The CBC is not famously an anti-Liberal (and especially not an anti-Trudeau) network. My, personal, impression is that most, not all, certainly, of the CBC’s “on air” personalities and, in so far as I have met and talked with a couple of them, the CBC’s executives are, quite proudly, representatives of the Laurentian Elites and are focused, resolutely on what’s good for the Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City axis.
Thus I was a bit surprised to see two opinion pieces, separated by a week, that spell out some of the West’s, especially Alberta’s, grievances:
- On 8 December, Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Progressive Conservative MLA in the Alberta Legislature and Don Hill a former CBC broadcaster, wrote an interesting column; and
- Them, on 15 December, Monte Solberg, a former Reform, Alliance and Conservative MP and minister in the Harper government fired a second volley.
Now, I’m pretty sure that none of Ms Kennedy-Glans, Mr Hill or Mr Solberg is trying to resurrect the old Western Canada Concept, nor, as far as I know are they part of the new Alberta Freedom Party, or any of its similarly named cousins. In fact, both columns read more like prescriptions for a renewed, coast-to-coast-to-coast Canada than for separation.
Donna Kennedy-Glans and Don Hill open by referring back to Justin Trudeau’s now infamous “post national state” musings in 2015, they call his statements “astonishing” and say that “now we have Justin Trudeau, a prime minister who, like his father, has odd ideas about the country, the world, and Alberta’s place in it … [and, because of that] … Dark resentments thought buried in this part of the country have been reawakened …. [and] … The ideas behind Canadian confederation are at risk.“
They explain that, in their opinion, “Albertans are perplexed, and now many are angry. Why is our prime minister, we say, so obsessively focused on his role as heroic defender of a post-nation world and in doing so, neglects the needs of his own country?“
“The Trudeaus,” they say “have never understood — or seemed fond of — Alberta or the aspirations of the West … [and they opine that] … Our prime minister is focused on a global agenda. Meanwhile, he and his team are setting Canada against itself … [and they suggest that] … One only has to look to recent events in France and the European project, in general, with Brexit a clue as to why nations are no longer keen on abandoning their autonomy for the lofty ambitions of leaders on the world stage.” In other words, the Trudeau’s, père et fils, have reignited populism in the West and, inevitably, they have fanned the flames of Western, at least Albertan, separatism.
But Ms Kennedy-Glans and Mr Hill conclude with what I read as a very federalist challenge. “Is it any wonder, they ask that, “Albertans, for the second time in a generation, have executed extraordinary measures in their legislature to protect the province from an incorrigible federal leadership? … [and, for them] … And that raises another question … [which is] … Are we all — as citizens of this country — complicit in allowing this prime minister to go forward on his destructive path toward a post-nation state? … [and] … At what price comes his glory?” That seems to me to be a clarion call to defeat the Trudeau government and replace it, in 2019, with one that wants to govern for all Canadians; it doesn’t sound like a call to arms for separatists.
Mr Solberg talks, romantically, about a “western Canadian cast of mind,” and he says that while “It’s inviting to believe that prairie people are all of a kind — all calluses, scraped knuckles, burnt necks and white hats …[but] … That’s a bit rich, and yet whether at the end of a dirt road or in a Calgary suburb, we see the world in similar ways … [and, he says] … In a sentence, we’re builders. We want to build farms and ranches, families, cities, oil companies, social enterprises and family businesses, but there are also rules. We respect initiative and hard work. We respect “taking responsibility” … [and, he continues] … We say we like our governments small, though Alberta’s government got to be big and expensive even under the Progressive Conservatives. We like our taxes low. We don’t respect those who always have their hand out, but we want to help those who have fallen on hard times. These things set us apart.” I think that attitude is not unique to Alberta or to Western Canada; I think it is what Michael Bliss was talking about almost 20 years ago when he wrote that “West of Quebec there is much more interest in generating growth by shrinking government, liberating individuals and the private sector, and learning how to be truly competitive in a rapidly changing world.” Mr Solberg is also expressing a modern, populist view of the world. It’s not the kind of aggressive, fear and rage driven populism that brought Donald Trump to power and fuelled the “leave” side in the Brexit referendum, it is, rather, a sorrowful sort of populism that says that “you, the Laurentian Elites, don’t even try to understand out country.”
Monte Solberg says: “We also believe in the idea of Canada. We immigrated here. We are quick to help our neighbours in other provinces. We have paid our taxes, and then some. We have never hesitated to go to war for Canada, but now it feels like there are powerful forces in Canada going to war against us.” He’s referring, more in sorrow than in anger of course, to the Laurentian Consensus that has said, for 150 years, that Canada consists of the people who live along the shores of the Eastern Great Lakes and the St Laurence River and the Atlantic shores … the rest is a great hinterland, there to be exploited, by peasants, for ‘the great and the good‘ in the real, Old Canada.
He explains that, in the 1980d and into the 2000s, “Shifting election patterns would eventually allow us to better shape our economic destiny and for a while, the West prospered. We knew it wouldn’t last, it never does, but what we didn’t see is that the election of a new government would mean a stream of damaging economic policy on top of already depressed oil prices. Where is this coming from? Is it malice, ignorance, environment zeal? In a sense, it doesn’t matter … [because, he says] … Western alienation still stalks the land but now it strides on 100-foot legs.” I think the key word here is alienation, rather than separatism.
“The West,” Monte Solberg says, “Those who come and those who stay all see adventure and opportunity in a place where whether you make it hinges on a bet. Will there be just the right amount of rain and sun to produce a good crop? Will the auction mart pay a good price for your calves six months from now? Or will a well, drilled thousands of feet down, and then thousands of feet over, hit a reservoir of oil big enough to justify the multimillion-dollar investment? … [and he says, by way of example that] … This isn’t just Prairie mythology. As of December 2015, Alberta had the largest number of small businesses in Canada per thousand people at 50. Quebec is at 34.7 and Ontario 36.3, according to Statistics Canada … [I doubt that Justin Trudeau, or Bill Morneau for that matter, understands the significance if that statistic; it is exactly the sort of “division” about which Michael Bliss warned in 2000; and Monte Solber adds] … Risk doesn’t frighten us. The risk-reward life is what attracts many of us, but big, overweening institutions and soulless bureaucracies frighten us. Big power companies and banks, oligopolies, government agencies and Parliament Hill … [but, he cautions] … Our experience is that they sometimes use their size and power to interfere and to take.” I thunk that is the common perception in Alberta and Saskatchewan when they read that Quebec’s equalization payments have been increased by about 10% while the prairies suffer.
Mr Solberg gives a worthwhile history of the rise of Reform and the Alliance parties and most recently the Conservative Party of Canada, and he says that “Then, in 2006, under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the West was finally in. A Calgarian was in the Prime Minister’s Office.” He enumerates the good things the Harper government did but, he admits, “there were also mistakes, plenty of them … [and] … Perhaps the biggest was to underestimate pipeline opponents and those First Nations who were open to pipelines but who believed the review process ignored their concerns — a feeling westerners should be able to relate to.“
Mr Solberg says that “A lot of people have suggested that western anger toward Ottawa would wane, as more and more immigrants and central and eastern Canadians came to Alberta and Saskatchewan, bringing with them entirely different values … [because] … They argued that, over time, all these newcomers would bring their “progressive” ideas and change the West. It isn’t so … [he says] … That is not how the West works.” That was something Stephen Harper understood way back when, before he became prime minister, when he spoke, informally to some Republican heavyweights in Washington and told them that they needed the “ethnic” (Latino) vote and that he saw “new Canadians” as sharing many of the same social values as moderate Conservatives did and he intended to woo and win them to the CPC’s cause.
Monte Solberg says that conservatives are or a poised to govern from the Rockies to the Ottawa River, almost all of New Canada. But, he says, there has also been a “spike” in support for Western Separatism and “This spike in support for separation coincided with the election of the Liberal government and the tanker ban on the northern shore of the B.C. coast that killed the Northern Gateway pipeline. Then came the regulatory roadblocks that finished the Energy East pipeline … [because] … Westerners seethed at what they saw as an attack on their livelihoods.” Quebec separatism has always been about identity, that’s a powerful force, but, now, Mr Solberg warns, Western separatism is being fuelled an even more potent issue: how do I feed my family? It’s tied, closely, to that dignity deficit issue about which I have written for some time and which drove Donald Trump’s successful campaign.
“Most westerners don’t want to separate from Canada,” Mr Solberg says, “we want to separate from a federal government that seems indifferent to the West’s contribution to Confederation … [and, he adds] … We carry our fair share of the load. We’d like to be treated as an equal partner in Confederation, not punished by our partners for developing our natural resources … [and, he explains that] … All of this was brought home recently as the national media descended on Oshawa to cover the impending closure of the GM plant and the loss of 2,500 jobs, an unquestionable tragedy for those workers and families …
“And yet, where,” he asks “is the live national programming, the pathos-ridden stories, the sprawling narrative of suffering strewn across the pages of national newspapers, when it comes to the much larger problems of the West?“
“What happens next?” Monte Solberg asks, “Western anger needs to go somewhere.“
“Either it goes into a new vision for Confederation that shows respect for western aspirations,” he says, “or into some firebrand’s vision for a divided Canada, a vision that is almost certainly fated to fail … [and] … Western separation is not many people’s first choice. It’s also not very realistic, but while the bad news pours down on western heads — too much of it initiated by Ottawa — the only dignified response is righteous anger … [but, he says, and I think this is a key take-away] … let’s be clear, the West didn’t pull away until it was pushed away.” That, I think is the issue: Justin Trudeau and his team are pushing Western Canada out of the ‘grand bargain’ that is supposed to surround Confederation. I don’t think it is malice … it’s just plain incompetence: Gerald Butts, Katie Telford and Justin Trudeau have no vision of Canada beyond says, Windsor and Toronto. Canada West of the Great Lakes is terra incognito to them, a vast expanse filled with peasants who are obliged to feed and fuel their masters in the East.
Monte Solberg concludes, and I agree fully, that “For now, the slow boil continues as women and men see what they’ve built get levelled by what appears to many to be the hostile policies of another Prime Minister Trudeau. He could fix that impression if he wants to … [but] … Meanwhile, western alienation glows white hot on the tinder dry prairies.“
Prairie populism is nothing new … Alberta and Saskatchewan, especially, have been incubators for populist politics on the left, on the right and even in the centre for decades. Whenever the grievances pile up, as they are now, as they did in the early q908s (remember the National Energy Programme?) and in the “dirty thirties” Western Canadians answer with populist movement and they, almost always, have a separatist fringe. I suspect this current wave is about the same but it is amplified by modern media and technology, but it’s still problematic.
The solution, of course, is dead simple: Canadians must replace Justin Trudeau in 2019, before he actually destroys this great nation.