By Martha Hall Findlay
Published in The Star
October 29, 2019
Last week’s federal election results revealed regional divides in Canada, including discontent in Western Canada and renewed calls for separation for Alberta and now Saskatchewan. Ted Morton argues the West deserves a much better deal with Canada than it has, including the possibility of one day separating if improvements are not made. Martha Hall Findlay outlines valid reasons for Western grievances, but argues separation would create more hardships than staying in Canada.
Martha Hall Findlay
President and CEO, Canada West Foundation
There is a great deal of frustration in the West — Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular.
To be clear, neither of those provinces are looking for sympathy or “support” — they are looking for an environment where Ottawa can no longer take actions or make decisions that frustrate their economic ambitions, or sacrifice their economic prosperity for central Canadian priorities. Policies such as C-69 and C-48, which became the new Impact Assessment Act and the Northwest coast tanker ban, respectively, are seen as doing just that.
This is not to say that Albertans or Saskatchewanians don’t care about the environment, or battling climate change — that is nonsense. By far most of us do — just like in the rest of Canada. But while in 2015 there was much talk of “AND” — as in, “We need environmental sustainability AND economic prosperity,” C-69 and C-48 were seen as focused entirely on the first.
It has been particularly galling to hear political leaders, including the prime minister, talk about the need to “fight” the oil and gas industry of the West; an industry that is not only critically important to the economic prosperity of the West, but — at more than four times the size of the entire Canadian auto sector — hugely important to the entire Canadian economy.
Western alienation is not new. Nor even is talk of separation, particularly in Alberta. It was prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the first Trudeau prime minister was in power. As the economy improved, sentiment calmed. Unfortunately, it is very strong once again. Many feel it is even deeper and broader than it was then.
But despite the understandable anger and frustration, it makes far more sense for Alberta and Saskatchewan to stay part of Canada than to leave. Here are a few reasons why:
• Wasted resources: One need look no further than Brexit to see what extraordinary amounts of time, money, focus and effort have gone into the back and forth, the excruciating and never-ending debates, the planning details of extricating from a union — let alone the opportunity costs of the missed positive progress in other areas that all of that time, money, focus and effort could have accomplished.
• Brain and money drain: An awful lot of people and businesses would leave — witness the exodus from Quebec — and the resulting devaluation of residential and commercial property — when separation was seen as imminent.
• Potential for no solution to the underlying problem: If the resulting “country” were still landlocked, it would likely be even harder to get a pipeline across a different country than across a different province.
• Investor confidence: A major problem right now is the lack of investor confidence in the ability to build the infrastructure needed to get Western Canadian oil and gas to world markets. Even if a new “country” could obtain access to the sea, this would pale in comparison to the uncertainty of a threatened or attempted separation. Again, we need look no further than Brexit or when Quebec separation seemed likely.
• Strength and leverage: Canada is already so small that it has little global market, economic or even political clout. A smaller, carved-out “country” would have significantly less.
• Indigenous people: When Quebec separation seemed imminent, some First Nations took the position that if Quebec were to separate, so would they — from both Canada AND Quebec. Others very clearly preferred to stay as part of Canada. Virtually all were clear in needing to be able to choose for themselves. This alone would create complications that could take years to resolve — if ever.
• Insurance for the future: Although the current frustration is based in not being able to reap the full economic benefits of our oil and gas resources, if/when world demand for oil and gas drops, if the Western economy hasn’t sufficiently diversified, the economic benefits of being part of Canada rather than going it alone will become more important — yes, including equalization.
• But perhaps most importantly — despite the frustrations, the majority of people in the West really LIKE being Canadian. Canada is an incredible country. We’ve weathered many challenges in the past, and in different regions. It is more than worth keeping together.
Professor emeritus, University of Calgary
Last Monday’s election results were the catalyst, but not the cause, for the surge in separatist sentiment in Western Canada. The causes are deeper and will not be easily resolved.
Contrary to most reports, the visceral reaction to the re-election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were driven not just by anger and frustration but also by fear. Export oil pipelines are not just an infrastructure and financial issue. In Alberta and Saskatchewan they are also a people issue. Bankruptcies and layoffs have a ripple down effect to main street. Since 2014 over 100,000 Albertans have lost their jobs. This has been accompanied by a spike in crime, domestic abuse, divorce and even suicides.
So no, the Western separatist zeitgeist is not going to disappear anytime soon. Anger may be passing. But fear does not pass until the danger is gone. With a Liberal minority government supported by anti-pipeline third parties; with Bill C-69 and C-48 now permanent government policies; the danger is not going away anytime soon in for Western Canadian families.
There is also a growing awareness that Alberta is worse off today than it was 30 years ago.
Then-Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed fought to better protect all provinces’ rights to develop their natural resources by adding s92(A) to the Constitution. But today, Trudeau’s carbon tax and now Bill C-69 make section 92(A) almost meaningless.
In 1982 Constitution, Lougheed insisted on the addition of the Section 33 Notwithstanding Power to protect Alberta (and other provinces) from policy vetoes by federally appointed judges. Today, the Notwithstanding power is in disrepute and disuse.
In 1982, for the first time, Canada achieved a legal constitutional amending formula that treated all provinces equally and no special veto for Quebec — a major victory for all the Western provinces. Today, Ottawa has given the veto power back to Quebec via ordinary legislation.
If Quebec were treated like Alberta, they would have separated long ago. If Albertans had the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with Canada, we would never consent to the status quo.
Does this mean Alberta (or Western Canada) should secede from Canada? No, not yet. But it does mean making the Rest of Canada understand that for many of us, the status quo is just as unacceptable as separatism.
Then earlier this year, Trudeau gave Quebec the prerogative of choosing its own nominees for appointment to the Supreme Court. No other province has this opportunity.
In the 1990s, Albertan Preston Manning and his new Reform Party were in the ascendance. Under the banner, “The West Wants In,” they swept the Mulroney Conservatives off the electoral map and soon formed the Official Opposition in Parliament. Fiscal reform, balanced budgets and Triple E Senate reform all seemed within reach.
Today, federal deficits and debt are at record levels. The project of an elected Senate is dead, killed by an arbitrary Supreme Court ruling.
In 1982 Lougheed successfully insisted on limiting the scope of section 35 to “existing Aboriginal rights,” to prevent it from becoming a blank cheque for judicial policy-making. The Supreme Court ignored this framers’ intent and invented the “duty to consult,” words found nowhere in the constitution. The result is that Canadian energy policy is made mainly by unelected judges.
In the 1980s, it was unthinkable that a province could block the construction of interprovincial pipelines that had been approved by federal government. Today, not one, but two, provinces have done precisely that, with little to no objection from Ottawa.
With the cancellation of the Northern Gateway and Energy East pipeline projects and delays on the TransMountain expansion, Alberta’s economy has been crippled. Job loss is at historic levels. There has been an exodus of over $100 billion dollars of capital investment. A quarter of the office towers in Calgary sit empty.
Despite spiralling provincial deficits and debt, Ottawa is still taking over $20 billion dollars a year in net transfers from Alberta. Meanwhile Quebec has a balanced budget but is receiving 66 cents of every federal equalization dollar.