With the near-annihilation of the Bloc Québecois in May's federal election and the recent implosion of the Parti Québecois, one could be forgiven for assuming separatist sentiment is on the wane in Canada.
Yet the election to Parliament of a one-time Newfoundland separatist reminds us of how Quebec has never had a monopoly on secessionist desires. In 2008, as editor of the St. John's newspaper The Independent, Ryan Cleary extolled the potential virtues of an independent Newfoundland and Labrador: "We could even declare this place a tax-free zone like the Cayman Islands. We could do whatever the heck we want," he wrote.
The Rock has yet to become Caymans North, and as an NDP MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl, Cleary's tune has changed: He recently assured Maclean's that separation is "not what people want, and that's not what I want."
Still, it takes only one unpopular piece of legislation to set provincial separatists off. From sea to sea, there may be many more than two solitudes in our home and native land.
Separation movements, in fact, are as old as Canada itself. Just after Nova Scotia became one of Canada's four founding provinces in 1867, it elected the political wing of its Anti-Confederation League to form a provincial government. The party also won 18 of Nova Scotia's 19 seats in the House of Commons. Leader Joseph Howe tried to get Confederation repealed, setting up John A. Macdonald as the first of a long line of Canadian prime ministers who scrambled to dampen separatist fervour. Macdonald travelled to Nova Scotia to help hammer out a better financial deal, and Howe, sensing he couldn't beat the ruling Conservatives, joined them, accepting a post in Macdonald's cabinet in 1869.
In New Brunswick, anti-confederate candidates won five of 15 seats in the 1867 election, but they were in no position to separate the province. Like Howe before him, their leader, Albert J. Smith, eventually became part of the federal cabinet. About 140 years after the horse left, however, the province is now trying to lock the barn door: New Brunswick recently filed a legal brief claiming "Imperial officials" from Britain blackmailed it into joining Confederation by threatening to take away military protection and severing trade ties to the United States. They're seeking, along with the western provinces and Quebec, to stop Ottawa from establishing a national securities regulator, claiming centralization of power has already gone too far.
Four years after joining Confederation in 1871, British Columbia threatened to secede, fed up by delays in the construction of the Intercontinental Railway. At the time, its heavy debt load prevented it from achieving independence.
Today, the province's small but plucky Cascadia movement, which harkens back to Thomas Jefferson's 1803 concept of a "Republic of the Pacific," seeks amalgamation with the states of Washington and Oregon. The proposed political and economic union would be based on shared resources, values and traits.
British Columbia has also been courted by independence movements in other western provinces. In 1980, Richard Collver, formerly a popular leader of Saskatchewan's Progressive Conservatives, founded the Unionest Party (its name a better contraction of "best union" than "Bunion") and fought for B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta to break off from Canada and join the United States. His party didn't last. By 1981, he had moved to a ranch in Arizona and later told The Globe and Mail, "I think I had six supporters in Canada altogether, and five of them were family members."
Western separatist sentiments were fuelled in the early 1980s by the Trudeau government's plan to provide low-cost energy across Canada through revenue-sharing, a highly unpopular policy in Alberta. In 1982, the Western Canada Concept party, which promoted independence for Western Canada, including the territories, managed to get one of its candidates elected in Alberta. Puffed up by his win, MPP Gordon Kesler said of premier Peter Lougheed, "I hope he has the courage to call an election, because we're gonna lick him." Less than a year later, Kesler changed ridings and lost his seat.
The Western Independence Party spun off from the WCC in 1987; it continues to field candidates in provincial elections, dedicated to independence and the "sacred concept" of private property.
Western separatism survives, but as a much more fragmented movement than Quebec separatism -- small groups keep spinning off from larger parties, such as the Separation Party of Alberta (sample slogan: "Life in Alberta will be a SPA when we get rid of Ottawa"). All have failed to capture the popular imagination, especially since Stephen Harper's election as prime minister.
Separatist sentiment grew in Newfoundland during the early 1980s as well, albeit in response to a recession. Cartoonist Wallace Ryan devised his "Free Nfld" design, which is still popular on T-shirts, in 1982; the following year, the Party for an Independent Newfoundland was founded.
But only in the early 2000s did separatism make much of a splash in the province. In 2004, then-premier Danny Williams ordered all Canadian flags taken down from the provincial legislature in protest of the federal government's supposed seizure of offshore oil and gas revenue. In 2009, Liberal senator George Baker, angered at the prospect of large transfer payments to the federal government, told a St. John's radio station, "People will soon be advocating ... that we can't remain in the Confederation in which we're discriminated against and not respected."
He sparked a miniature firestorm in the media. Perhaps he felt the next step would be a revival of Newfoundland's "Anti-Confederation Song," an 1869 ditty that warned, "Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf!"
In contrast to all of this separatist sabre-rattling, there has been at least one serious modern movement for annexation, and an intriguing one at that.
The Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory in the West Indies, sent a delegation to Canada in 1987 to propose becoming the 11th province. The Mulroney government ruled that there wouldn't be much economic or social benefit for Canadians, but as recently as 2004, the islands' Chief Minister was still discussing the possibility of a merger.
Any prospective separatists would do well to remember that our nation has its attractions, even for those living in an idyllic archipelago with fantastic weather all year round and no income tax (somewhat like the Cayman Islands). Through the snow, the grass is always greener.