Alberta and Saskatchewan marked their 100th anniversary as Canadian provinces last Thursday, precisely two months after a poll found that 41 percent of Albertans and 31.9 percent of Saskatchewanites thought that “Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country.”
The results in the other two western provinces were lower – 30.8 percent in British Columbia and 27.5 percent in Manitoba – but all four figures nevertheless ran much higher than anything shown in previous polls on “western separatism.”
The poll of 1,448 western Canadians was conducted for Western Standard magazine by Farran Ellis of Lethbridge Community College.
What lent great significance to it, however, was a subsequent development one week ago. Thomas Courchene, senior scholar at Montreal’s Institute for Research on Public Policy, one of Canada’s leading experts on inter-provincial relations and finance, released a discussion paper declaring that Alberta must relinquish some of its current windfall billions in oil revenues, or it will risk the destruction of the Canadian federation.
He painted a scenario in which Alberta levied no income tax and offered a lavish pension plan along with the highest salaries in the country, thereby luring people from all the other provinces to move there.
Behind this issue lies the sharp difference between the American and Canadian federal systems. In the U.S. (as I understand it, anyway), natural resources fall under federal control. They are “owned,” so to speak, by the nation as a whole. Under the Canadian constitution, they are “owned” by the province in which they’re located. The vast hydroelectric revenues of Quebec, for example, belong to Quebec. The vast oil and gas deposits in Alberta belong to Alberta.
A federal raid on provincial resource revenues was unthinkable until the 1970s. Then, when OPEC sent the price of oil soaring, the same sort of bonanza befell Alberta. The response of the Trudeau Liberal government in that day was the National Energy Program. Over fierce objections from Alberta, Trudeau enacted legislation skimming off oil and gas revenues from the province, and helping to send it into a ten-year recession.
A separatist movement broke out then too, and in a by-election sent one member into the provincial Legislature. But the highest point the separatist cause ever reached in the polls of that day was 25 percent. Now the “consideration” of separatism is running at 41 percent, and the Martin government has not even begun its inevitable move against Alberta’s oil bonanza.
Out of the separatist movement emerged the Reform Party whose motto was “The West Wants In,” meaning it wants an effective role in Ottawa. In one election after another, the answer was “no!” The Reform did well in the West and was stopped dead at the Manitoba-Ontario border. When it re-named itself the “Alliance Party” to strengthen its base in Ontario, the same rejection occurred. Then to gain Ontario, the Alliance merged with the venerable Conservative Party. The Liberals still took three-quarters of the Ontario seats.
Now, a sure path to re-election lies open to Paul Martin’s Liberal government. He will pass legislation imposing a sweeping seizure of Alberta’s resource revenues to prevent the calamity Courchene perceives. Alberta will scream wildly. Martin will sweep Ontario and the Atlantic provinces and possibly pick up seats in Quebec by championing the cause of “Canada” against the grasping avarice of Alberta’s “oil barons.”
It will be a re-enactment, that is, of the Trudeau formula of the 1970s and ’80s: Win Canada by campaigning against Alberta.
However, apart from the change in the polls, something else is new since Trudeau’s day. In order to prevent a separatist government in Quebec from securing a referendum victory with an ambiguous question on the ballot, the Liberals passed the “Clarity Act,” requiring a clear question on any separation vote. But in so doing, they unwittingly provided a constitutionally valid path by which any province could opt out of the Canadian federation.
Something else will no doubt gall Albertans, notably what the federal government will almost certainly do with the revenues it seizes. The manufacturing industries of Ontario and Quebec, like manufacturing industries all over the U.S., can expect to face increasingly sharp competition from Asia, particularly from China.
Martin will almost certainly use the funds he gets in Alberta to artificially shore up Quebec and Ontario industry against this competition. But the industries will not be saved, will go under anyway, and the Canadian bonanza from the oil boom will have been wasted. The question is: Will the Alberta voter realize that soon enough? Certainly not if Ottawa can help it.