Alberta Separatism Could Be Real Threat

There’s a great deal of skepticism about the potential of Alberta separatism, especially among Central Canada’s elite.

Albertans have no real reason to separate. It’s only a matter of time before the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) is approved and built. Albertans aren’t a real people like the Quebecois, and only a quarter of them support separation anyways. Alberta is landlocked and separation would only make it more difficult to build new pipeline capacity to tidewater.

But each of these arguments has a fatal flaw. As a result, skepticism of Alberta separatism may prove mistaken, especially if the Trudeau-led Liberal Party wins a second consecutive majority government later this year.

Alberta discontent

Discontent in Alberta is real and growing and the Feds’ mishandling of the TMX file is just the tip of the iceberg. The policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party are seen as anti-resource development and posing an existential threat to Alberta’s economic prosperity, if not Canada’s as a whole (see Argentina’s Cautionary Tale For Canadian Economy).

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016, shortly after becoming prime minister, Trudeau said: “My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.”

Since then, the Trudeau government has flubbed federal regulatory approval of TMX, killed the other two crude pipelines to tidewater — Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway and TransCanada Corporation’s Energy East — leaving all our new market eggs in the TMX basket, while conjuring up the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act for northern B.C. waters and Bill C-69. The Feds regulatory reform bill is widely seen as an industry killer, not just for oil and gas but natural resources as a whole (see Bill C-69 — An Economy And Energy Security Killer).

At the same, many Albertans feel we are getting a raw economic deal from Canada. Albertans pay more than $20 billion a year in taxes to Ottawa than we get back in benefits, and the province continues to be the largest contributor to the country’s equalization program despite our oil and gas industry being on the rocks the past four years — most recently due to massive discounts for our crude given a lack of pipeline capacity from the region.

Polling numbers support the notion of high and rising discontent among Albertans. Based on results of an Ipsos poll released on Oct. 9, 62 per cent of Albertans believe the province “does not get its fair share from Confederation,” compared to 45 per cent in 2001. A mere 18 per cent of Albertans believe “the views of western Canadians are adequately represented in Ottawa,” a decrease of four percentage points over the period, while 46 per cent of Albertans feel more attached to our province than Canada — up seven points.

Albertans as a people

Albertans may not be as distinct a people as the Quebecois, given our greater ethnic diversity and a language common to most Canadians, but we are a people all the same, with a common ethos very similar to that of Americans — Alberta is regularly accused of being the most Americanized Canadian province.

People who live in Alberta tend to believe in individual freedom, the price of which is self-reliance. We believe in equality of opportunity — the price for it being competition. We believe in the Canadian equivalent of the American Dream — the opportunity for a better life and a higher standard of living for ourselves and our children — and we’re willing to work hard to get it.

Albertans, whether born in the province or elsewhere — think of Calgary icon W. Brett Wilson for the latter — tend to be more entrepreneurial, willing to take risks for the appropriate reward, and like our government small and unobtrusive. In a nutshell, we’re not social democrats — in the political or party sense — like most Canadians, despite our support for socialized medicine, and we despise the “nanny-state.”

Based on ethno-nationalist theory, there is good reason to believe the Alberta ethos could serve as the basis of a successful separatist movement. In his 1993 book Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff — a much better academic than politician — argued ethno-nationalist conflicts, such as the ones in the former Yugoslavia, are driven by what Freud called “the narcissism of minor difference,” in which otherwise similar peoples exaggerate what distinguishes them in a search for identity.

A key driver for separatist movements is also often economic, with relatively affluent peoples striving to break away from a country because they feel they are being taken advantage of by the central government and poorer regions. Examples of affluent peoples successfully gaining their independence include Croatia and Slovenia from Yugoslavia, and unsuccessful separatist movements — at least to date — include the Basque region and Catalonia from Spain and Biafra from Nigeria.

In terms of skeptics taking solace in the fact “only” 25 per cent of Albertans currently believe the “province would be better off it separated from Canada” — also from the Ipsos poll, and up six points from 1991 — it should be noted that only a third of Quebeckers currently support separation despite having had an organized movement for the past six decades and one extremely charismatic leader, René Lévesque.

Texas two-step?

Alberta is certainly landlocked but it is debatable whether separation would actually make it more difficult to build new pipeline capacity to tidewater. As a province, Alberta currently has legal and constitutional access to our three coasts. If the province was to separate we would have no rights, forcing Alberta to negotiate from scratch with Canada to gain additional access to tidewater.

But we all know based on recent experience that Alberta’s legal and constitutional rights are no more than theoretical, and separation would provide the province with some weapons in negotiations to gain greater access to tidewater. The province turned independent country would control access to its landmass and the skies above, forcing the Canadian government to negotiate the right for flights over Alberta airspace and to transport goods and people in trains, trucks and automobiles across our landmass.

At the same time, Alberta separatists would have the U.S. card in their back pocket. If the Canadian government failed to negotiate in good faith, the Republic of Alberta could cut a deal with the U.S. government instead. In return for access to tidewater, Alberta could agree to become America’s 51st state. This two-step process would be akin to the one taken by Texas in the middle of the nineteenth century — declaring independence from Mexico in 1836 and joining the Union in 1845. Heck, us Albertans are just glorified Americans anyways.

And the skeptics’ argument that the U.S. wouldn’t want Alberta as a state is laughable, given Manifest Destiny and the province’s massive resource wealth. For example, Alberta currently has capacity to produce almost four million bbls/d and with a resource base, both oilsands and tight rock, to produce substantially more crude if we had greater pipeline capacity to transport it to foreign markets.

To conclude, I’ve never seen Albertans this discontented. And I lived through the tremendous damage done to the province by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) in the early 1980s. The federal government would be unwise to underestimate rising separatist sentiment in Alberta, especially if it continues to adopt anti-resource development policies, and these like-minded people organize and find themselves a charismatic leader.