If you were to ask someone in Calgary, or anywhere else in Alberta for that matter, where they stood on the matter of separation, you would likely get one of three responses. They would be: a) I am for separating from Canada, either alone or with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and want to do it now, or, b) I am against separating entirely, Canada is better united and it’s unpatriotic, or, c) I’m open to the idea, but I’m going to wait until after the next election to make up my mind.
I am in the “a” group, but I have a few caveats to add to it. Ideally, I would like to remain as part of a fair and equitable Canada. So, if our politicians can find a way to address our concerns, and fix what we see is a broken Confederation, there would be no need for Alberta to go its own way.
In order to properly explain the nature of those concerns, will require a look at the history of Canada and Alberta, so please bear with me while I lay it all out for you, beginning with Confederation, in 1867.
1867 – The majority of the landmass in what is now Canada was once owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, while B.C. and the North-Western Territory were still British colonies. 1867 is also notable as being the year the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, making westward expansion all the more critical for the young nation.
1870 – The government of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land, and Manitoba becomes a province, thus reducing any likelihood of losing territory to the United States.
!871 – British Columbia becomes a Canadian province, with PEI following in 1873.
1873 – Sir John A. MacDonald orders formation of a force to police the Northwest Territories, which will also act to strengthen Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the region. They would ride west out of Manitoba, and establish a fort near what is now Lethbridge.
1881-1885 – Perhaps Sir John A. MacDonald’s best known achievement, the transcontinental railroad was the means by which Canada would exercise its’ sovereignty over it’s territory. It would enable the growth that would ultimately lead us to where we are in the present day.
1905 – Alberta and Saskatchewan join Confederation. Now, starting in 1867, the government had been actively looking for immigrants to settle in the new territory. This activity had increased in 1896, as immigrants from eastern Europe were being sought to settle the Northwest Territories. Thousands of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, and other eastern European nationalities would be drawn by the offer of 160 acres of free land to homestead. Among them would be my Hungarian great-grandparents, who ultimately established themselves in central Saskatchewan.
1930 – This is a very important year in the history of Alberta, and ultimately, for all Canadian provinces. It was the year Alberta was granted rights over its own resources when the Dominion Land Act was repealed, something that up to that point had belonged to the federal government. After some lengthy and intense negotiations, all provinces now had rights over their own resources. Previously, only the 1867 provinces had these rights.
The Trouble Begins
In 1935, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), who had led the province since 1921, were wiped off the electoral map following a sex scandal involving the party leader and premier, John Brownlee. Allegations of an affair with an 18 year-old stenographer, who worked in the Attorney General’s office, would lead him to resign in disgrace.
Not expecting to win the election that year, and caught completely by surprise, the Social Credit party hadn’t even picked a leader by the time the election had rolled around. When they won, they had to choose who among them would become the next Premier of Alberta. They chose William Aberhart, a staunch baptist minister, who was also known as “Bible Bill”. Aberhart was known for his weekly “Sunday Sermons” which were broadcast on the radio for all to hear.
An adherent to “social credit” principles, Aberhart believed that the cause of the Great Depression was that people didn’t have enough money to spend. So, he proposed a $25 per month “dividend” be paid to all Albertan’s, as a means of creating economic stimulus in order to escape the depression. Think “Guaranteed Income”. To further prove the point that he had absolutely no concept of economics, Bible Bill would do something typically seen in failing socialist countries. He would pay for the scheme by having Alberta print its own money.
The federal government would step in, and the move was declared unconstitutional, ending the plan for good fortunately for us. Today, we know why it was a bad idea, but at the time, most Albertan’s wouldn’t have understood the economics of it, and Bible Bill was seen as the champion of the everyday Albertan, and his popularity rose as a result. A feeling of resentment also rose in Alberta, and, for the very first time, the calls for separation were being heard around the province.
It came from a feeling of being looked down upon by Eastern Canada, as though the people of Alberta were merely residents of a colony, far from the civilized world of Central Canada, and incapable of handling their own affairs. Add to this the feeling of being used and exploited economically, and you now have a population that will start to view separation as the only means of protecting their interests, against those that they think are against them.
Aberhart, however, didn’t believe that separation was the right thing to do, and was opposed to the idea entirely. He would urge his supporters to reconsider the notion, and, ultimately, he would win the day. He remained in office until his death on May 23rd, 1943. Ernest Manning would go on to take over as party leader and premier, and the Social Credit party would lead the province for another 28 years.
1971 – Just like the way the UFA was destroyed as an entity by the Social Credit victory in 1935, so now were the SoCreds relegated to the political waste bin, as the Progressive Conservative party won the 1971 Alberta provincial election. Soon, another wave of separatist sentiment would be sweeping across Alberta and the prairies, only this time, Alberta would have more than sufficient justification for this, and it would be the basis for the separatist movements we are seeing today.
At the moment, the Alberta/Western separation movement poses very little to no political threat to anyone, and so isn’t taken as seriously as it needs to be in order for it to have any kind of impact. This was more or less the case over 40 years ago too, and it happened for about the same reasons, which would have to be addressed before separation would become a credible threat.
First off, there has to be some cohesion among those who want to separate. Over the course of the last 45 years or so, a multitude of groups, committed to the cause of separation, have come and gone. A number exist today. In order to have any hope for success, there has to be only ONE group or party delivering a single message, with a single objective. It is one thing to do it in only one province like Alberta, but add Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the mix, and things become even more difficult.
Let’s assume for a moment that this has happened, that a single, unified party was formed in the prairie provinces, with a charismatic leader at the helm. They will need to have a plan in place, which will detail how they will accomplish this objective, and what it would cost. It would have to be very detailed, and cover a great deal of information, requiring the input of numerous experts from a variety of disciplines. Essentially, it would have to be the mother of all cost-benefit analyses.
It would take time to put together something like this, I’m thinking 18 months to two years at a minimum. It wouldn’t come cheap either, with the bill likely being somewhere in the seven figures, which would mean that such a separatist movement would need to be able to raise funds. Although there would be some in the grassroots who would be willing to donate to the cause, the vast amount of the money would have to come from wealthy benefactors, like W. Brett Wilson, Calgary billionaire, philanthropist, and television Dragon.
A Little About Quebec Separation
I have a grudging respect for Rene Levesque, even though I didn’t agree with his politics. He was an average guy who drank, chain-smoked, and perpetually looked like he’d slept in his suit, and he was also the leader of a province. He held firm to his beliefs, and was willing to do the work it would take to see them realized, though to no avail.
He co-founded the Parti Quebecois in 1968, after a falling out with the Liberal Party, under whose banner Levesque was sitting in the National Assembly. He wanted to form an alternative to the separatist parties that existed at the time, who he viewed as too radical, and did not appeal to the majority of Quebecer’s. For instance, unlike the other parties, the PQ considered the rights of English speaking Quebecer’s. Unlike many in La Belle Province, Levesque considered them to be as Quebecois as those who only spoke French, which earned him scorn from those who were hardcore Quebec nationalists.
What Levesque and the PQ were hoping to achieve was what they called “sovereignty association”. Rather than a complete separation from Canada, it was to be modeled after the then newly formed European Community, the precursor of the European Union of today. It called for the creation of a political and economic association between Canada and the now independent Quebec, which would appeal to a broader base in Quebec.
What Levesque failed to see however, is that this was built on the premise that the EC would someday unite, which it later did, and that it wasn’t meant to be a framework for separation. It would suggest that Levesque didn’t understand the basic purpose of the EC, and hadn’t considered the economic and political intricacies that were involved.
Why Quebec Wanted Out
There have been tensions between english and french in Quebec since the 1600’s, and the root of these tensions lies in the differences between the two cultures. Religion and language were the biggest points of contention, and Quebecers would be defiant in their stance towards the english, whom they saw as oppressors.
A key part of the separatist platform in Quebec was the demand to be recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada. They wanted to have control over those things that made them distinct from the rest of Canada, in order to ensure the continuation of their culture, and all the things that made them Quebecois.
Different Provinces and Very Different Reasons
What it boils down to is this my friends, Quebec’s reasons for separating were/are cultural in nature, while in Alberta, our motivation is to ensure our economic survival. I have no doubt that I will be accused of making a glib over-simplification of the issue, but, at its heart, that’s just the way that it is.
I think it is very important that cultures be aloud to survive and, that every culture is distinct from all others, and it is something that absolutely that should be protected. That being said, I do not understand how, given the gravity and seriousness of our current situation, a serious and concerted effort has not yet been made in Western Canada to form a separatist political entity.
The stakes in Alberta and across the prairies are far higher than they ever were in Quebec. The priorities in Quebec are ensuring french is the primary language of all signage in the province, and having people acknowledge the fact that they are different from all other Canadians (duh). Meanwhile, for those of us living in Alberta, those priorities are very different.
We want to have more control over our own economy, something we do not have in this broken confederation we find ourselves in. For too long, we have been the primary contributor to the Canadian economy as a whole, and the provider of billions of its tax dollars to Quebec, to the detriment of every Albertan. If Ottawa isn’t willing to work to find a solution to this inequity, then the next logical course of action, would be to use the nuclear option, and go down the path of separation.
A Canada from sea to sea is the way I would like to keep things, but, if push comes to shove, I am willing to venture down that road. Yes, I’d prefer it to be just a threat, but has to be a credible threat, and in order for it to be credible, you have to be ready, willing, and able to follow through with it. I count myself to be among the growing number of people in Alberta and across the prairies who would be willing to do so.
So, I’m just putting out what needs to get done. I’m willing to do my part, whatever that may be, but until the west can get its’ collective shit together on separation, nothing I do will make a damn bit of difference. But, I’ll probably keep doing it anyway.