POLITICS
10/25/2019 11:27 EDT | Updated 10/25/2019 12:18 EDT

What Is Wexit? We Answer Your Questions About Western Separation

Can Alberta separate from Canada? And did anyone ask Indigenous people what they think?

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Supporters stand in front of the Alberta flag at the United Conservative Party election night headquarters in Calgary on April 16, 2019.

As results rolled in for Monday’s federal election, it became quickly obvious that Alberta and Saskatchewan would be a sea of blue. Save for the NDP taking Edmonton Strathcona, every riding in the two provinces elected a Conservative MP.

That shutout of the Liberal party forced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to acknowledge the work facing his minority government.

“To Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan, know that you are an essential part of our great country,” he said in his victory speech Monday night. “I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you. Let us all work hard to bring our country together.” 

 

The olive branch did not appease some people in Alberta and Saskatchewan, who are instead looking to pull further away from the federal government through separation. The day after the election, hashtags like #albertaseparation and #wexit (for “Western exit”) blew up on social media, as an organization called WexitAlberta installed billboards in downtown Edmonton calling for the province to “kick Ottawa to the curb.” 

But separatist sentiments had been brewing long before Monday’s final ballot was counted. Organizers with the “Wexit” group — more on them later — have been around for months leading up to the election, and had a plan to strategically deploy billboards and advertising in case Trudeau won. 

It is getting people talking about “Wexit” and a hypothetical “Republic of Western Canada.” 

Is this real? Will Alberta form its own country? What about the pipeline?

To help you wade through the truth and hypotheticals, here are some answers to your questions.

What is Western separatism?

Remember in the ’90s when Quebec considered splitting into its own country?  Western separatism is basically that — just further west and with the loudest voices in Alberta and Saskatchewan wanting to secede from Canada and form their own country.

Is this a new thing?

Separatist sentiments in Alberta started in the 1930s with the rise of the Social Credit Party, and continued on and off through the 20th century. They flared up in the 1970s when Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister.

Separatists largely opposed initiatives introduced by Trudeau in the ’70s like national bilingualism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the National Energy Program, because they saw them as an “affront to Alberta values.” 

The 1974 election echoed this year’s results; the elder Trudeau’s Liberals formed a minority government with only 13 seats west of Ontario, and most of them in B.C. 

More recently, separatists have been dismayed about equalization payments, where federal funds are transferred to less wealthy provinces to help ensure “reasonably comparable” health care, education and welfare in all regions. Opponents of equalization say Alberta pay an unfairly large share, and that it should be allowed to keep all of its oil revenue. 

In the last provincial election, the Alberta Independence Party received 0.74 per cent of the popular vote. Its main policy platform is for the province to secede from Canada.

Wait, isn’t B.C. on the West Coast? Are they part of this?

Not really. While separatist sentiments in the 1970s often roped B.C. into the mix, this time around, it’s mostly about Alberta. Many of the issues Albertans find contentious are actually things many in B.C. are in favour of: we’re talking stopping the pipeline, a carbon tax and equalization. 

So it’s less of a “Wexit” and more of an Albexit. Saskatchexit? Prexit? Sounds like some sort of snack mix. 

What are #wexit, #rednexit, #albertaseparation and all those hashtags?

These are hashtags used by people expressing separatist sentiments (or mocking them) on social media in the days following Monday’s federal election. At one point, both #AlbertaSeparation and the misspelled #AlbertaSeperation were both trending.

 People also started using #rednexit to mock separatist passions.

“Wexit” specifically refers to an organization and movement to secede, founded earlier this summer by Peter Downing. It’s a play on “Brexit” — Britain’s plan to leave the European Union — and “Western Canada.” 

The group refers to itself as “a voluntary association of Indigenous Albertans & Non-Indigenous Albertans, who share a commitment to Economic Liberty, Social Stability, and Alberta Sovereignty.” According to their website, it aims to register as a political party in Alberta by acquiring the necessary 7,000 signatures on a petition.

According to the site, its account has been shut down by YouTube so they say they’ve been forced to migrate videos of their rallies and events to Bitchute, platform that claims to offer a place for “freedom of expression” and “decentralized distribution.” Bitchute has become a home for controversial and far-right content that promotes racism, white nationalism or populism.

The Prairie Freedom Movement, a Facebook page with over 26,000 followers associated with both Downing and Wexit, frequently shares fake news and conspiracy theories around Trudeau, immigration and the federal election. Downing, a former federal candidate for the Christian Heritage Party, is also a confirmed believer in Pizzagate — a debunked far-right conspiracy theory involving former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

What about Indigenous people?

As many people pointed out on social media, land isn’t something you can just give and take. Most of Alberta and Saskatchewan is covered by treaties established with Indigenous groups that dictate the relationship between the government and its use of the land. Some of those treaties cover multiple provinces – Treaty 8 extends into B.C. and the territories, for example.

 

So how many Albertans actually want this?

According to two differentpolls in the past few months — one from ThinkHQ and one by Abacus Data, less than 28 per cent of Albertans surveyed actually support separatism. 

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, told the National Observer that opinion polls on the subject should be taken with a grain of salt.

“It’s very difficult to read very much into a public opinion survey that has no consequence,” she said.

To secede from Canada, a referendum would first have to pass with more than 50 per cent of support. Qubebec came close in 1995 — and that’s when the province had political parties committed to the cause and decades of planning in place.

Will Alberta or Saskatchewan actually separate? 

Incredibly unlikely. 

The Clarity Act, passed in 2000, defines how a province would secede from Canada. The House of Common has to first determine if a referendum question is valid and then also define what a “majority” vote means. Relevant First Nations must be consulted. If a province violates the Act, the House has the power to deny separation. 

Separation means sovereignty, yes. It would mean a fancy new flag, an amendment to the Constitution and no more equalization. 

But it also means losing access to well-entrenched federal programs — the Canada Pension Plan, infrastructure, medicare, trade agreements, the postal service, the RCMP and a whole lot more. A new country would have to build a lot of those things from scratch.

And, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pointed out during a news conference Tuesday, land-locking the province through separation would not solve what he calls “a campaign to land-lock Alberta” from anti-pipeline advocates. Basically, if people really want a pipeline, it’s a lot harder to build one through a B.C. that’s part of a different country, than through B.C. when it’s just another province. 

WATCH: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reacts to federal election results. Story continues below.

What next?

Still, Kenney said he’s going to hear out separatist sentiments in the province through public town halls and consultation. 

During a Wexit town hall in Red Deer last week, founder Downing said the lawn signs and billboards were only “phase two” of his five-step plan for separation. 

“We are at a very divisive point in this nation,” said Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe this week. “We have an opportunity for the prime minister to quell the conversations around separatism.” 

Fellow Conservative premier Brian Pallister from Manitoba, however, immediately laid his position against separatism on the table, saying that he has “no time for that.” 

“My wife and I have been together for 35 years and we don’t get stronger as a couple by threatening to leave every week,” he said.