it sounds. It means “profitable federalism”. Considered in that context, the Bloc was simply an integral part of the “national extortion racket”, as Andrew Coyne has termed it. That is, neither the BQ nor the PQ were ever serious about independence. Consider it another piece of evidence for just how “sophisticated” the political geniuses of Laurentian Canada really are in falling for this racket for decades on end. Of course the high point for the BQ federally came in 2004 when it ran under the slogan “Un parti proper au Québéc.” This means both a party belonging to Quebec or specific to Quebec, and a clean party in Quebec – in other words, one that’s in stark contrast to the corrupt Liberals.

Some would say the BQ backstory advances the cause for a Western-based party solely dedicated to advancing its own regional electorate’s interests. But does it really? Right out of the gate, a Bloc West would be hobbled by the fact that most or all of its members would be wounded federalists rather than Western separatists or “nationalists” (as some not-quite-separatist Quebeckers are called). With no underlying threat of separation, the Bloc West’s demands for a better deal might appear more like a whine than a tooth-baring snarl. Our “racket” would be seen either as inconsequential or as a transparent fraud rather than a carefully disguised one.

Former Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard. Should we forget about Wexit and insted become the bloc?
A Bloc West template instead of Wexit? Former BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe.
A Bloc West template? Former BQ Leaders Lucien Bouchard (top) and Gilles Duceppe (bottom).

Another significant problem with the BQ comparison lies in the sheer diversity of the Northwest region. The BQ is based in a single province and is unabashedly French in character and social-democratic in policy orientation. The Bloc West would be drawn from four diverse provinces and up to three territories, its membership multi-ethnic, having a variety of agendas and being drawn from across the political spectrum. Maintaining unity would be hard and, one suspects, would occupy an inordinate amount of the leadership’s time.

Applying the BQ model to the entire Northwest region thus presents many intrinsic difficulties. But perhaps the most fatal of these is Westerners’ honest lack of cynicism. Too many of us think that independence means what it says and isn’t just a gigantic bargaining chip to be leveraged as often as necessary. To truly succeed, a Bloc West would require not just a BQ template, but the BQ’s unremitting guile as well. 

Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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