Alberta under siege. An interview on the future of Western Canada
One year ago Justin Trudeau won the Canadian federal election for the second time, albeit with lower votes and seats than in 2015. Trudeau’s Liberal Party has substantially built its parliamentary plurality in Eastern Provinces, without hardly winning any seat West of Ontario. The Liberals failed to make any inroad into the provinces of the Prairies and it is no surprise that the strongest rejection of the federal Liberal government has come from Alberta, where voters overwhelmingly supported the Conservative Party.
However, once again, the will of the citizens of Alberta has been outvoted by the Eastern progressive bloc. Alberta seems to be doomed to be structurally in opposition, without any real chance to have a say in federal politics. But can things be changed? Is there still a place for Alberta and the other Western provinces in the current federal constitutional framework? And what can be the long term political alternatives for the neglected conservative provinces?
We have discussed all these issues with Derek Fildebrandt, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for the conservative-libertarian Wildrose Party from 2015 to 2019, and now the publisher of the magazine “Western Standard”. Fildelbrandt holds genuine right-libertarian views and is an adamant advocate of self-government for Alberta.
MARCO FARACI: Mr. Fildebrandt, a popular expression to describe the malaise of the Western Canadian provinces is “Western alienation”. Do you think that it captures the feelings of most of the Alberta citizens accurately?
DEREK FILDEBRANDT: I think that in some way “Western alienation” is an old notion. This expression has been circulating since the 70s and 80s and in my opinion it understates the current political conditions of Alberta. The word “alienation” just hints at the concept that the federal government ignores us. Unfortunately this is not true anymore. Ottawa does not just ignore Alberta; it is actively hostile to the interests of Alberta. I think that a more representative notion would be “Western siege”. I think that Alberta is under siege. We are attacked and besieged by a distant and increasingly foreign government.
MF: This is a rather strong statement. Could you explain to our readers how the federal government harms Alberta and the interests of its citizens?
DF: It does it in many ways. It is not just about milking Albertan taxpayers’ money, which has always happened. Now, with the rise of the green New Left, our oil and gas industry is overtly under attack and this is really worrying for us. The federal government is implementing policies that are disastrous for our provincial economy.
MF: Do you think that only economic interests are at stake or do you also see a cultural clash between Alberta and the dominant East? In other words, is Alberta “different”?
DF: I think that the issues between Ottawa and Alberta are primarily economic: keeping more money home and defending our right to work without undue confiscations and regulations. There are also a number of cultural issues, but they are different from those inspiring Quebec nationalism. Quebec nationalism is about ethno-linguistic claims; we do not have this type of cultural divide with the majority of the Canadian provinces. We speak the same language; we eat the same food. Our cultural differences are more in terms of values: our approach to work, our approach to family, our approach to liberty. In these regards, we have more in common with Montana than with Toronto.
MF: Do you believe that a strategical alliance between Alberta nationalists and Quebec nationalists is possible?
DF: It happened in the 80’s, when Brian Mulroney managed to form a broad coalition uniting discontented Westerners and Quebec nationalists, but the truth is that the two approaches are rather distant. On the one hand, Quebec nationalists are disproportionately positioned on the Left of the political spectrum. On the other hand, the kind of decentralisation that Quebec seeks is different from the kind of decentralisation that we seek. Quebec wants cultural and social decentralisation from what they see as a domineering English government, but is not interested in fiscal decentralisation, because Quebec is and always has been a net recipient from the federal budget – while Alberta is and has always been a net contributor. In other words, Quebec wants to decentralise the power of spending money but strongly supports taxation at a central level.
MF: Do you think that Canada is a structurally liberal country, where conservatives will always be a minority?
DF: My view is that Canada is structurally liberal in the sense that it is structurally Eastern. As Eastern provinces are predominantly liberal, then the result is that the federation is by default liberal – but the core issue is the uneven balance of power between the different parts of the federation.
MF: And why then is Canada structurally Eastern? Is it a matter of demography?
DF: Certainly in demographic terms, Easterners outnumber Westerners, but it is not just a matter of demography. The dominance of Eastern provinces is enshrined in the Constitution and there is very little we can do to change that. Some provisions are ludicrous, such as the composition of the Senate. We are virtually the only democracy in the world with an unelected Upper House and we are the only federation in the world where the Upper House is not conceived in a logic of regional balance. Our Senators are appointed by the federal Prime Minister, like they were bureaucrats. Justin Trudeau, who is highly unpopular in Alberta nominates the Senators for Alberta.
But the issue with the Senate goes beyond that. The Senate was created in 1867 and the distribution of seats was negotiated by the colonies that existed at that time. Western provinces had not been created yet and were later allocated only a handful of seats. Alberta is the fourth Canadian province by population; it has twice the population of all four Atlantic provinces combined, but has nearly half of the Senate seats given to New Brunswick. The opportunities for Alberta to play a role in federal institutions are also hindered by official bilingualism. If you grow up in a province like Alberta, there is very little incentive to learn French, but this also means that Albertans will less likely qualify for federal offices requiring bilingualism, including roles in the Supreme Court. The position of Alberta within Canada is much weaker than the position of the Red states within the United States. The American framework guarantees a much stronger system of checks and balances and no state finds itself in the position of being structurally kept out from the federal political dynamics.
MF: Do you think that Canada is a “lost cause”? Or is it still worth fighting to bring Canada back on track?
DF: I believe that Canada is worth trying to save, but I don’t believe it can be. We would need to reform the Constitution to allow real free trade between provinces, to have an elected and fully representative Senate and to abolish the “Equalization formula”, which transfers money from Alberta to Eastern provinces. But that reform is virtually impossible, because the Constitutional amendment rules render the status quo effectively unalterable. Canada is a great country, with a mostly great history and I believe in the idea that it is worth fighting to save. I just have extremely little faith that it is politically possible to do so.
MF: In these conditions, is independence for Alberta a viable alternative?
DF: Yes, it is. Alberta’s GDP per capita is among the highest on the planet. We would be in the company of countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg or Singapore. An independent Alberta would keep between 20 and 30 billion dollars a year of taxpayers’ money in Alberta. The critics of independence say that Alberta is landlocked. This is certainly true. Alberta is landlocked and there is nothing we can do about it. But it is also landlocked as a province and, as a landlocked province, we are in an extremely weak position. We cannot push for free trade, for example – as we do not even have free trade between provinces in the current Canadian framework. And we cannot get the government we want; Alberta did not elect a single Liberal in the last election and yet we got a Liberal federal government. I think we would have much more leverage as an independent landlocked nation than as a landlocked province, barring the unlikely scenario of constitutional reform. A sovereign Alberta would be in a position to force free trade and market access, while as a province we can only continue to elect Conservatives bound to be outvoted by Eastern Liberals.
MF: So you are saying that independence would be economically viable. But is there a viable political path to independence?
DF: There is definitely increasing support for independence in Alberta, but circumstances are not ready yet. I was the first elected representative in Alberta since the 1980s that openly supported independence if constitutional reform fails. I campaigned on the platform of a set of two referendums for Albertans to consider. The first referendum would be to demand full equality with other provinces. Then if Ottawa or the other provinces reject constitutional reform to make Canada fairer, the second referendum should be on independence. Currently polls show that 52 per cent of the voters of the mainstream conservative party governing Alberta, the United Conservative Party, support independence. I am not sure if mainstream Conservatives will ever be ready to go forward on independence – they are too divided on the issue and they will try to avoid it. However new political parties and movements with a crystal clear commitment to independence are gaining ground and I am sure that they will play a political role.
MF: Summing up, will we ever see an independent Alberta?
DF: The path will be long and far from smooth, but I believe that independence is a realistic possibility if things do not change.