Western alienation may seem like history repeating itself, but there are crucial differences this time around, says U of A political scientist
By ROGER EPP
Political memory might be an oxymoron—the equivalent of a deafening silence, a civil war or old news; it is surely a malleable commodity, stretched to serve radically different purposes in a fight; and it might also be true, as a 19th-century European famously observed, that when history seems to repeat, it’s tragedy the first time, farce the second.
Whatever the case, the spectre of Western separatism has come back noisily to Canadian political life in the aftermath of an election that, as in 1980, returned a Trudeau to the Prime Minister’s Office without a Liberal MP between Winnipeg and Vancouver. Prairie politicians have raised the possibility of separatism as early leverage against a minority government in Ottawa, careful to add that they are not advocating it, just understanding the frustration that gives rise to it. Pundits continue to speculate about whether the anger is greater this time and therefore whether the prospect of separation should be taken more seriously.
I remember 1980. I want to set the bar high for any comparisons.
I especially remember the raucous night that November when the dignified Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton was jam-packed for a rally featuring Doug Christie, the self-appointed leader of the separatist Western Canada Concept (WCC).
I was there as a newspaper journalist.
I remember watching as cap-wearing young men shouted obscenities and spat in the direction of the Edmonton city councillor who had dared to stand vigil at the doors, holding a Canadian flag.
I remember the three-syllable, Trump-style chant—“free the West, free the West”—that rocked the building whenever the crowd was roused, as it was again and again. Later that night, I could scarcely steady my fingers to punch a story into the clunky teletype machine at the Legislature media gallery. This, I wrote, had been no symphony crowd. Even now, I cannot recall that night without an involuntary tingle in my spine.
My editors, wary of their readers, decided the next morning that my straightforward account of events, right down to the man in the back who shouted “Sieg Heil” with full Nazi salute, could not run on the front page without a warning label that it was commentary rather than news. Those were sensitive and dramatic times.
In 1980, Premier Peter Lougheed had responded to the National Energy Program with a televised address in which he warned Ottawa to get off the front porch, to keep its hands off the resources that were rightfully a matter of provincial jurisdiction. His government partly shut off the taps. The few opposition politicians in the legislature worried that in his attempt to harness popular anger he had started to sound too much like a separatist himself.
One of them, voice quavering, propped on his desk the official portrait of Frederick Haultain, the last premier of the Northwest Territories before Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of it in 1905, to encourage Mr. Lougheed to be a statesman of similar stature. But when Mr. Lougheed negotiated an agreement on energy pricing and taxation with the Trudeau government, the resulting oilpatch backlash against his “betrayal” gave a short political life to the WCC, which elected its only MLA in a byelection in central Alberta in 1982.
Those were the days when itinerant constitutional messiahs drew earnest crowds to small-town halls to disclose the truth, duly recorded in my notebooks, that Canada had never been legally constituted and therefore could be remade, or not, according to the people’s demands. When I wrote a three-part series on Western separation, I got an official letter from the prime minister’s principal secretary, Tom Axworthy. The letter masked its warning—don’t give these guys any oxygen!—with faint words of appreciation, which mattered to a young journalist partly for the realization that I’d made the clipping service in Ottawa.
That’s how I remember the politics of 1980. I’m not eager to relive anything like it.
So what’s changed in 2019? Better to start with what hasn’t changed.
First, Alberta then and now is an anxious place. The price of the province’s reliance on hydrocarbon wealth is the constant insecurity that it will be stolen away—by a government in Ottawa, by foreign-funded “eco-terrorists” or even by a fundamental shift in energy technologies. The insecurity is tied to real livelihoods, expectations and communities, and to the very real fiscal limits of a provincial government committed to restoring Alberta’s status as a low-tax regime underwritten by roller-coaster resource revenues.
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Second, the separatist cause still creates all kinds of room for self-appointed champions and political entrepreneurs. It obscures their other ideological commitments.
Third, the advocates of independence remain concentrated in Alberta, mostly in the south, perhaps with more enthusiastic support now out of Saskatchewan. But they still presume that the rest of the West will simply follow their lead. More critically, and inexcusably, in 2019, they presume that independence can happen as if treaty relations with Indigenous peoples are legally and politically inconsequential—as if Indigenous peoples can simply be moved like furniture into whatever new political entity is imagined on their traditional territories.
History, of course, does not simply repeat itself. If it did, my own uneasiness for the future might be assuaged. So what’s changed?
For one thing, the fight in 1980 was about policy jurisdiction and the distribution of non-renewable resource wealth—not about whether the energy economy represented an unconscionable threat to the future of the planet. The stakes were not so existential. Both provincial and federal governments were direct investors in energy production. They were untroubled by the global politics of climate change or the continental politics of building pipelines to reach markets. They counted on the return of boom times. A deal could be done.
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For another, the anger and fear of 2019 have been informed and amplified exponentially by social media. In 1980, when most people still read the daily paper, my front-page story might have provoked a couple of letters to the editor but not a torrent of threatening tweets. Moreover, Western separatism in the last round was largely homegrown, informed by historic regional grievances. In 2019, it borrows freely from the symbols and language of a global populist surge: “Wexit,” MAGA caps, yellow vests. Aware or not of the darker tendencies of that populism, it risks becoming the kindling for a bigger, more dangerous fire.
Finally, Canada’s politicians have yet to show that they are up to the current challenges of leadership. If anything, in this age of permanent elections and fundraising, the rewards of high office go to the campaigners, not the conciliators or the brave thinkers.
In Alberta, in particular, as the new economic realities persist, pipeline or not, politicians will have every incentive to deflect responsibility to external enemies—and also internal ones—rather than lead an honest conversation that engages what is a diverse, complex province. Someone will have to be to blame. Or, from an Ottawa vantage point, some provinces might still need to be written off to preserve a progressive minority government.
All of this suggests that Albertans, Westerners, indeed all Canadians will be tested severely in the months ahead, whether through the polarized politics of pipeline construction, or the shadow-boxing of an equalization referendum, or some other crisis that is still to appear on the political horizon. The common life is at risk, and not just in the gap between Ottawa and Calgary. Within Alberta, we will be reminded regularly how divided we actually are.
For my part, I’m grateful not to be that young journalist who draws the assignment of covering the Jason Kenney government’s “expert panel,” which was established last week to hear out the frustrations of Albertans and turn their preferred futures into recommendations for action. No doubt that journalist will be more precariously employed than I was. The experience won’t be a high-minded one.
But I hope she takes good notes, writes what she sees and hears, and draws cautionary lessons from the assignment in better times, four decades from now.
–Roger Epp is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts.
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