“Canada is in crisis.”
So begins the Buffalo Declaration, a document released by Conservative Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner Thursday. The declaration is co-signed by three other Alberta Tories, and demands “equality” for the province under the constitution.
Besides now getting to use the excellent pun of referring to these MPs as the “Buffalo wing” of the Conservative Party — and developing a hankering for blue cheese dressing along the way — this document reignited debate about Western alienation, conversations that followed last fall’s election after the ruling Liberals didn’t win a single seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan.
It’s also sparked a wave of critiques from Albertans and other people across Canada, arguing that the alienated Westerners don’t represent their views and legitimize dangerous separatist sentiments.
WATCH: Alberta premier reacts to letter calling for Ottawa to deny Teck project. Story continues below.
But what is this document and how seriously should you take it?
Here are some answers to your Buffalo Declaration questions.
What is the Buffalo Declaration?
The Buffalo Declaration is a 13-page document and accompanying webpage released on Feb. 20 signed by four Conservative members of Parliament. It outlines concerns about Alberta’s role in the federal government and what the signees call a push for “equality” for the province. The authors definition of equality has a number of different pillars, from repealing carbon taxes to changing the size of Parliament.
The declaration outlines the “challenges” faced by Alberta and possible solutions. It contends that Alberta is “physically and economically isolated” from Canada’s power structures.
It’s structurally quite similar to the 2001 “Firewall Letter,” written by future-prime minister Stephen Harper and other prominent Albertans to then-premier Ralph Klein urging him to to fully exercise Alberta’s constitutional powers by creating a provincial police force and withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan.
The Buffalo Declaration, however, is targeted at Justin Trudeau’s federal government rather than the provincial one. In fact, it is quite sympathetic to Jason Kenney’s UCP government in Alberta and how it’s handled separatist sentiment.
“We support Premier Jason Kenney’s initial efforts in this regard, as his government’s Fair Deal panel explores the creation of a provincial revenue agency, withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, establishing a provincial police force, and other measures,” the report reads. “But we must go further. Much further.”
“We must go further. Much further”
The much further in question seems to be demanding things that would require a rewriting of the constitution, such as shifting resource projects to be under the control of the provinces and rewriting equalization payments. As well, the document calls for repealing policies such as the carbon tax and enforcing rule of law on energy project protests.
It even asks for Trudeau to recognize Alberta as “culturally distinct” from the rest of Canada.
There’s a lot going on there.
The document’s proposing over a dozen structural and policy changes to how Canada works. Many would require referenda, and most would require the support of the federal Conservative party before pushing Trudeau on them.
And that brings up that this document, notably, is targeted at the upcoming Conservative leadership race.
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“Any leadership contestant for the Conservative Party of Canada who seeks the support of Albertans should be prepared to address this declaration,” the document reads.
Notably, Rempel Garner — who’s leading the charge on the declaration — has expressed interest in a run for federal party leadership in the past, but has not formally declared anything for the current race.
Who is behind it?
Alberta currently has 33 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons, but only four have signed this document.
Rempel Garner is leading the charge on the declaration, but it is also co-signed by Banff-Airdrie MP Blake Richards, Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner MP Glen Motz and Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen.
“Albertans are questioning if confederation is broken. They feel disconnected from, and disrespected by, the rest of Canada,” Richards wrote in a Facebook post.
Motz was in transit Friday and unable to return HuffPost Canada’s request.
A representative from Viersen’s office deferred to Rempel Garner for all inquiries related to the declaration.
The offices of both Rempel Garner and Richards did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Why is it called the Buffalo Declaration?
Ahead of confederation, the area now covered by Saskatchewan and Alberta was proposed by the then-Northwest Territories premier as a possible large province called Buffalo.
“The federal government feared this would concentrate too much power in one province and grow to rival Quebec and Ontario,” the authors argue, though there is little historic evidence proving this.
The authors argue the name is meant to evoke the glory days of Alberta before it starting being “taken advantage of” by the federal government.
But aren’t bison a tricky subject on the prairies?
When the first European settlers arrived in North America, as many as 60 million bison inhabited the continent’s grasslands, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And yes, bison are different than buffalo. Scientifically speaking, buffalo actually refers to animals like water buffalo in Africa. Bison refers to the big brown woolly folks the Buffalo Declaration used as their logo.
Plains bison were almost wiped out entirely in the late 1800s by over hunting, largely the result of colonial settlers on the prairies. Bison populations had remained steady for thousands of years previously and were incredibly important to Indigenous communities.
They have made a comeback in recent times. 2018 was the first time bison roamed freely in Alberta in 140 years.
Many critics of the manifesto immediately pointed to the irony of using “Buffalo” in its name.
Wait, all this talk of “Western alienation” sounds a lot like Wexit?
It sort of is! The issues and concerns outlined are very similar to those put forward by the folks behind “Wexit,” aka the separatist movement.
Those folks want Alberta — and sometimes other Western provinces — to leave Canada to a certain degree. Some want to form a new country, others propose joining the United States while others just want Alberta to start governing more of itself a la Quebec.
Separatists have been specifically dismayed about equalization payments, where federal funds are transferred between wealthy and less wealthy provinces to help ensure “reasonably comparable” health care, education and welfare in all regions. Opponents of equalization say Alberta pays an unfairly large share, and argue that it should be allowed to keep all of its oil revenue.
On this, the Buffalo Declaration and Wexit agree. They also agree on what both sides call an “unfair treatment” from Ontario in specific.
And while the Buffalo Declaration claims to be about the West “wanting in” as opposed to “wanting out,” they document does work to legitimize Alberta separatism.
“Structural, constitutional change must happen within Confederation or a referendum on Alberta’s independence is an inevitability,” the declaration reads. “It is not our job to explain Alberta’s value, it is now up to Canada to show they understand Alberta and our value to Confederation.”
“One way or another, Albertans will have equality.”
The document even ends with a bit of a threat.
“One way or another, Albertans will have equality.”
It’s important to note the struggles that have plagued Alberta separatists for decades, including an unsavoury connection to alt-right and white nationalist movements in the province. Parties have struggled to gain footholds campaigning on these alienation-inspired ideas
The most recent separatist group, Wexit, has largely faded from public consciousness in the past few months as it struggled to reconcile its more radical members with actual political process.
How many Albertans actually want this?
That’s the big kicker here. Only four Tory MPs are actually signed on to this declaration.
If we’re talking about alienation and separatist sentiments, according to two different polls in the months following the 2019 election, — one from ThinkHQ and one by Abacus Data, less than 28 per cent of Albertans surveyed actually support separatism.
It’s difficult to gauge support for the policies outlined in the Buffalo Declaration because, frankly, they have so many different goals, varying in scope.
Support for having Trudeau “acknowledge Alberta as a distinct culture” is likely vastly different than rewriting the constitution to give Alberta more seats in Parliament.
What are the people saying about this?
While there is little formal polling on it, the document’s been heavily critiqued on social media, with people particularly drawing attention to its ideas around “Alberta’s unique culture” and the assertion that the province is “treated like a colony,” many calling the latter statement outright “racist.”
The document spends time detailing what it calls Alberta “culture,” which the authors define as a “struggle against a colonial government, a desire for individual freedom, a willingness and drive to achieve personal economic liberty; a deep connection and respect for our land; and an economy unique to other areas of Canada.”
Many Albertans also noted that the manifesto doesn’t reflect their experiences.
Speaking to the Toronto Star, Mount Royal University professor Lori Williams called the declaration “sort of wing-nutty.”
“This isn’t inviting, it’s not persuasive, it’s demanding, it’s entitled.”
The declaration’s site urges people to contribute their own ideas on how to move forward.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Lori Williams as Lou Williams.