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JIM VIBERT: Alienation is real but Wexit’s a non-starter

A crowd listens to Peter Downing, the Founder of Wexit Alberta at a Wexit gathering in Edmonton, November 2, 2019. - Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
A crowd listens to Peter Downing, the Founder of Wexit Alberta at a Wexit gathering in Edmonton, November 2, 2019. - Ed Kaiser/Postmedia - Postmedia

We are reliably informed by no less an authority than Alberta Premier Jason Kenney that people in his province feel betrayed by Ottawa, and that the sentiment we’ve called western alienation for generations is growing and giving rise to serious thoughts of western separatism. 

The separatist movement even has a catchy little Brexit-inspired moniker: Wexit. Don’t make the classic mistake of the eastern elites, we are solemnly warned, and write off the Wexiteers as redneck oil and gas apostles determined to extract ever possible dollar out of the carbon-belching resource that made their region rich. 

Granted, it would be easier to eschew that characterization of the Wexiteers if they didn’t feed it. This past weekend an estimated 700 Wexit supporters gathered in an Edmonton honky-tonk called the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dance Hall. Many of the attendees were sporting Conservative blue ‘Make Alberta Great Again’ ball caps. There’s a lot in there that screams redneck rodeo. 

But Kenney assures his fellow Canadians that the vast majority of Albertans are Canadian patriots who want only to feel at home in their own land and have their contribution to the nation’s prosperity recognized and appreciated. They want the national government to step up and support Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s once and – they hope – future source of great wealth. 

The list of western grievances includes: the despised carbon tax; the failure by the national government to get landlocked western oil and gas to the sea and global markets; Bill C-69 which passed Parliament last spring and was dubbed the ‘no-more-pipelines’ bill by Kenney; and equalization, which is oversimplified as a wealth transfer from west to east. 

The federal Liberal government’s purchase of and assurance that the Trans Mountain pipeline would be built – seen as a betrayal by environmentalists – didn’t do much to assuage the frustration of westerners who obviously want the pipeline built but consider it the least Ottawa can do. 

Kenney rode a wave of resentment against Ottawa to government and shows no signs of tempering his practised animus toward all things Liberal, which includes a federal Liberal government without a single member from Alberta or Saskatchewan. 

Kenney is gearing up for a province-wide airing of grievances at town hall meetings called free speech forums – of course they are – where Albertans get to whinge with impunity about their plight and what must be done to get a “fair deal for Alberta.” 

Kenney talks about his unwavering commitment to a unified Canada even as he stokes the economic anxieties that underpin Wexit sentiment. Alberta’s premier is no separatist, but he’s not shy about using the threat they pose as a lever to try and get what he wants from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government. 

Trudeau is caught between a western rock and a Parliamentary hard place. The west – in this case, Alberta and Saskatchewan – wants to ratchet up production of oil and gas. The parties Trudeau’s minority government will look to for votes it needs to get anything passed through Parliament – the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois – are less sympathetic to the oil patch than the Liberals. 

Trudeau could get measures that assuage Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe through Parliament with Conservative support, but much of what the western premiers want appears to the rest of the nation as backsliding in the battle against global warming.   

Clearly, Trudeau can’t back away from a price on carbon following an election in which two-thirds of Canadians voted for a political party that supports a price on carbon. Bill 69 imposes environmental criteria that major projects – like pipelines – must meet and makes it mandatory to weigh each project’s climate impact. 

Outside of the oil and gas producing provinces in the west, those measures are seen by a majority of Canadians as relatively moderate measures to combat the climate crisis. 

Wexit is a non-starter. Alberta is having enough trouble getting its oil to the coast as a landlocked province with the support of a federal government willing to build a pipeline. It would be impossible to do so as a landlocked nation without the support of the other party in the divorce, Canada. 

That’s not to say Trudeau and company can relax and stop worrying about feelings of alienation in western Canada. They are real and need to be addressed. Over the short term, that means support for the cornerstone of the region’s economy, the oil and gas sector.  But over the longer term it means a transition, in western Canada as in the rest of Canada, away from a carbon-fuelled economy to a carbon-free economy. 

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on those in power. 

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