The Popular Undercurrents of Alberta Separatism

Doug Firby
December 9, 2019
There has been no shortage of advocates, naysayers, analysts and putative leaders circling the great question of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s future place inside or perhaps outside Canada. As in any functioning democracy, however, the outcome will be driven by the great mass of people in the middle. What they think and how they feel matters most. In this thorough piece of original reporting, Doug Firby gives voice to overlooked Albertans who are considering the issue deeply. While their opinions vary widely, they are united in their determination that their beloved province get it right this time.

The Popular Undercurrents of Alberta Separatism

Doug Firby
December 9, 2019
There has been no shortage of advocates, naysayers, analysts and putative leaders circling the great question of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s future place inside or perhaps outside Canada. As in any functioning democracy, however, the outcome will be driven by the great mass of people in the middle. What they think and how they feel matters most. In this thorough piece of original reporting, Doug Firby gives voice to overlooked Albertans who are considering the issue deeply. While their opinions vary widely, they are united in their determination that their beloved province get it right this time.
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Western separatism for decades was largely a fringe obsession that periodically flared into a popular fad. It found new life following the October 21 re-election of the federal Liberals, erupting with public rallies attracting thousands, websites and social media groups drawing tens of thousands and online petitions claiming to run into the hundreds of thousands. Polling suggests that independence for Alberta could have the support of one-third or even two-fifths of the province’s population. News media pundits added their bit with pieces covering the usual angles – including pointed reminders of the dark side of 1980s-vintage Western separatism.

What about people beyond the usual suspects? People who aren’t political junkies, activists, columnists, pollsters or government appointees. These are the people whose ideas, feelings and opinions, replicated hundreds of thousands of times, will determine whether separatism 2020s-style will grow and mature beyond a fad or whether the West – Alberta in particular – will once again choose to try to improve its position from within Canada. Is it different this time around?

A widespread sentiment, driving the growth in support for provincial independence.

A series of interviews by C2C Journal suggest that doing something different is gaining purchase among Prairie people who have long been federalists – who always felt Canadian first and, however much they loved their region or province, regarded it as part of the nation. That line in the sand is blurring. They are pondering what should be done. Would it be true independence? A sustained push for Quebec-style “soft” separatism or sovereignty? Or at least wresting provincial control over key policies that would make Alberta (and perhaps Saskatchewan) a “province-plus”? Very few advocate continuing to simply trust in the current federal system.

Richard Seto is a proud first-generation Canadian whose parents fled Chinese Communism. He always believed in this country because of the opportunities it provided him and his family. Now, this political moderate is wondering whether the country still believes in Albertans like him. “I don’t know how much the rest of Canada wants us in Canada,” says Seto, who long owned and operated an energy services company based in Calgary.

The 62-year-old father of four is not alone. Increasingly, middle-of-the-road people who’d rather focus on any topic but politics say they feel Eastern Canada’s collective shrug to their plight is driving them to think seriously about transforming Alberta into an independent nation. To them, a so-called “Wexit” – or, more likely, Alberta itself opting to go it alone in an “Albexit” – has grown far beyond a mere whim that helps vent frustration over a tone-deaf federal government. “I’m really thinking about it; I’m being forced to think about it,” Seto says.

Seto, a middle-of-the-road Albertan who always believed in the promise of Canada. Not so much these days.

Seto says he and his company have “suffered under both Trudeaus” – Pierre Elliott in the 1970s and 80s, and now his son, Justin. With the construction of future pipelines and possibly other major projects probably halted through labyrinthine new regulations like Bill C69 – the so-called “no more pipelines bill” – Seto sees investment into his province drying up and Alberta-based companies reorienting their activities to the U.S. He quotes from a video produced by Chris Slubicki, former vice-chairman of Scotia Waterous, which asserts that $246 billion in oil and natural gas investment has been lost as a result of government policies. Seto wonders whether Alberta could fare better as a sovereign nation. Certainly, it could stop sending money to Ottawa and keep it to pay for the province’s services. “Even if we didn’t build another pipeline, we’d stop paying equalization to Canada,” he says.

All dried up: Alberta’s energy industry exodus exemplified.

Net private sector employment in Alberta declined by more than 160,000 jobs from the start of the downturn in late 2014 to early 2017, according to figures gathered from Statistics Canada. Because a market economy is always creating some new jobs, even in a downturn, the net figure makes it likely that 300,000-400,000 people in total lost their jobs. As of mid-2019, despite a higher population, Alberta still had 125,000 fewer people at work in the private sector than when the slump began. The unemployment rate hangs above 7 percent. In November, a month that the booming U.S. economy added more than 260,000 jobs, Alberta’s lost another 18,000. Further layoffs were underway going into Christmas.

Albertans are hurt, frustrated and many are angry. And the prime minister’s muted, ambiguous and sometimes hostile responses – such as openly attacking “les petroliers” during the campaign – affirm deeply rooted suspicions about entitled leaders from Quebec. The Laurentian elite’s attitude and policies have fanned the flames of Western separatism before. Now, however, Justin Trudeau finds himself in even more perilous times than his father, Pierre. With Liberals frozen out of Alberta, Saskatchewan, eastern B.C. and southern Manitoba in the October election, the actions this Trudeau takes in the coming months could well shape the country’s future. 

Troubled times: then-Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed (m) with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (r) in the early 80s.

Polling results have tracked the trend. Pre-election research by Calgary firm ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. suggested 23 percent of Albertans supported separation – a “significant minority,” in the view of Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown. Following the vote, an Ipsos poll observed support zooming to 33 percent in Alberta and to 27 percent in Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, by early December the main #VoteWexit Facebook page had more than 270,000 followers. Another group, called Action Alberta, was formed with an informational mission to focus on the key issues and claimed to have almost immediately attracted 10,000 followers. “Everyone who wants to laugh this off,” says Brown. “I say, ‘Look at Brexit before you laugh this off.’”

That’s music to the ears of Peter Downing, the 37-year-old Edmonton-based leader of Wexit Alberta. He believes a shift to majority support for separation is just around the corner. “They’ve just got to feel a bit more pain…and it’s coming,” Downing said in an interview. The former Canadian Forces soldier and RMCP officer says his Wexit movement signed up 5,000 new paid members in the days following the federal election. Wexit rallies held in a number of Alberta towns and cities have, collectively, drawn thousands. After focusing this year on building the Alberta movement, Downing plans to spend the coming months doing the same in Saskatchewan. He vows to field candidates in all 104 Western ridings in the next federal election. “All we’re doing is servicing a demand,” Downing says.

Downing: drowning in the past or foreseeing Alberta‘s future?

A controversial figure, Downing has been the target of repeated attacks, accused of harbouring anti-Islamic conspiracy theories and of openly accusing the Trudeau government of normalizing pedophilia. An article in the left-wing online magazine Vice on October 30 dredged up a 2010 news report from the St. Albert Gazette (since deleted) that stated Downing was suspended from the RCMP for uttering threats to his wife. While Wexit Alberta has unquestionably drawn followers, its message and perhaps leadership are also a turn-off to some. “Somebody who starts something like that is a little off their rocker,” scoffs Rivkah Moore, a Nelson, B.C., resident visiting her brother in Canmore. “Alberta’s got to grow up. Oil is a thing of the past. People don’t like to change, but they’ve got to change.”

We’ve been down this road before. The last great eruption of Western Separatism came in the 1980s, triggered by the elder Trudeau’s ruinous National Energy Program. Controversial lawyer Doug Christie stepped into the ring and launched the Western Canada Concept, which sought to lead B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba out of Canada. The movement was soon tainted by Christie himself, notably for his legal defence of Holocaust deniers, white supremacists and even alleged Nazi war criminal Imre Finta. (Christie tried again in 2005 with the Western Block Party, having essentially zero success, and it was disbanded in 2014 a year after his death.)

The movement’s other famous face was Gordon Kesler, who in 1982 dramatically won a central Alberta byelection, becoming the first separatist elected outside Quebec since Louis Riel in the 1870s. Kesler was, however, handily defeated in the following general election, which came at the height of Progressive Conservative premier Peter Lougheed’s popularity.

Downing and Patrick Reilly, leader of the Alberta Independence Party, may be heirs to separatism’s radical elements. But the current wave of support for greater provincial sovereignty appears not only larger but broader, deeper, more urban – and more diverse – than the phenomenon’s history and its more extreme advocates would suggest. Perhaps most noteworthy is that a surprising spread of Albertans – including political moderates and people claiming never even to have been interested in politics – have made the mental leap from hoping to patch up Confederation to thinking seriously about leaving Canada.

A series of conversations during and following the federal election by C2C Journal contributors and editors were illuminating. Everybody was talking about separatism – even mixed groups of people who usually make a point of avoiding politics. People once horrified by the very notion, who would dismiss advocates as wild-eyed radicals, uncouth rednecks or worse, were reflecting on the idea. Where once they might have cited the crudely painted “Wexit NOW!” adorning the wooden sides of a firewood-hauling pickup truck as indicative of the quality of the movement’s thinking and leadership, now they were sounding their horns and waving in support.

Firby - Inset 6 (above)
Western Canada Concept founder Doug Christie speaks at a rally in 1980 with Free the West movement members showing support.
Western Canada Concept founder Doug Christie speaks at a rally in 1980 with Free the West movement members showing support.

The sources were eye-opening. A retired Chinese-Canadian physician in his 80s who always loved Canada now confessing he felt far more Albertan than Canadian because the Canada he once knew had left him. A lifelong political liberal and professor of languages, originally from Europe and usually careful with his words, who now declared Canada chronically dysfunctional and no longer even a serious country. To him, Alberta was self-evidently viable on its own; the main questions were, how would we go about it, would enough people support independence and would they stick with what would surely be a difficult process. A middle-aged woman midway through a career change into the veterinary field, who’d never been interested in politics at all, posting the Alberta flag on Facebook and commenting that it must become our national flag.

Post-election Wexit rallies drew thousands.

There also seems to be greater, though still quiet, support for independence in the business community, among senior UCP members and even in academia. Two prominent examples are Barry Cooper, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and Leon Craig, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. Both have written pro-independence articles in C2C Journal, and Craig recently delivered a keynote address on the subject at an educational association conference.

Asked for his views on the nature of current separatist support, Craig points out that he’s not an “activist per se,” more of a “student of politics for whom Alberta’s remaining in this dysfunctional Confederation makes no sense.” Personally, though, he believes the socio-demographic underpinnings of separatism are evolving. “The enthusiastic response to my conference speech was quite impressive,” Craig noted in an interview. “And it does seem to me that being open to separation is a more respectable position than any time in the past.” 

University of Calgary political scientist Cooper is all for independence.

Many “quiet separatists” would still rather not see their names in print. They don’t regard themselves as political activists, let alone politicians. They see themselves as regular citizens who are deeply concerned about the future and who’ve been pushed to the reluctant conclusion that those who currently call the shots at the federal level simply won’t allow Alberta to succeed. Some of these reluctant rebels, however, are standing up and speaking out openly.

One of these is Glenn Taylor, a Didsbury-based independent IT and website specialist with numerous small business clients. Right after the election, Taylor launched an online petition advocating three of the policy proposals in the famous Alberta Agenda letter of 2001 (written by six prominent Albertans including Stephen Harper): renegotiating equalization, creating an Alberta pension plan, and gaining full control of our taxation.

Taylor: still believes in Canada, but Quebec has to go.

Taylor remains on the fence about leaving, although he figures strident Wexiters will dispute his concerns that separation isn’t feasible. “I tend to be more pragmatic,” he told C2C. “I find a lot of their opinions are extremely dogmatic and ideological.” Taylor’s position of prudence includes first calculating the potential costs of leaving the country. “There is a huge risk with separation,” Taylor argues, and the associated uncertainties would be immensely damaging.

Yet in his heart, Taylor has come to believe Alberta no longer has a place in Canada – at least not one that includes Quebec. “I would like to see Canada work, but Confederation’s broken,” Taylor asserts. “I don’t think Confederation can be fixed as long as Quebec is in Canada.” He compares Alberta’s current role to a marriage gone bad. “Alberta seems to be in a somewhat abusive relationship. Why would we choose to remain in an abusive relationship?” The chief abuser? Quebec. “They are not a team player at all,” he says. “It’s always Quebec first. They will always veto any constitutional restructuring that reduces their power.”

MacDonald: separation would kill Alberta’s economy.

Doubts about the possible economic damage caused by separation do seem to be holding many Albertans back. Critics of Wexit note that an independent Alberta (with or without Saskatchewan) would be landlocked and still not certain of shipping its oil and natural gas to overseas markets through B.C. Darryl MacDonald is one such Albertan, opposing separation largely on the basis of economics.

The 43-year-old videographer moved to Edmonton from Cape Breton when he was 6. He says he hasn’t had one conversation with anybody who considers independence a good idea. “I think it’s silly,” says MacDonald. “We would land-lock ourselves and create more divisiveness. And it would cost a fortune to do it.” MacDonald and his partner Joanna Williams, an engineer in the oil and gas sector, have travelled the world, living in Saudi Arabia for four years as well as Houston. Being in other parts of the world, he says, “shows us how lucky we are to live here.”

Downing, though, claims that if Alberta and Saskatchewan separated, B.C. would have to come along or face the prospect of being isolated from the rest of Canada. But that’s a huge and simplistic assumption. The Ipsos poll referenced earlier shows separatist support in B.C. at just 13 percent, and many B.C. residents say they would never consider the option. And attempting to separate with portions of other provinces would complicate the process immensely, intensifying just about every conceivable risk.

Perhaps a stronger argument is that the world has numerous landlocked nations and many have forged agreements enabling trade and transportation. Switzerland, Austria and Kazakhstan are three. Further, Alberta and Saskatchewan directly border the U.S., which is enjoying its greatest-ever energy boom, is building the Keystone XL pipeline and would welcome more Canadian energy exports to process, add value and re-export. There’s no reason to think other pipeline connections to that key market couldn’t also be enlarged.

In addition, an independent Alberta/Saskatchewan would have significant leverage to push resource transport agreements with B.C., as this article by the Financial Post’s Lawrence Solomon points out. Control over civil aviation overflights is one major area, the threat of interrupting rail shipments another. The critics, Solomon argues, have it backwards: Alberta already is hemmed in, while independence would strengthen its negotiating power.

Either way, Albertans who favour some form of independence will have to win over the many fellow residents who remain attached to Canada pragmatically or emotionally. One of the latter is former Edmontonian, now Calgarian Melanie Johnston. In Johnston’s view, it’s not about economics. She just feels Canada will be “stronger together than we are on our own.”

Albertans interviewed for this article are also divided over whether to use the threat of separation as a tactic to extract concessions from Ottawa. Dan Gaynor, a business consultant and former publisher of the Calgary Herald, says he’s become convinced Alberta will never get a fair shake from central Canada. He points to Premier Jason Kenney’s Fair Deal Panel, announced in early November and led by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning. The nine-member panel is already holding public meetings. 

Dan Gaynor is convinced Alberta will never get a fair shake from central Canada.

It will report by March 2020 on possible policies and tactics Alberta might use to make itself less vulnerable to destructive federal policies and gain more control over its future while remaining within Confederation. Areas it’s examining include essentially the entire Alberta Agenda as well as several new ideas. These include withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan to set up a provincial plan, withdrawing from the federal Tax Collection Agreement, establishing a provincial police force, reforming the equalization formula, and pushing the federal government for so-called “tax points” in place of cash transfers to fund health care and other social programs. The Fair Deal Panel has led to Kenney, an avowed federalist, being accused of stirring the separatist pot.

Pollster Marc Henry, president of ThinkHQ, doesn’t think that’s valid, however. The Fair Deal Panel, he says, “acts as a relief valve” for unhappy citizens who are “frustrated Albertans rather than separatists.” Critics, however, shoot back that if this is true, the “relief valve” strategy effectively means that Manning’s promise to look at all options – including independence – is little more than a striptease to satisfy over-excited Albertans. One reason such critics are nervous is that a panel of MLAs struck in 2004 to examine the Alberta Agenda rejected it in its entirety. That committee’s work was widely derided as shoddy, however, and hopes are much stronger for the Manning Panel. Its leadership and membership are more credible, the stakes are much higher and no-one can doubt Manning’s expertise with the subject matter.

High hopes: Kenney announces the Fair Deal Plan for Alberta.

John Evans, 31-year-old owner of Everline Coating and Services in Calgary, understands the motivations for the panel but questions the value of its work. “I get what Jason Kenney is doing, but a lot of people don’t understand equalization anyway,” he says. “Kenney is not really helping that.” Evans sees the process as “posturing” which, in turn, can lead people to support the wrong cause. “You saw it with Brexit,” he cites as an example, believing that, “A lot of people didn’t even know what they were voting for.”

Evans also feels threats to leave the country are bad for business – which is similarly central to the case made by the U.K.’s Remainers and their European counterparts. “As businesspeople, you can’t think like that,” says Evans. Were a Wexit to go through, he believes that trying to sell his company’s products and services to other provinces (at least those outside the new country) “would get way more complicated. I’d seriously have to consider moving.”

Prairie people’s sense that their region has been treated like an orphan child is as old as the country itself, going back to the Red River and Northwest rebellions in the 1860s and 1880s, and extending to the creation of the vast Northwest Territory that included present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan and was viewed by Central Canada as a resource-producing hinterland to be harvested. Some Prairie visionaries pushed to create a single, large (and, they hoped, one day powerful) province known as Buffalo that could cross swords with Ottawa. But it was not to be.

Modern-day Central Canada’s attitude was perhaps most vividly exemplified in one contemptuous gesture from the senior Trudeau during a 1982 train ride out West, shortly after his government repatriated the Constitution and not so long after he had defeated the short-lived minority Conservative government of Joe Clark. Alberta’s energy sector was staggering from the recently imposed National Energy Program, and when protesters showed up to register their displeasure, Trudeau responded by raising his middle finger at them. Despite the passage of decades, his infamous one-finger salute still contributes to Western distrust of Justin Trudeau, who was a 10-year-old boy on that train with his brothers and dad.

Pierre Trudeau’s gesture still factors into mistrust of his son.

Steve Magus was also 10 when his father drove him to Banff to see the prime minister; he’s never forgotten the impact of that raised finger. “I said to myself, is that what the leader of our country does?” Now senior vice-president of his family’s firm, Magus Engineering Limited, Magus has seen the company struggle over the past four years as more and more of its clients – energy companies – close down. Magus Engineering has restructured to stay afloat but Steve Magus is worried about how long it can hang on. “I’m just pretty much angry with [the rest of] this country in general,” he says. “I love this country, but I can only get pushed around so much.”

Magus’s discussions with his wife’s family, who live in Ontario, have led him to conclude that, “They’re just totally oblivious to what’s going on.” He says Ontario and Quebec need to start understanding our financial situation. “If they were bleeding like us, there would be some sort of revolt going on,” he says. Magus points to the recently announced move of Encana Corp. (once Canada’s largest natural gas producer) to the U.S., and Trudeau’s muted response. “If that was SNC Lavalin, if that was Bombardier, [Trudeau would] fight tooth and nail to keep the company here,” Magus says.

The pollsters remind us that independence is still a long way from gaining the allegiance of a majority of voters in any province, and some of them also claim separatism is largely driven by emotion or even irrationality. Both observations may be largely beside the point, however. First, the fight over independence has hardly begun, so anything could happen with public opinion. Second, if 30-40 percent of Albertans already support separation, how many more are waiting in the wings, and what might happen if an arrogant Trudeau refuses to budge and the Prairie provinces continue to suffer? Third, how many more people could come around to supporting significant changes that stopped short of complete independence?

There already are plenty of Albertans who think there’s nothing irrational about separation and want to closely study its costs and benefits. Gaynor is one. Separation, he says, needs to be examined with extreme care. “It’s too big a decision to run off and do without considering the ramifications,” he cautions. Gaynor says a group of “bright, capable people” – economists, experts in constitutional law, trade and so on – could look at all the “pluses and minuses” of separation, and estimate the impact it would have on our economy. What would our GDP be? What might our trade relationships look like? How much debt would we inherit?

There are many critical questions, and there would likely be surprising answers, perhaps torpedoing some of the assumptions on either side. Albertans could then weigh those findings against any strengthening prospects of getting a better deal within Canada driven by the Fair Deal Panel and the results of the various other initiatives pushed by Kenney and the other Prairie premiers.

The Trudeau government, virtually shut out of the West, is moving tentatively. Chrystia Freeland, newly minted deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs, has been tagged to lead the charm initiative, with the support of non-elected Western Liberals like Winnipeg’s Jim Carr and Edmonton’s Anne McLellan. Freeland’s challenge is daunting because – like the long-abused spouse – one party is already beginning to feel emotionally detached from the marriage.

Revolution, Alberta-style: about as far as Wexit members are willing to do.

Ottawa might yet carry the day. Even if Alberta’s pro-independence current has grown broad, deep and diverse, it remains to be seen whether, outside the committed core, it’s particularly intense. As National Post columnist Colby Cosh pointed out in a post-election piece, until he sees a hockey crowd booing “O Canada”, Wexit doesn’t seem like much of a revolution. Nor are people burning the Canadian flag or rallying weekly in the tens of thousands for months on end – as the discontented in France have been. Then again, Canada isn’t like other countries; it has nearly always been a peaceable kingdom. It therefore seems unlikely that a political revolution here would resemble France in 1789 or Weimar-era Germany, let alone Bolivia or Congo, or even the American Revolution.

Most Westerners grappling with the great question of their region’s or province’s future within – or outside – Canada certainly seem like unlikely revolutionaries. Many are reluctant, hesitant and almost apologetic. IT specialist Taylor is likely representative of many when he echoes the melancholy for a great country that seems to have lost its way. “I used to have a strong attachment to Canada. I don’t feel that attachment anymore,” he says.

Seto, is another, feeling a profound sorrow over the country’s dysfunctional state. He feels that he and Alberta have certainly paid their dues and earned the right to be respected by the rest of Canada. Seto says he understands the concept of equalization, and doesn’t even resent the economic benefits Quebec enjoys. “All we ask is to run our pipelines through your province,” he says. “I think that’s a reasonable request.”

One of Seto’s grandfathers came to Canada as an indentured labourer, helping to build the transcontinental railroad that Sir John A. MacDonald promised to seal Confederation. After the Communist revolution in China in 1949, Seto’s father and family fled to Canada and built a life rooted in entrepreneurism. “I’m a first-generation Chinese Canadian,” Seto says. “My dad built a great future for us. Now, I’m supporting separation. In one generation, I feel our country has come apart.”

Doug Firby is a Calgary-based journalist with four decades of experience, and is President and Publisher of Troy Media Digital Solutions.

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