Ever since Pierre Trudeau raped the West with his NEP we have seen Alberta separatism ebb and flow as one federal incursion or another earns the ire of Albertans. Canada’s constitution and geographic layout pretty much ensure regional alienation as federal parties and their leaders work the system to ensure that they maintain that ever critical political support in Central Canada. With Alberta’s relatively low population and large amount of resources, we have always had a large target painted on our back.
While Albertans become enraged periodically to the point where separatism begins to rise in the polls, we inevitably will calm down and settle grudgingly back into our role as confederation’s milk cow as soon as a possible escape hatch is presented.
In the 1980s separatism was becoming relatively mainstream as Alberta elected a separatist MLA in Olds in a by-election. Doug Christie led the Western Canada Concept into some popular Western support and they were gaining steam.
The showdown between Lougheed and Trudeau led to hope however and popular support for separatism dropped as fast as it had risen. Alberta’s lone elected separatist, Gordon Kesler crossed the floor to the party in power and quickly faded into political history.
In 1986, Brian Mulroney reawakened separatism in the West as he awarded a lucrative CF-18 maintenance contract to Canadair in Quebec rather than to Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg despite the western bid clearly being the better deal. It was gross and typical political pandering to Quebec and it infuriated the West again.
Just as Western separatism was gaining steam again, Preston Manning appeared on the scene with the Reform Party in 1987. The battle cry was “the West wants in!” and Western separatism faded yet again as people put their hopes into a EEE Senate and having a strong regional voice in Parliament.
After more than a decade of effort, the Reform Party had pretty much gotten nowhere. The initial principles fell by the wayside as Manning moved into Stornoway and MPs en masse chose to take part in the gold plated pension plan that they previously had shunned. The concept of a EEE Senate was proven to be a pipe dream and the party morphed into the Canadian Alliance in order to contest Eastern seats. Our regional voice was lost.
In the late 1990s oil prices dropped below $10 per barrel. Thanks to high natural gas prices, the effect was not as catastrophic as the 2008 crash or today’s pressures. It did hurt Alberta though and as an oilfield worker at the time I remember quite well seeing our contracts literally being shut down mid progress. Many of us were tossed into unemployment and the response from our federal government was typical. We were told to suck it up and they continued to milk us through over taxation while pouring the money into Quebec through equalization and other transfers along with huge subsidies to companies such as Bombardier.
While oil did recover by 2000, the political situation did not. Jean Chretien had been in power for quite some time and he did little to hide his disdain for Albertans, even outright stating that he didn’t like dealing with them. In the fall of 2000, a very divisive federal election was held. Alberta was demonized while Quebec was catered to and as usual it worked. Chretien won another majority and Alberta was left yet again without representation while footing the bill.
We were furious and felt helpless. Separatism began to rise yet again.
At this time a dashing young separatist entered the scene with the Alberta Independence Party.
We were something different. Most of our board was 30 or under. I turned 30 while leading the party into the 2001 provincial election. We weren’t mired on social issues. We didn’t care about same sex marriage or religious matters. We simply wanted out. We were political types who had concluded that it was time for Alberta to pull the plug on confederation and that we needed a provincial political party in order to do so.
We exploded onto the scene as we held a packed founding convention in Red Deer which was attended by a couple MPs and a senator in waiting. We made national headlines as pundits alternated between calling us selfish assholes or a visionary young group. We sold thousands of memberships which was quite a task when one considers that we had no formal party organization and only perhaps 20% of our members had email addresses at that time.
We knew what we wanted but we really didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
Ralph Klein called the provincial election weeks after our founding convention. While we had gathered a great deal of attention and momentum, we hadn’t organized well enough to get the required petition signatures in order to register as a political party. We entered the election race with 14 independent candidates and while we made a relatively good showing as far as independent candidates go, we didn’t even come close to contention in any seats.
Our party then fell apart within a year due to infighting and yes, my inexperienced leadership. I just couldn’t hold it together.
The other thing that killed our support was the “Alberta Agenda” which was a plan released just as our party was formed. This was a plan for incremental provincial autonomy which was hatched by Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton, Rainer Knopff, Andrew Crooks and Ken Boessenkool. The plan called for Alberta forming its own pension plan, police force, collecting our own taxes and pursuing more health care autonomy while pushing harder for senate reform. This was packaged into a letter which was sent to Ralph Klein. The letter was later coined as the “firewall letter”.
Separatism was quelled yet again. I remember the frustration of calling supporters only to hear: “We don’t need the Alberta Independence Party now. We can make change from within with the Alberta Agenda”.
It should be noted that while the primary author of the Alberta Agenda became our Prime Minister for years and while 17 years have passed, not a single goal of the Alberta Agenda has been achieved.
Unless the goal was indeed to kill separatism and in that it succeeded in spades.
What I learned then and have learned since is that Albertans are reluctant separatists. They are furious with our abuse within confederation. They see the futility of change from within. They will speak out in favor of secession and will begin to poll favorably in support of it for a time. When given any possible lifeline however whether through the Reform Party or the Alberta Agenda, Albertans will quickly cling to it. Most folks really don’t want to go.
I saw this when the Alberta Independence Party held its founding convention. A motion passed to embrace the phrase “separation if necessary, but not necessarily separation”.
We neutered ourselves right out of the gate. This was akin to trying to bluff in poker while showing your opponent your cards.
I don’t think for a second (nowadays anyway) that we would have succeeded had we stuck to a pure separatist platform. At least though we would have shown we were serious. It means nothing if you don’t really mean it. Myself and our board were ready to go. We were sorely disappointed with the watering down of our goals. It was clear though that while hundreds were willing to pack a hotel in Red Deer on a cold January day to form a separatist party, most of them didn’t really want to separate.
I think Alberta is in the same place today. Oh I have no doubt that there are many committed separatists who truly want out of confederation. I believe that this number of true separatist is growing too. Every time Alberta tries and fails to make change from within, we create more lifelong separatists. I just don’t think we are at the tipping point yet.
Albertans still want a lifeline. They still want to explore every avenue before taking the path to full independence.
Right now that path lies in holding a referendum on equalization as Kenney has promised. Along with that, we need to pursue and implement the Alberta Agenda. I expect that the federal government will fight and stop most of these efforts. In doing so though, they will create those true separatists who can tip the scale.
For those who are committed to secession, I suggest that they form an advocacy group for that cause. Do the research. Put out the numbers. Lay out the path. In such a group you can maintain focus on the end goal. You can reject all efforts to water it down. Pursue Alberta’s independence and mean it. Nothing less will be taken seriously.
For a party to embrace secessionism would be political suicide and wouldn’t represent nearly enough Albertans. Don’t ask them to.
Forming a separatist party will come with all the complications and dilution of the message that the Western Canada Concept and the Alberta Independence Party tried to deal with. We don’t have the cultural & linguistic unifiers that Quebec does which lets them keep parties together while purporting to support secession.
Alberta and perhaps other provinces may indeed eventually secede. They will only do so after every other avenue of change has been explored. Lets start checking those avenues off our list now.
As for those who want nothing less than secession, get a group going, make that the mandate and stick to it