Why so many Albertans are giving up on their country
The baseball caps were sold to the side of the rally at the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall last Saturday night. One for $20, or three hats for $50, they came in a variety of colours, reading “Wexit” and “Make Alberta Great Again” and “The West Wants Out.”
At the front of the dark, wood-panelled hall, a Canadian flag held aloft by two hockey sticks was displayed, inverted, on stage.
More than 700 people arrived at the event in Edmonton to hear a few speakers extol the benefits of Western separation. The “Wexit” Facebook page now boasts about a quarter-million members and its founder, Peter Downing, took to the front of the room wearing an Edmonton Eskimos jersey and asked the crowd to remove those caps to observe a moment of silence for the Alberta workers who have committed suicide since oil priced dropped in 2014, and the province lost an estimated 150,000 jobs.
Then he stepped into his manic, prairie-carnival-barker patter: “Everybody is behind this movement. Whether you’re private sector, public sector, labour, you’re the workers, you’re immigrants, Indigenous communities again, for people from tight-knit communities, people who have to work three extra jobs, three extra jobs, and they get to keep more of their own money. We get to keep the $50 billion in taxation we send to Ottawa for nothing, nothing good except their noses up and their thumbs down on us,” he says.
“We’re announcing, right now, a watershed and a new reality in Canadian politics. Monday morning, we are going to file our applications with Elections Canada for the official registration of Wexit Canada.”
And, sure enough, Elections Canada forms are flying around the room. Attendees line at the bar to put their names and addresses to paper so Wexit can collect the necessary minimum 250 signatures required to start a new federal political party.
“We are going to do for Western Canada, and Alberta in particular, what the Bloc Quebecois does for Quebec. The only difference is that we are cutting the parasite of Eastern Canada off from our necks,” Downing continues. “We are cutting this parasite off from your wallets.”
The attendees are mostly white; at least one has shown up wearing a Harley Davidson jacket patched with a Confederate flag, but there is as much Eddie Bauer in the room as leather. Mostly it’s t-shirts and fleece sweaters labelled with oil company logos—a working class crowd.
The rally began with a presentation that heavily implied that Canada is on the verge of a communist takeover; that the environmental movement is a front for a communist plot to establish some kind of one-world government. Next, longtime provincial Conservative party organizer Craig Chandler—who earlier this year was the campaign manager for Jason Kenney’s Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Minister Tanya Fir—took to the stage to shill for an “Alberta First” purchasing program encouraging residents to opt for products produced by their neighbours.
Much ire is directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the most common target of this rally is, in fact, mainstream Conservative politicians; Kenney, Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer, who oversaw the current equalization formula that is pulling out billions worth of revenues more than what Alberta receives in transfers and services.
“The Liberals will never look after us. The NDP will never look after us. The Green Party will definitely never look after us and now we see the Conservatives don’t have our best interests in mind,” said rally speaker Ambrose Ralph.
There is an attempt, here, to prise the iron-grip loyalty of the crowd, not just from the country, but from the conservative voting habits that have sustained the province for generations. After all, what good has that done?
Ginned up, the crowd chants: “The West wants out. The West wants out.”
No doubt some attendees were shocked by the sight of an upside down flag at the front of the room. It’s a sign of open disrespect—even war, in some places. The government of Canada notes that there is one circumstance in which it is proper to display the flag inverted:
After spending more than a decade reporting from Alberta, I have to confess that I’m tired of trying to explain western alienation to the East. (Please note, if you will, that everything east of Manitoba is considered “the East” to me.)
I could waste more time explaining the current equalization formula and its faults; delve into the decades-old constitutional arguments that affirmed provinces’ rights to their resource royalties, or discuss the respective greenhouse gas emissions intensity of various subtypes of crude, based on well-to-wheel measurements. We could talk about macroeconomic oil demand, the unemployment rate, the economic argument for pipelines like the Trans Mountain expansion; Bills C-69 and C-48, the oil price differential, the public purse’s dependence on oil and gas royalties. We could go back in time, to the National Energy Program, to 1905, to Frederick Haultain, to the doomed province of Buffalo; to the railways, the crow rate, and the robber barons of the East.
For now, I’ll pass. It feels too futile—like trying to explain an emotion (and a not-always-rational one, as is the way with emotions)—to people who don’t want to hear it. I have only a few observations. And they are not of Alberta, but rather of Canada.
In February, oil patch workers and Yellow Vest protestors set out from northern Alberta to demonstrate against Bills C-48 and C-69—the latter dubbed the “no more pipelines” bill for its byzantine restructuring of the country’s regulatory process.
Now, it does not surprise me in the least that blue collar truckers and patch workers would hold views toward matters like asylum-seekers that would not earn them a warm welcome at a cocktail party in the Annex. Nor is it shocking that within the crowd were dyed-in-the-wool racists and white nationalists. The protestors themselves, ‘patch workers with little experience in political organization or communications, lacked the common sense or discipline to eject such people. So I suppose it’s not surprising that a convoy that left Alberta as a protest about pipelines arrived in Ottawa as a “white nationalist” vanguard.
The transformation that took place while it was travelling across the Prairies was so complete that few now remember that the convoy was not some kind of white nationalist uprising. Instead, they recall Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, who addressed the convoy’s rally in Ottawa, allegedly speaking at the same event as racist alt-right personality Faith Goldy. Never mind that Goldy had showed up uninvited and offered her own rants from a cherry-picker located a block away from the main stage.
I’ve seen a version of this play out in greater or lesser form again and again in reporting from Alberta. From racists rooted out in bars in Brooks, Alta., to the the anti-Semitic ramblings of school teacher Jim Keegstra, whose firing helped form Canada’s hate speech laws, to the anti-semitism within the early Reform Party, to Stephen Harper’s alleged hidden agenda.
Nefarious far-right conspiracies born in the dark heart of oil country, though never quite proven, are assumed.
Yet Alberta isn’t passing legislation like Bill 21, which would bar members of the public service from wearing religious garb. It isn’t calling for a “values test” for new immigrants.
A recent Ipsos poll conducted for Global News found that roughly half of all Canadians entertained racist thoughts they wouldn’t speak in public.
The point isn’t to deny that kooks and racists live in Alberta, nor to litigate which province is most racist, but rather to note that the stereotype serves a particular political function. When a reporter parachutes into cattle country to root out a racist wacknut, the outlier and the anecdote become proof of the corrupt and immoral nature of the province and its political culture as a whole.
I had long chalked this up to habit. Once your province has cultivated a reputation for being a redneck backwater, well, that’s a hard one to break. But it’s a habit that leaves Albertans constantly seeing themselves and their grievances reflected back at them through a profoundly distorted lens.
It doesn’t seem to be enough to perceive Albertans as wrong, or mired in a declining oil-and-gas industry that produces significant greenhouse gas emissions—they must also be bad people.
And what consideration is owed to a pack of hard-luck deplorables?
If you view the province as a collection of regressive hicks whose only claim to wealth is that they were lucky enough to be born on valuable dirt, then it becomes very easy to decimate that wealth. Or, at the very least, to greet the crisis playing out in this province with smug contempt. The oil crash of 2014 and subsequent economic decline becomes a manifestation of divine justice.
The province’s suffering is proper and righteous.
The indifference of the nation is justified.
There is at least one major politician in this country who has publicly expressed a desire to separate from Canada if he didn’t get his way politically.
That politician is Justin Trudeau.
In 2012, he said on Radio-Canada: “I always say, if there came a point where I thought Canada really was Stephen Harper’s Canada—that we were against abortion, against gay marriage, that we went backwards in 10,000 different ways—maybe I’d consider making Quebec a country. Oh yes. Absolutely. I know my values very well, even if I no longer recognized Canada.”
Within days, he turned on that position entirely. All was forgiven and forgotten.
Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, does not get such an easy ride. For merely bringing up the fact that separatist sentiment in Alberta is on the rise—a trend apparent years before he returned to Midnapore from Ottawa—he has been lambasted as a politician attempting to stoke that sentiment for his own political gain. As if he needed the boost.
I have written before about the particular folly of Kenney’s promise to hold a referendum on equalization, an exercise that will provide Albertans with little more than theatre. No province can unilaterally strip the equalization principle from the Constitution, and the referendum threatens to expose a discontent with Confederation that it cannot possibly relieve.
But it may also provide a pressure valve for separtist sentiment. It may buy time for the Trans Mountain pipeline to be built, for economic conditions to improve, or for political tensions to ease. At best, it may prove to be a kind of political harm-reduction strategy, a pressure valve for separatist sentiment.
Jason Kenney is not Alberta’s René Lévesque. At least, not yet. Politics in Alberta is weird, and we live in weirder times. Though the fact may seem hard to fathom to those in the East, a truly committed federalist has no better ally in Canada today than the premier of Alberta.
Having just won a commanding mandate from the province by articulating many of its lingering grievances, he can make a uniquely credible case for Canada.
“I really believe at heart most Albertans are patriots,” he said in a press conference delivered the day after the federal election. “Secondly, I would say that we should not let Justin Trudeau and his policies make us feel unwelcome in our own country.
“And thirdly, I would say we have allies across Canada. We have provincial governments who have got our back…we’re not isolated. We’re not alone.”
Further, Kenney went on to explain the crucial problem with the separtist argument.
“Landlocking ourselves through separation is not a solution,” he said. “The green left has been leading a campaign to landlock our energy. Why would we give them what they want?”
If these statements seem insufficiently pro-Canada, I can’t help but contrast the treatment Kenney gets to that of Yves-Francois Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois.
A national media based primarily in the East seemed to declare the Bloc the only unmitigated winner in this federal election. The party that was founded as an explicitly separatist vehicle.
“Our work is not to make federalism work,” Blanchet said in his election-night speech, shortly after so many praised him for being so polished and articulate in the debates.
If Canada seems a little less alarmed by the prospect of a thriving Bloc, perhaps it’s because we can sense that the actual threat to Confederation posed by the party has passed. It seems like a more benign entity now for being merely opportunistic in its pursuit of an ever-better deal for Quebec.
If so, what is an Albertan meant to conclude from this?
Alberta is sometimes depicted as the author of its own misfortunes—and the knock isn’t entirely unfair. The oil price crash that continues to weigh on the economy was no politician’s fault. But the bust was inevitable and predictable.
This province continues to offer high quality services and low taxes that keep it in thrall to resource royalties that are long gone and likely never coming back. Kenney’s hostile handling of the environment file, his abandonment of Rachel Notley’s consumption-based carbon tax and climate-change strategy risks riling the very green activists who had previously been appeased.
Albertans must know that climate change is something the world is taking seriously; that demand for the oilsands will, inevitably, decline–and this province along with it if it fails to diversify its economy.
When Kenney pins this decline on Trudeau, the East is not wrong to be a bit baffled. “Didn’t he buy you a pipeline?”
He did. Trudeau bought the TMX line though the purchase offered absolutely no electoral benefit to himself or his party. Many Albertans circle this square with the assumption that Trudeau bought the pipeline to kill it—a conspiracy that doesn’t make much sense when you consider the expansion would be dead already if the federal government had done nothing.
But neither has Trudeau done much to ease fears or restore trust. Alberta heard not a peep from him when Encana announced last week that it would move its headquarters from Calgary to Denver. The only headquarters this government is passionate about preserving are the ones named “SNC” and located in Montreal, apparently.
In 2017, Trudeau told a town hall in Peterborough, Ont.: “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy….We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels.
“That is going to take time. And in the meantime, we have to manage that transition.”
He should try making that case in Calgary. Perhaps Albertans would be more amenable to talking about this transition if this country’s commitment to climate change didn’t seem so selective.
No one is talking about transitioning B.C.’s forestry industry, despite the fact that the province’s forests are a major carbon sink. Open pit mining doesn’t seem to be under threat. Transportation is one of this country’s top greenhouse gas culprits, yet I cannot imagine Trudeau making a similar comment about southwest Ontario’s car manufacturing plants, nor Quebec’s aviation industry.
From a purely environmental perspective the arguments used against the oil sands can be deployed against these, too. The differences are largely aesthetic and emotional. There is a moral component to which industries we’re choosing to “transition.” The oil sands are greenhouse gas intensive. They look ugly. They’ve been the subject of years of protests and exposés. They’re a scapegoat, a channel for all the guilt and anxiety that we Canadians feel about our greenhouse-gas intensive lifestyles. Shut down the oil sands and avoid the much harder questions about why they exist.
Baked into that moral calculus is an implicit political one: it’s a very fine thing to wipe an industry off the map in a part of the map that doesn’t matter.
Pundits based in Toronto have responded to the last month’s federal election results by offering reams of opinions explaining to Albertans why their current predicament is entirely their own fault.
Alberta, they explain, just should have voted for a Liberal party that hates it. A party that treats its major industry as a font of dark oil money funding the Conservative party and a network of sympathetic media outlets—a position no less cynical or conspiratorial than the anti-communism hysteria generated in the West.
It’s Alberta’s fault that it has no one “at the table” in Trudeau’s cabinet.
With apologies to Anne McLellan, who was tapped to be an informal advisor on Alberta to the Liberals, this lack of representation seems solely a concern to people who live in Ontario. No one in Alberta appears overly bothered by it. If Trudeau wants to listen to the grievances of the West, he can pick up the phone and talk to anyone he likes. If he doesn’t want to listen, no amount of representation will make a difference.
Alberta is also thought to have bought its own trouble because it didn’t hoard its oil gains, Norway-style.
Let me ask: if you lived in a country where a plurality believed resource royalties more properly belonged to the nation as a whole rather than the province, how tempted would you be to save it? Do you stuff your piggy bank if you don’t trust your parents not to knick it?
Or perhaps you, too, would opt to squander your wealth with, uh, high quality educational and health services and low taxes—which has been the unwitting economic diversification strategy of Albertan governments since the ’90s.
I don’t know if this separatist sentiment in Alberta—”Wexit,” if we must—is something to worry about. that Downing, a former soldier and RCMP officer, had a history as a “far right conspiracy theorist.” It’s hard to glean whether these are ambitious political organizers or keyboard warriors with delusions of grandeur.
I have no doubt that Wexit is siphoning some of the far-right populist fuel that keeps websites like Reddit and 8Chan blinking with discontent well into the early morning hours on weekdays. There is a militancy to some of Wexit’s language and memes—talk of “civil war,” for example—and pictures of men in full military garb, that could foreshadow something darker and more violent.
Given its ugly far-right antecedents, and the lack of any plausible path toward creating a land-locked prairie state, it’s hard to know whether western separatism is going to remain the sort of thing that more serious people will only discuss sub rosa.
Off the top, separating from Canada seems like a very bad idea.
But then so did Brexit. So did Donald Trump.
What I do predict is that the Wexit leaders currently fronting Facebook pages will be discredited. The movement will probably be riddled by alt-right wannabes, conspiracy theorists, and anti-immigration zealots. It may follow the doomed and creepily fascistic, Western Canada Concept led by lawyer Doug Christie, who made a name for himself in the ’80s by defending anti-semites and neo-Nazis.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wexit morph, in the national subconscious, into a fever dream of white nationalist uprising.
At his rally, Downing anticipated this: “Someone called us the Bloc Rednecois and that’s okay. That’s our term for ourselves. If you’re not from here, you’re just an Alberta-phobic racist anti-Western bigot,” he said at his rally. “That’s all you are.”
A “Rednexit” hat is already available for sale on the Wexit website.
Once again, Albertans are going to see their own grievances reflected back at them through warped glass.
Rather than shame the province out of the folly of separatism, I fear this will have the opposite effect. All of this will be used as proof of the underlying logic of Wexit: that the liberal East looks down at you while it takes your wealth. Ottawa isn’t going to give a bunch of rednecks a fair hearing, or a fair deal. Confederation is hopelessly broken. And there is no point in continuing to try to explain anger and alienation to people who do not want to hear it.
MORE BY JEN GERSON:
- The uproar over ‘Unplanned,’ and Canada’s messed-up politics
- Alberta’s election, and the ugly politics in store for Canada
- What Alberta voters should know about Jason Kenney and the UCP
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