Canada is in trouble. Not since the heady days of 1970s and 1990s Quebec separatism has a group of alienated Canadians so fervently wanted to destroy the country. This time, the over 260,000 disgruntled folks who have joined Alberta’s Wexit movement are riding a wave of western alienation. They are angry. They want out. They are wrong.
All can agree that Alberta is experiencing significant problems deserving serious attention. Massive unemployment is challenging municipal and provincial fiscal capacity while harming families and leading to a disturbing increase in suicides. Wexit co-founder Peter Downing insists that Canada was established to meet Ontario and Quebec needs and cares nothing about Alberta’s difficulties nor wishes to address them. Alberta’s only option, he insists, is to form a separate Alberta state.
(Photo: Global News)
While Mr. Downing and those attracted to his movement are right about the problems they are wrong about their cause and cure.
Alberta premier Peter Lougheed spoke in the 1970s of the need to diversify Alberta’s economy because he knew that oil and gas would not forever be the foundation of the province’s wealth. That diversification has not happened. Lougheed’s wisdom and warning were demonstrated when in 2015 the price of oil collapsed and spiraled Alberta into the mess in which it now finds itself.
But despite what those currently angry at Prime Minister Trudeau, Ottawa, or Canada itself, the federal government did not want nor did our political structure cause oil’s plummeting price. There must be an admission by Wexit leaders that Alberta’s forming its own independent state would do nothing to bring oil back to the $100 a barrel necessary to again make the oil sands viable; nothing to end concern with the use of fossil fuels in the ongoing climate crisis; nothing to move the province’s oil and gas through pipelines across Canadian and Indigenous land; nothing to diversify Alberta’s economy, nor would forming an independent state do anything to prolong the inevitable end of oil and gas as our dominant energy source.
I recently participated in a Winnipeg radio panel discussing Wexit and Mr. Downing was asked, “If a Conservative government was elected last October and oil was now $100 a barrel, would we be having this conversation?” He replied, “Probably not.” I admired Mr. Downing’s honesty. He confessed that Alberta’s problems are economic and political and not constitutional.
Let Mr. Downing’s confession spur an admission by Wexit leaders that constitutional change and state-building are tough. The Clarity Act was passed in 2000. It states that a province can negotiate with the federal government about leaving the country only after a clear majority says yes to a clearly stated referendum question. Even if a clear majority of Albertans said yes to a clear question, there is no guarantee that negotiations would end as Albertans might hope. Look only to the United Kingdom’s sad Brexit debacle as an example of what negotiations might look like.
Let’s assume that the referendum goes well, the negotiations proceed perfectly, and an independent Alberta is created. The new founders will need to establish a constitution and all the other boring but practical apparatus needed to run a state. With all that done, the price and future of oil and gas would be the same. All the social and political problems such as climate change, spiraling health care costs, and much more would remain the same. Perhaps Albertans might be left wondering if all that had been accomplished was the swapping of one set of tyrants 3000 km away for a new set of tyrants 300 km away.
Mr. Downing has promised to create a new party and run candidates in the next federal election. Good. Let those candidates be truthful about the causes of Alberta’s problems and realistic about their cures. Let them add to the national conversation that is an essential element of our thriving democracy.
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