This is hardly new. Western separation first emerged in the 1970s during a booming economy, unlike the current incarnation that comes at a time of a struggling economy.
Separation is an unfortunate belief that Alberta can survive on its own. At best, it is highly questionable whether an independent West is actually viable. Of course, this supposes British Columbia remains part of Canada — in the past, B.C. has shown little interest in separation.
However, as much as Western fingers point at Ottawa, Westerners have to accept some responsibility.
When you look at Canadian history in the latter part of the 20th century, you see an Alberta economy that frequently drove the entire Canadian economy. During those years, Alberta, under premier Peter Lougheed, took responsibility for the province and its place in the Confederation. In 1973, Lougheed told then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau “the West wants in!”
Back then, Alberta undertook a number of initiatives that the current austerity-focused administration is repeating at a considerable cost to Albertans.
Twice before — first under provincial treasurer Merv Leitch, then under Jim Dinning — Alberta’s treasury board studied a provincial income tax regime. In 2019, as funding to school boards and municipalities is cut, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars will be spent coming to the same conclusion. Alberta collecting its own income tax is just too costly to be beneficial.
Similarly, resurrection of the Alberta Provincial Police, replacing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has been reviewed and rejected. After all, what is to be gained? Whether it is an APP or the RCMP, the organization is still enforcing the same statute, the Criminal Code of Canada. How is that efficient? The only result is to increase costs to the province by adding another expensive layer of policing.
“Canada and Alberta are most successful when the provinces and federal government cooperate.”
I will never claim to be an actuarial expert, but I am left to ask what is to be gained by a provincial pension plan? Instead of spreading risk across the country, Alberta would focus its risk on a narrow and — as we have seen — economically vulnerable region.
Albertans have to accept some of the blame for Western alienation. For decades, the vast majority of Albertans have voted for politically conservative candidates. Some wonder why Albertans consistently find themselves on the outside looking in.
Let’s face political reality: Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia will always hold the most power in Canada. They have the largest number of voters.
Why would any political party waste valuable time and financial resources when the outcome is a foregone conclusion based on 15 federal elections since 1970?
Canada and Alberta are most successful when the provinces and federal government cooperate. Alberta’s influence within Confederation could well be said to have reached its zenith when Premier Lougheed worked closely with his Quebec counterpart, Premier Rene Levesque, to accomplish constitutional reform that benefited both provinces and the nation.
With a minority government, Canada is in an excellent position to address major national issues by consensus. How do we get a co-operative ball rolling?
- The Trans Mountain Pipeline must be completed, which will provide investment confidence in Canada and internationally. Communities along the route, especially Indigenous communities, need it. Alberta’s economy needs it, Canada’s economy needs it. So does the world. China, a huge potential market, can use cleaner Alberta oil to replace massive use of coal.
- Workers in Alberta’s petroleum industry need to see climate change as an opportunity rather than a job killer. Since the 1970s, Alberta has been Canada’s energy centre with billions spent for energy research. Simple redirection can give this research infrastructure a new goal.
- Both sides in the climate debate need open their eyes to reality. As much as we might wish, it is impossible for the entire world to change overnight from its current energy infrastructure.
- Where have petroleum workers been? In the 1970s it was widely recognized and clearly stated that petroleum was a non-renewable resource. We are there now, “the future” predicted half a century ago. The energy of these highly skilled workers can be focused on changing our energy infrastructure.
- Without delay, the prime minister should call a first ministers’ conference to develop a climate agenda for all of Canada. Climate policy should include things like incentives for innovation and technology research to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint, and policies that attract foreign investment and create jobs.
- The prime minster should establish a Western Diversification Ministry to give the needed boost to the West.
As a proud Canadian, an Albertan, and a Calgarian, I am proud to look back over the last 50 years to see that as a nation we have been most successful when we work together, rather than narrowly focused on populist crusades. We are stronger together.
Mike Shaikh is a Calgary businessman and Alberta Senator-in-Waiting.
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