Should Alberta Separate?

By Lisa Young & Rick Northey

Lisa Young, the professor of political science at U of C says no

Let’s be clear. An independent Alberta would be founded on a shameful betrayal of Indigenous people. Before Alberta was a province, the Crown signed treaties (6, 7, 8) with Indigenous people who inhabited the territory, who understood them to be solemn agreements that would endure “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the waters flow.” Severing this relationship raises significant legal and moral issues.

Sadly, this doesn’t extinguish enthusiasm for the project of taking Alberta out of Confederation. For some, the lure of independence is the prospect of retreat into a more comfortable political community. Albertans would no longer be subjected to rule from afar, by leaders preoccupied with accommodating Quebec or limiting carbon emissions. But would we lose something valuable by exiting Canada? Has membership in a diverse federation challenged us to be better? Taught us something?

Countries that rely on natural resource revenue are prone to slip into authoritarianism. Being part of a functioning democracy has arguably helped inoculate Alberta from this trap, and we might think twice before we walk away from Canada’s rule of law, democratic government and Charter protections.

At the heart of the Wexit movement is an abiding faith that Albertans would be better off if our dollars no longer flowed to Ottawa to wastefully subsidize less fiscally virtuous provinces. Though we pay more, per capita, into the provision of federal services, those services are nonetheless provided. An independent Alberta would need to build all the infrastructure of a modern state: a currency, central bank, foreign service, military, border and immigration control. We’d lack access to foreign markets. Membership in trade and other agreements would have to be negotiated, from a position of relative weakness.

Long before “independence day,” the fledgling country would have suffered an outflow of both people and capital. Major employers would move their headquarters; mobile professionals would flee. Major corporations value stability above all else, and the lure of a low-tax environment would not be enough to keep many of them or attract new investment. A new flag wouldn’t increase the price of a barrel of oil on world markets, and our new constitution wouldn’t build a pipeline to tidewater. So we wouldn’t be able to run away from our current problems.

An independent Alberta would be a small country, prone to costly floods and fires, susceptible to anti-democratic impulses, reliant on a dying industry. We couldn’t count on help from either of our neighbours in times of trouble. Our risk would no longer be pooled with 33 million other Canadians, at a time when geopolitical and climate threats are increasing. And if we were to insist on extinguishing Indigenous treaty rights and ignoring climate change, we’d risk being international pariahs.

There’s no need for emotional appeals to Canadian patriotism in arguing against the foolishness of Wexit. Albertans are better off morally, politically and economically in Confederation.

 

Rick Northey, the Wildrose Independence Party president says yes

The people of Alberta must be free to chart the course of our own destiny. Our culture of self-reliance and free enterprise is being restricted by an eastern power monopoly. Canada is a functioning democracy without proper regional representation. The majority governs in its own self-interest without any check or balance on its power. The great myth of Canada is that we’re a family “in it together,” yet if you differ from the majority there’s no sympathy, no understanding and no option except like it or lump it. It’s time for a third option.

Confederation was and is a monopoly by Ontario and Quebec on every decision in Canada, political or legal. In our system, change can only be initiated by a prime minister ever-sensitive to the voters of these two largest provinces. Trudeaus may be unable to balance budgets, but they can count seats in the House. Power exists for power’s sake, and, to be fair, Conservatives have played the same game.

Individuals and provinces alike are supposed to be protected by our Constitution. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s so malleable when applied in practice. We see constitutionally entrenched provincial resource rights trumped by simple federal environmental legislation. The Supreme Court has never upheld the articles on interprovincial trade that would protect Albertans’ constitutional rights. Elective change is effectively blocked by the democratic majority, and judicial change is stymied by a refusal to uphold our Constitution’s written word.

Albertans are seeking independence not for the many historical grievances or technical details of equalization and environmental regulation, but because of the philosophy behind those federal laws. Eastern Canadians ask government to solve their problems. While this may work for them, using the federal government to destroy Alberta livelihoods based on this ideology is morally wrong. Denying provincial constitutional authority to bring Alberta to heel is morally wrong.

Alberta must be allowed its belief in private business, limited government and individual rights. Talk of provincial police forces, pension plans and immigration controls all flow out of this philosophy. If you believe these ideas are nothing more than bargaining chips or a spoiled child’s tantrum, then you don’t understand the root cause of the problem. Albertans’ righteous demand for respect and self-determination is not what will destroy Canada—that will come from easterners’ failure to acknowledge our different priorities and opinions.

It’s easy to argue Alberta must seek independence because Confederation is broken, but the truth is much worse. Alberta must seek independence because Confederation is functioning exactly as designed: to centralize power. With eastern Canada holding the overwhelming balance of power, change is impossible. We who seek independence are mocked by those who fear Alberta independence. This is hardly the vision of Canada we so dearly love, but something rather darker.

 

Lisa Young responds to Rick Northey

The case made here for Alberta’s separation is grounded in an argument about the “tyranny” of majority rule. Ontario and Quebec hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons, Mr. Northey argues, and consequently Canadian politics revolves around the interests of those two provinces.

Never mind that Canada was led for nine of the past 20 years by a Conservative prime minister who represented an Alberta constituency, who appointed five of the nine justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court of Canada. It is true that six out of every 10 seats in the House belong to voters in Ontario and Quebec. Alberta voters are a minority in Canada, just as Edmonton voters are a minority in Alberta. The frustration Alberta Conservatives feel when their party doesn’t form the national government is the same frustration Alberta New Democrats felt for decades when the Progressive Conservatives had a stranglehold on power in the province.

Democracy is hard, especially when your side is losing. But in a mature democracy, losers accept the outcome, regroup, forge new alliances, adopt new strategies and carry on into the next election.

A nation founded on the impulse to ensure that one side is guaranteed to govern, or that is grounded in a set of ideological values (like “self-reliance” and “free enterprise”), is a nation that will not sustain a functioning democracy. What space for dissent would there be in this new country established as a Conservative homeland? What attention would be paid to the interests of those Albertans who do not share these views? What guarantees would protect their democratic rights?

In his argument for Alberta’s separation, Mr. Northey asserts that Albertans are seeking independence because “eastern Canadians ask government to solve their problems.” This formulation of Alberta independence is a radical individualist fantasy: no collective solutions to common problems, no environmental regulations to get in the way of resource extraction, no duty to consult the Indigenous people whose traditional territories house the resources.

To the extent that Albertans collectively diverge from other Canadians in their policy and political preferences, federalism offers considerable scope to enact a different set of policies in this province. Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. The Government of Alberta controls education and healthcare; it controls labour laws that cover the majority of employees in the province; it is free to develop its own version of social programs while still receiving transfers from the federal government; it controls its post-secondary institutions—and the list goes on.

The province has been able to develop its natural resources (with considerable public investment) and reap the benefits through royalties for decades, thereby funding its outstanding public services while maintaining low taxes. Ironically, this combination of resource revenues and low taxes has nurtured the Albertan myth of “small government”: we have enjoyed big government at small government prices, and we have told ourselves stories about how this is a result of free enterprise, not a combination of state investment and sheer geographic good fortune.

Alberta’s streak of good fortune does seem to be coming to an end, and that leaves us at a crossroads. Do we retreat into a fantasy world where independence is seen as the answer to our problems, or do we face up to the global forces that are driving the change? Do we indulge ourselves in the idea that the duty to consult Indigenous people and the requirement to consider the environment are self-serving eastern Canadian impositions, or do we take stock of who we are and how we want to manage the resources we find here?

Focusing our current discontent and anxiety on the federal government is a way to avoid confronting our pressing problems. How will we navigate a global economy that is rapidly shifting away from carbon? How will we clean up the oil and gas sites we have developed, and how will we do better in the future? How will we ensure that we continue to prosper? How will we build an inclusive community? There is an urgent need for Albertans to let go of their sense of historical grievance and focus their attention away from the past toward a future that is arriving faster than any of us had imagined.

When a group proposes a course of action as radical as separation from Canada, the onus is on them to articulate a forward-looking vision. Beyond vague references to limited government and self-reliance, the Alberta independence movement has offered no meaningful plan. They have given no consideration to issues of existing treaty obligations, the challenges of navigating a complex international system, or the democratic structures that would govern their new country. Alberta has many challenges to face, and nursing grievances about our place in Confederation is little but a diversion from tackling them.

 

Rick Northey responds to Lisa Young

It’s true that one of the biggest hurdles Alberta independence faces is the shameful treatment of Canada’s First Nations—but this is not a veto-level obstacle. Remember, the Canadian Crown inherited a number of treaty obligations in 1867, so it’s possible for a sovereign Alberta to hold those treaties the same way. To add some historical context, Louis Riel’s Metis rebellions were directed against the Canadian government. This same government instituted a racist policy of assimilation, creating residential schools and imposing the Indian Act.

Alberta independence represents an historic opportunity to write a new constitution, create a new social compact and invite First Nations to participate in shaping their own future. It will be the first time a “white settler government” has offered First Nations participation in their own governance. This is something to be celebrated, not feared. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. That kind of thinking would have kept humanity from landing on the moon. We choose to do these things.

Reliance on resource revenues does not produce authoritarianism; corruption does. Having one source of income makes corruption easier but doesn’t create the desire or intent. Political values separate prosperous democracies from corrupt dictatorships. Unfortunately, a culture of corruption is already well established in Ottawa. Ethics gives way to expediency, long established fiscal responsibility is abandoned for progressivism, and 800 years of parliamentary tradition is cast aside. Friends of power get insider access and sweetheart deals, eastern corporate interests get immunity from prosecution through manipulation of the justice system, and ethics inquiries are quashed by the hammer of prorogation.

Membership in this diverse federation has taught Alberta that not all are equal. Political power must be held close, and written constitutions must be followed.

Confederation’s end need not spawn a legal vacuum, but a vast amount of work will need to be done first. The machinery of a modern state needs to be created before a referendum on independence. Most of these things are within the existing power of our provincial government, but eventually we will be limited by Canada’s Constitution, and so here too we must be prepared. Alberta needs to fashion a new constitution, and we have many options. Keeping the British monarchy allows for legal continuity, while forming a republic has different advantages. Once Alberta is ready to stand on its own, our eastern partners will face a choice: recognize Alberta’s legitimate aspirations or force a conflict. The democratic right of people to manage their own affairs will not be denied.

It’s true that an independent Alberta will have to renegotiate all international treaties of which Canada is now a part, and this presents significant challenges. The benefit is that Alberta will finally negotiate for itself instead of relying on the eastern-dominated federal government. Ottawa in recent years has used international deals as a way of imposing “national standards,” which intrude on provincial authority. This is just one more area in which Alberta needs to assert its interests, especially in cases where “national standards” is just a label for a federal ruling party’s unconstitutional ideological dreams.

The argument about instability is moot—it’s already here. Corporations desire stability in order to make profit, and in Alberta the money is leaving today, meaning the price of independence is at an all-time low.

Wealth is only created by selling things people want, and Alberta’s energy will always have value. The world demands our clean coal, ethical oil and other energy already produced to the highest of environmental standards. Global downturn aside, the pressure to phase out Alberta energy is an eastern ideological project based on a green-energy fantasy. This scheme is founded on massive government subsidies of borrowed money. Once that bubble bursts—once the Bank of Canada can no longer artificially expand the money supply—this country will face a cold, hard dose of Greek-style reality. We cannot make things real by wishing, and if green energy were economical people would already be using it without being bribed.

Canada’s fiscal insanity is one more reason Alberta needs to go it alone before we once again foot the bill for eastern central planning.

Defending India’s independence from England, Mahatma Gandhi said that “Good government is no substitute for self-government.” This quote has added meaning given our terrible federal government. Alberta is not better off in Confederation, because Canada is going off the rails financially and ideologically. Canada’s post-nationalism leaves our fate in the hands of willfully ignorant federal leaders who cannot even define their own best interest, let alone Alberta’s.

To argue that Alberta must remain in Canada is effectively to say Albertans are not fit to govern our own affairs. The day will come when we are given the choice on a referendum ballot and the people will decide.

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