Claire: When you think of separatism in Canada, you probably first think of Quebec, right? I mean, the province held two independence referendums, and while the movement has quieted down in Quebec, it’s now being talked about somewhere else. Heard of Wexit.
News Clip: The term WEX it, the Western Canadian spin on Brexit and Alberta separation trending online. Cross the country hours after election results separatist signs and now replacing election signs as the movement to leave the rest of Canada picking up steam as the liberals win a minority.
Claire: Yeah. It’s a ridiculous sounding word. Short for West. Stern exit, but it is quickly gaining popularity, especially in Alberta.
Western alienation is a real sentiment. It’s no surprise that the oil dependent province is mad at the federal government, but is separating from the rest of the country. Really the answer, how would that even work with a landlocked province? And how does Justin Trudeau fix this? Can he fix this?
I’m Claire Broussard in for Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is the big story. Jason Marcus off is the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s. He joins us to explain just what is going on. Hey, Jason,
Jason: Hello from the west.
Claire: So wags it is a bit of a ridiculous name, but separatism isn’t new to Albertan politics.
So where did this resurgence come from and why is it gaining popularity now?
Jason: Uh, Western separatism has always been something that’s been either on the back burner or the fringy front burner, uh, in Alberta since let’s say the 80s. Um, back when the first Trudeau was prime minister and the national energy program was something he put in place to kind of nationalize a lot of the oil sector.
Um, and to overhaul how. Well is priced and controlled in Canada to the detriment of the, uh, of Alberta and other oil producing areas. A separatist movement, uh, Rose out of the frustration with that. And it did well enough that a party that had formed the Western Canada concept actually won a seat in Alberta rural seat in a byelection in 1982 and that sent shockwaves through the nation.
This was a couple of years after. Quebec separatism had its, uh, first referendum in 1980. Um, so that was pretty jolting. It didn’t last long. They, uh, the Western Canada concept brand and Nepal, the election that same year in 82 and lost all their seats, they sort of existed off and on for a while, but a kind of folded once the reform party Rose in the late eighties and nineties.
With Preston Manning’s rallying cry. The West, once in the West is fewer and fewer people have actually wanted out, uh, since then. Um, but we saw the separatism backburner get a bit, a bit hotter in the last couple of years with, uh, with the recession, the hard times that the oil patch and the, uh, whole Alberta economy is faced with the lower prices of oil with the lack of pipelines too.
Sell the product that we’re producing here. There’ve been a bunch of weird Sunray names, but WEX, it is the, uh, the new one. Obviously taking its name from a Brexit and the organization is kind of loose, but it’s a, it’s something worth watching certainly. Well,
Claire: What Alberta is separating from Canada actually look like for Alberta and for the rest of Canada,
Jason: It would look utterly strange and weird.
Jason Kenney, who’s, you know, who’s very much a Federalist and you know, heck, you know, word is, he wants to become prime minister still one day. Um, one of the, his major criticisms up the whole separatist movement is that if our biggest beef is pipelines, if Alberta becomes a separate country, it’s a landlocked.
Country, and there are some nutty theories that there’s some that he theories that international convention means that we’d have the right of way, we would get rid of way, um, as a courtesy from, from our neighboring country, Canada. Um, but that’s, you know, from the legal stuff I’ve read, that’s not the exactly the case.
Um, we, Alberta would be a landlocked country. Which would have to form its own banking system, military, uh, military system, uh, foreign affairs policy. It would have to reconcile with the, with part of the federal debt. It’s part of the Canada pension plan. Um, do so many different things. And, you know, the occasional person who’s serious about, uh, wax it is talking about this.
But, you know, I, I joined out of curiosity, the vote, WEX at.com Facebook group, which before the election had a few tens of thousands of, uh, members and now has 250,000 wow members. So there’s definitely interest in something, be it gawkers like me. Or real people who are just incensed about the way things are in Canada.
Um, you see the occasional chatter about, Hey, what happens to the Canada pension plan? Or what happens to debt? Or how do we get this or that? Um, but there’s a little bit of logistical discussion and a whole lot of just open hostility towards. The Trudeau government toward the media, toward environmentalists, um, and a bunch of other for our people.
It’s, it’s really, it seems like it’s less of a cogent movement right now and wore a vehicle for people’s frustration. Mm.
Claire: So we have a minority government right now. Does Justin Trudeau working with other parties make things better or worse for the movement?
Jason: It was sort of the nightmare scenario.
This result for a lot of, in a way in a sensibly was, um, the people out here in Alberta. This is maybe more of an establishment view than a, uh, than a WEX at here. Um. Needed view, uh, was that at least, you know, if the conservatives had to lose to the liberals, let at least the majority, because the liberals are at least, you know, in favor of the trans mountain pipeline and they don’t have.
As much of an agenda towards shutting, you know, taking a more Swift phase out of the oil sands and the oil sector. Right. Um, as the NDP and green party do, and if they’re. You know, if they’re forced to work with those parties on a regular basis, um, that they might even become more anti oil in the minds of, uh, the fraternity for the people here in Alberta and in other parts of the West.
Uh, eh, the actual result, uh, doesn’t, you know, gives the liberal party a big enough plurality that they don’t, aren’t the whole going to be holding constantly to any one party B at the bloc Quebecois or the NDP. Um, they’ll be probably using the conservatives for a lot of votes, uh, if it comes down to that.
But certainly the fact that Justin Trudeau, uh, is, is the prime minister still is a major source of frustration.
Claire: I’m curious, where do other Western provinces stand on this
Jason: As it was in the 80s? Um, Alberta is sort of the epicenter for this sentiment as it is the epicenter for the resource economy.
Um, but, you know, look at the results in Saskatchewan. Um, they. You know, in fact, Alberta at least had elected what has elected one NDP member. It’s a one orange.in it, in a Edmonton by the university in a sea of blue in a Saskatchewan where there were a number of, uh, NDPs, uh, elected last time.
And, uh, one liberal Ralph Goodale, everything is blue, including a Ralph Goodale seed after, uh, if memory serves a 19 million, a reelection bids for him. Hmm. Um, so there’s a lot of anger there. Is there that same separatists movement with the intensity in Saskatchewan? It’s hard to tell. Um, Saskatchewan does have more of a tradition of voting NDP and voting in Progressive’s.
I think this is the first time in water in history that Saskatchewan has been all conservative in the way it’s, uh, it’s voted. Um, but now they’ve really become much more like. Alberta’s political, um, movement. There are some, you know, there is some of the contagion of, uh, the Alberta separatists and the upward alienation in, in British Columbia after all.
Um, a lot of the BC interior in Northern BC was a. Also a further fertile home for the reform party in lion’s party. Uh, the Western based movements back in the late eighties and through the 90s. Um, and a little bit of Manitoba too, but I’d really say this is a, uh, you know, as far as separatism as a movement, um, and I don’t know if I call it a movement just yet.
It’s a something, I don’t know if it’s a proper organized movement just yet. Um, but, but, but, but the energy. A vet is a largely heads headquartered in Alberta, then in Saskatchewan, and then it’s sort of dissipates, uh, beyond those borders.
Claire: So you mentioned Quebec earlier, and I think that’s what a lot of people think about when we talk about separatism because of that provinces own push for independence.
But how is this movement different? Is it bigger? Is it smaller?
Jason: I guess? I mean, right now, uh, I think the polls show that, you know, that people are more keen to vote yes for separatism in Alberta right now than they are in, in Quebec, which is, you know, historically remarkable. Given where things were back in the 80s, given where things, uh, you know, have been historically.
Part of that is that the separatism appetite after so many years of, uh, it being an intense issue and it being a major defining issue of their politics, people are fed up with in Quebec. And, uh, there’s been a more thorough hashing out of the consequences. Of it. Whereas in Alberta, um, it, you know, it’s not an issue that people seem to really be taking soberly in seriously either on those who support it or those who may say it.
You know, I think people tend to SWAT down or Trump up the arguments, uh, pretty, pretty swiftly by and large.
Claire: And I guess are about different issues as well. Right. Quebec was mostly a cultural thing.
Jason: Come back, separate as a movement is much more like every other separatism movement we’ve seen in the world, like the Catalonians and basks in Spain, like the Tamils and through Lanka, like the movements in various parts of Africa, like South Sudan and other, uh, East Timor.
Um, it’s an ethno-cultural, uh, disenchantment, right? Owl bird. Western separatism has always been rare in that it’s a, it’s a, almost a purely political, um, political, cultural one, not based around a certain language or, uh, or ethnic cultural identity. It’s more of a political, economic identity.
Claire: Ahead of the election, we talked to people from across the country and we really did feel that anger that came from Western Canada, which you touched on before. Tell me about that anger, where it comes from and why it should not be taken lightly.
Jason: It starts at an economic place. If Alberta was booming right now, I don’t think this would be a, a major issue, but Alberta is used to the boom and we haven’t been a, there was a big recession, 2000, you know, that’s had roots in 2014. Um, was. But Alberta was in recession 2015, 2016. As the oil prices dropped, coinciding with, uh, the liberals and the NDP and getting it to office and federally ended up provincially and making certain decisions that the business community didn’t like here.
And people in Alberta have grown, used to dips. And then the economy coming back, but there’s a certain sense that that has not happened me. The facts on the ground say it’s not happening. Jobs haven’t roared back. Alberta still has one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, which is not a place Alberta is used to.
Um, the wages are down. People are not, you know, that there’s not this idea anymore. It’s pretty much dead. This idea that you can come from anywhere else in Canada, come to Alberta and get a great job on the rigs or in the oil sands or in Fort McMurry. Um, those things are gone. Um, at the same time, there is a rising movement against.
The pipelines, um, gains the weight, the, the conduit through which Alberta transports. It’s a, it’s big moneymaker. It’s oil. And that didn’t happen a decade ago. That didn’t happen in kind of this history where there was such an Inbar at a movement against pipelines and this pressure of climate change and assertion of indigenous rights that, so that those are.
You know, so this is a series of cascading things. And then you have, um, some of the legislation, uh, gets picked up a lot of that, that the Trudeau government put in, um, a ban on tankers up the Northern coast of Northern BC, Wes, BC coast, um, or his overhaul of. Uh, of how energy projects are regulated than an approved, uh, which a lot of some industry and mostly Jason Kenney and, uh, conservative politicians have called the no new pipelines act and their, you know, Trudeau has.
A family legacy of ticking off, uh, Albert and some of the West and some of the things that he said in some of the ways he’s acted have played into that. There was a moment a few years ago where he, in sort of a slip up, said, we have to phase out the oil sands. I don’t want to shut it down immediately, but we do have to phase out the oil sands.
He said in a town hall. Oh yeah. Um, do you quickly apologize for that? But the way people bring it up here in, in Alberta and other places, you’d think he’s said it every day for the last five years, and then there was the election, the election that he inflamed some of this as well, um, in getting and trying to get some votes.
In, in Quebec mostly. Um, Trudeau has made some of the same, some comments that, uh, he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t saying when he visits Alberta. I’m talking about how Andrew Scheer’s cozying up to the oil companies and the oil barons. Um, echoing friend’s wallet goes, uh, the Quebec Premier’s line that there is no social acceptability for oil.
In Alberta. I’m so sorry. In Quebec, those, so those comments, and you have a reignited people’s, uh, inherent tendency to disdain Justin Trudeau, the trans mountain pipeline, which Justin Trudeau bought. Uh, as the government has not been built, it’s, there are still potential, uh, legal pratfalls for it.
There’s always a lingering fear, um, somewhat conspiratorial out here that he bought it just to shut it down. Um, you know, I’ve kind of, you know, I think in the various things that Trudeau can do to, uh, to satisfy, or at least not further inflame the, uh, the West in Alberta is to keep going on that pipeline.
Um, it, it’s sort of the red line. I think if that, if that falls by the wayside, um, then a serious movement could form. Uh, there, there we could see some more prominent politicians, maybe some business leaders, um, jump on board, um, and, uh, really push for a, for an exit, as messy as that would be.
Claire: So you think that’s the big thing, the pipeline, that’s what Trudeau really needs to stick with to Sue the resentment.
Jason: It’s the baseline. Um, if it gets built, if oil starts flowing, if, if it, that helps ease some of the economic tensions that we’ll certainly a sooth through with a lot of the frustration out here.
Uh, if the economy comes back, uh, through whatever means, um, that will, uh, that will make people. A lot, a, a lot happier. Um, if, if, if there’s more investment, if people are confident to open up, you know, start new ventures, start new oil sands projects, um, get drilling again, get people back employed.
Um, that will, will certainly help. But in this immediate aftermath of the election, people in a lot of parts of the con Providence, people are just, you know, depressed and thinking that because Trudeau got reelected. And because he somewhat dependent on the other progressive parties that this is kind of going downhill and faster.
Claire: So I feel like we’re still recovering from the election we just had. Do you think all this talk of separatism will die down in the coming months, or do you think that anger will persist and maybe actually turn into something?
Jason: I really don’t know where this is going. People ask me what’s going to happen with the separatist movement, and I say, let’s Give it a couple of weeks.
Um, this is, you know, the dust is still settling from the election. Uh, we don’t know. We, I think, you know, Andrew’s the leader of the conservative federal conservative movement. It seems like it’s up in the air at this point. How Jason Kenney is going to respond to this, uh, is still forming.
He’s a, he’s made some demands on the equalization program, on carbon policy, on some of the oil legislation and pipelines. Um, and he’s also proposed a panel of experts on federalism, on asserting, strengthening Alberta’s place in Confederation. Uh, they’re gonna form and then it coming days and they’re going to be holding a town halls around the province.
They’ll be interesting to watch what shaped those, take what the tone is from there are people just venting. ODA frustration or are they proposing a concrete solutions to how Alberta can find its place of Confederation? Or are they getting lost down the equalization rabbit hole and misrepresenting the, the program as w, which is so often then here?
I mean, there’s a caricature, um, uh, formed in Alberta that there’s just this giant money funnel, uh, that they, they put to the Saskatchewan border and a whole bunch of money, Alberta government sentence goes, right. Take it back. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Um, but there is a, uh, that is certainly the mythology here.
So it’ll be interesting to hear the, the, the tone and tenor of the, of those panels. As of now, the best metric is we have a lot more Facebook followers of a Facebook group. Um, I don’t know if that’s a serious, um, indicator of a, a whole lot. We also have to watch seriously what happens with Justin Trudeau.
Um, does he take any concrete steps that satisfy. The frustrations of operations, or does he inflame things further? All
Claire: Right, well, we will see. Thank you, Jason.
Jason: My pleasure.
Claire: Jason is the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s, and that was The Big Story for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca or chat with us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn and while I have you here, please go check out our new show. It’s called The Gravy Train. It’s all about the life and legacy of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. The first two episodes are out today, and you can find them at thegravytrainpodcast.com or at frequencypodcastnetwork.ca. Thanks for listening.
And if you like this episode or any of The Big Story episodes, please let us know with a five star review. I’m Claire Brassard. Jordan will be back tomorrow. Talk to you then.
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