It is difficult to imagine the Fall of 2021. We can hope that a vaccine will have ended the COVID crisis, and normal life will be resuming. We don’t know whether the Liberals will still be governing with a minority or if a federal election will have taken place. We don’t know how deep the recession will be. We don’t know whether demand for oil will have recovered, or the price it will trade at.
But, with the release of the Alberta Fair Deal panel report and the Government of Alberta’s response, we now know that Alberta will hold a referendum, asking a question like “do you support the removal of Section 36, which deals with the principle of equalization, from the Constitution Act, 1982?” And we can be reasonably certain that the vote will be overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Although the result is unlikely to change the Constitution, or even the equalization formula, it will create tension in the federation. This in turn has the potential to fuel the sense of alienation and grievance in the province.
How did we get here?
After Justin Trudeau’s Liberals formed a minority government in Fall of 2019, simmering regional alienation in Alberta boiled over into calls for Western separation (or “Wexit”). In response, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney appointed the Fair Deal Panel to “to listen to Albertans and their ideas for Alberta’s future,” focusing on “ideas that would strengthen our province’s economic position, give us a bigger voice within Confederation, or increase provincial power over institutions and funding in areas of provincial jurisdiction.”
The formation of the panel and its report comprise the most recent episode in a long history of complaints of economic exploitation and political alienation by Albertans. From the National Energy Policy to current debates about equalization, there has been a persistent sense in Alberta that the central government exploits the Western region.
What has developed over the past three decades is an overt effort to cultivate a regional identity grounded in a shared political ideology. What is distinctive about Alberta, in this view, is its conservatism. And when Canada rejects conservatism, it rejects Alberta. When the Liberals won the 2001 federal election, Stephen Harper and several other prominent conservatives penned the Firewall Letter, calling on the province to employ constitutional powers available to it to protect the province from the “financial drain on Alberta” that Confederation represented, and warned that “Ottawa would be tempted to take advantage of Alberta’s prosperity, to redistribute income from Alberta to residents of other provinces to keep itself in power.”
This Alberta-conservative political project cannot be disentangled from the oil industry. Oil wealth has fuelled the Alberta conservative movement, with ties between pro-oil advocacy organizations and conservative groups like the Manning Centre. And the entanglement means that a threat to the oil industry is also a rejection of Alberta. The Trudeau government’s emphasis on climate policy and pursuit of a carbon tax is understood in this context not as a public policy initiative with which one might agree or disagree, but as an effort to undermine Alberta.
The 2019 federal election invoked both the rejection of conservatism and the threat to the oil industry, sparking the rise of the #Wexit movement, imagining the departure of “Buffalo” (Alberta and Saskatchewan) from Confederation. Kenney’s decision to appoint the Fair Deal Panel can be understood as an effort to allow Albertans to voice their grievances, showing the provincial government to be responsive to the movement without committing to immediate action.
The quest for a collective identity
The Alberta-conservative project is fixated on Quebec, and animated by a belief that Quebec has worked the system to its advantage and Alberta’s disadvantage. To replace Quebec as the focal point of Canadian federalism, Alberta must employ all the techniques that Quebec has used to such apparently great advantage. By holding referenda on sovereignty association, Quebec gained leverage and was able to make its accommodation the focal point of Canadian politics for decades. Alberta, then, should find ways to create leverage and make the accommodation of Alberta the central dynamic. Where Quebec has found space within the Constitution Act to exercise authority, Alberta should, too.
This focus on Quebec shapes the Fair Deal Report: the word “Ontario” appears 9 times, but Quebec, 56. Quebec sovereigntists refer to historical humiliations, from conquest to the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord. For the Alberta conservative movement, the rejection of pipelines and imposition of a carbon tax serve as parallels around which the politics of constitutional grievance can be nurtured.
For the Alberta-conservative movement to take flight, it requires collective identity. Unlike Quebec sovereigntists, Alberta conservatives lack a claim around language or culture. Instead, there is a conscious effort to cultivate a collective identity grounded in grievance. The Buffalo Declaration, signed earlier in 2020 by four Alberta MPs, enumerates historical grievances, and then works to construct a notion of Alberta identity that mentions the landscape, the oil and gas industry, entrepreneurship, and the Famous Five champions of women’s rights (among other items) and claims that “Albertans are proud of our history, our rural roots, and Western way of life. We are not content to live off the government dole. We find pride in self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We reject efforts by the East to further yoke us to the coffers of Ottawa,” and goes on to state that “We are distinct in Canada. We are proud of who we are.”
This effort to nurture collective identity was endorsed in the Fair Deal report, which recommended that the government “explore ways and means to affirm Alberta’s cultural, economic and political uniqueness in law and government policy.”
What does this mean for Canada?
If the Government of Alberta acts on them, most of the recommendations of the Fair Deal report will have relatively little impact on the rest of Canada. The government has opted to study recommendations to form a provincial police force and establish a provincial pension fund; even if enacted, Alberta’s withdrawal from both the RCMP and the CPP would be relatively insignificant. Recommendations relating to improving inter-provincial trade or developing Northern communications and transportation infrastructure might have positive impact if other provinces join the effort.
The one recommendation that the government has accepted and that might disrupt Canadian federalism is the recommendation that a referendum be held to ask Albertans whether they support removing the section of the Constitution that enshrines the principle of equalization. Likely to be held in conjunction with municipal elections on October 18, 2021, the referendum is all but certain to pass, unless current public opinion changes radically.
The Panel’s report emphasizes that the referendum should be held on a “clear question” relating to constitutional reform. This echoes the language of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Quebec Secession Reference. The Court ruled that “A clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative which all of the other participants in Confederation would have to recognize” and that “the clear repudiation of the existing constitutional order and the clear expression of the desire to pursue secession by the population of a province would give rise to a reciprocal obligation on all parties to Confederation to negotiate constitutional changes to respond to that desire.”
Despite the clear phrasing of the ruling, specifically mentioning secession both in relation to democratic legitimacy and the duty to negotiate, proponents of the Alberta-conservative movement have rallied around the idea that a clear vote on a clear question on any constitutional issue would bring the federal government to the negotiating table. Political scientist Rainer Knopff has argued that it is not the referendum, but a subsequent legislative resolution that would bring the federal government to the table.
This gambit involves a very optimistic interpretation of the reference case, and the claim that there is a requirement that the federal government negotiate is likely to keep Ottawa from the negotiation table. To agree that there is a duty to negotiate when a provincial government holds a referendum on a constitutional issue would lend normative credence to the argument, and invite a spate of provincial referenda on various constitutional issues.
In the aftermath of this referendum, Albertans will feel thwarted if their call for constitutional change is ignored. This will fuel the sense of alienation in the province, which is likely to be experiencing a serious economic downturn. It is possible that the federal government will engage in a reconsideration of the equalization formula before the planned reconsideration in 2024. This early reconsideration is presumably the real goal in this exercise. But if the federal government does not reconsider the formula, and the referendum has no impact, an additional historical grievance will be added to the Alberta-conservative narrative.
Even with the construction of this historical narrative of grievance, Alberta is unlikely to separate from Canada. But, like a buffalo in a china shop, it can do great damage. Regional identity has long been an animating force in Canadian politics. But the articulation of a regional identity that threatens separation whenever its favoured federal party does not form government can erode democratic discourse. A federalism animated by unilateral regional demands for accommodation and recognition can quickly become dysfunctional. This will test the institutions of Canadian federalism in the years to come.