The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act has baffled many Canadians in other parts of the country. They don’t understand why so many Albertans are upset, particularly when its economy, especially the oil and gas industry, is as strong as it is. They don’t understand why some Albertans, like Premier Danielle Smith, are citing Quebec as an example of the place they want for their province in Confederation.
As someone who’s lived in Alberta his entire life and spent years studying his province’s history, politics and relationship to the rest of the country, I might be able to clear things up. Alberta’s frustration with its place in Confederation and perception of its treatment by Ottawa have roots that extend back decades. They’re also a lot more nuanced than most other Canadians realize.
Why does the west want in?
As Preston Manning said in the National Post, it’s primarily “economic, economic, economic.” Alberta’s alienation is based on the feeling that most of the federal government’s policies benefit other parts of Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec, while leaving us holding the bag. Canadian history is rife with examples going all the way back to the 1870s. John A. Macdonald created his “National Policy,” a tariff wall that protected eastern Canadian heavy manufacturers but caused headaches for Prairie farmers trying to sell their products to hungry Americans. It was a driving issue in the 1911 federal election. Wilfrid Laurier, responding to Prairie farmers’ complaints, pushed for a revised trade agreement that would give the farmers better access to the U.S. market. The proposed agreement, denounced by eastern Canadian businessmen as a call to join the United States, was one of the reasons Laurier lost the election. The accompanying 1915 cartoon from the Grain Growers’ Guide, the voice of the agrarian protest movement in the early 20th century, reflected what a lot of people on the Prairies thought of the tariff.
The National Policy was probably one of the first examples of Alberta seemingly being shortchanged, but it wasn’t the last. When Alberta became a province in 1905, it didn’t have the control over its natural resources that the founding provinces did at Confederation. It wouldn’t be until 1930 that the Natural Resources Transfer Acts finally gave Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba formal control of their resources. The federal government might have thought it needed to control those resources to quickly settle the Prairies, but it made the provinces’ residents feel like second-rate citizens in Confederation.
The hanging of Louis Riel following the Northwest Resistances of 1870 and 1885 has very deep meaning for the Indigenous people who consider it a major act of Canadian colonialism. But some Albertans also see it as a reflection of the Prairie provinces’ demands for fair treatment from Ottawa getting smacked down by a federal government more concerned with votes in Ontario. That symbolism made Preston Manning prominently include Riel’s image in the Manning Centre, now the Canada Strong and Free Network.
Starting in the 1960s, many Albertans were also unhappy with what they saw as the federal governments of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien focusing primarily on Quebec while ignoring the needs of other parts of the country. Some Albertans disliked what they considered Pierre Trudeau’s “forcing” bilingualism on the rest of the country, while Quebec could continue only speaking French. The Meech Lake Accord, which many Albertans thought gave Quebec special rights that the rest of the country wouldn’t have, was loudly criticized for the same reason.1 After the 1995 referendum, few Albertans wanted any more constitutional debates about Quebec.
Albertans’ main source of anger, though, is the federal government’s actions on energy. Many of us feel, rightly or wrongly, that our livelihoods are tied to the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas royalties have been a major reason for the “Alberta Advantage,” a phenomenon where Alberta has had high levels of social spending while collecting lower taxes as compared to other provinces. The high salaries energy jobs paid also led to spending that benefited other parts of the economy.
The letters N-E-P still make many Albertans break out in hives. That’s because they stand for the National Energy Program, which Pierre Trudeau’s government imposed in 1980. The NEP is widely seen by Albertans as contributing to the end of the 1970s oil booms and the severe economic problems that came after. The NEP’s price controls reduced the amount of energy royalty revenue the Alberta government received, the revenues of oil and gas companies and the jobs that came with them. Most infuriatingly, it would have drastically increased the federal government’s cut of oil royalties, transferring a huge amount of money from Alberta to Ottawa. The NEP’s serious design flaws, its being imposed from on high by a federal government with no Alberta MPs and the perception that it was done to benefit Trudeau senior’s base in eastern Canada have made it a symbol for many Albertans of our being made to hold the bag for the benefit of other Canadians.2
From Trudeau to Trudeau
With this kind of background, Alberta’s opposition to Justin Trudeau’s environmental policies takes on a whole new light. For many Albertans, those policies are just more of the same. They’re imposed from on high by a federal government that doesn’t care about our needs to benefit other parts of the country at our expense. Both United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney and Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley were upset at Trudeau junior’s lack of consultation with Alberta when he set new caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The sense that the oil sands are being singled out while Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil projects or Quebec’s cement plants were ignored only made things worse.
This all might sound like Albertans being greedy and selfish and not caring about their fellow Canadians. To a lot of us, though, it’s like a slap in the face that ignores how we contribute to Confederation. In the 1970s, Peter Lougheed used Alberta oil money to make large, low-interest loans to other provinces. More recently, the Alberta town of Fort McMurray, affectionately nicknamed “Fort Mac,” provided jobs to countless people from across the country. Newfoundlanders made up as much as 16.5 per cent of Fort Mac’s population. When you add in the Maritimers, Atlantic Canadians made up over 24 per cent of the town’s residents. There’s a good reason that Fort Mac has been jokingly called the “Capital of Newfoundland.” Other Canadians who come to Alberta for work send their pay home, pumping money into their local economies. Newfoundland and Labrador suffered much as Alberta did from the pandemic and the crash in oil prices.
The equalization program is a particular bugbear for Albertans. We’re the biggest contributor to equalization by far, largely on the prosperity of the oil and gas industry, while receiving much less in return. A lot of us see the current equalization formula as another way that eastern Canadian provinces benefit at our expense even when our economy’s in bad shape, especially since Alberta hasn’t benefited from equalization since the 1960s. It’s a point of pride for me that Alberta’s able to help our fellow Canadians this way, but being called “blue-eyed sheikhs” leaves a bad taste in many of our mouths. As one Calgary Herald editorial put it, “Albertans wouldn’t begrudge the financial imbalance; helping one’s neighbour is a value that thrives in the West. It’s just that a little appreciation is overdue.”3
This is why so many Albertans are hostile to many of Trudeau junior’s policies. From their concerns that the “just transition” is a new NEP, to Bill C-48’s tanker ban on B.C.’s coast and its restrictions on Canadian oil shipping while allowing U.S. oil to flow freely, to the view that Bill C-69 will simply prevent any new pipeline infrastructure from getting built, the notion that Trudeau’s policies carry on a long tradition of benefiting the rest of the country at our expense is widespread in Wild Rose Country. Many Albertans see the difficulty in getting new infrastructure built as lunacy when oil and gas development benefits the entire country.
Besides being singled out economically, some of us deeply resent how we seem to be singled out more generally as being somehow more environmentally destructive or racist than other parts of Canada. Development in other parts of Canada can be just as harmful, particularly to Indigenous communities. Talking about the effects of diamond mining in the Northwest Territories, Dene leader Don Balsillie once quipped that “you got the gold, we got the shaft.”4 Hydroelectric plants have also devastated Indigenous hunting grounds and cultural sites, from the Site C dam in British Columbia to the dams built in Quebec during the 1960s and 1970s.5 Other parts of Canada have been plagued by violence and discrimination against Muslims and Indigenous people.
I’ll be the first to admit that some Albertans, particularly those who gloat about our oil wealth, have been condescending jerks to other Canadians. But that condescension can cut both ways, with the smug satisfaction some other Canadians seem to experience when our economy takes a hit. It only worsens anger and frustration among Albertans, who say they feel disrespected and ignored. Many of us actually detest the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act and the message it sends to the rest of Canada, but it shows just how frustrated many Albertans are with everything from equalization to energy development.
Alberta’s hidden centrism
There’s a dirty little secret about Alberta, one that our biggest admirers and our worst critics either don’t know about or prefer to overlook.
Namely, we’re not the right-wing hotbed we’re often made out to be.
For decades, Alberta politicians have said and done things that would have destroyed their careers in the American Bible Belt. The 1997 Vriend case had the Supreme Court read gay rights into Alberta’s human rights code. Some social conservatives were outraged, but Premier Ralph Klein dismissed their calls to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overturn it. Klein’s use of the clause to retain the “traditional” heterosexual definition of marriage in Alberta was at best halfhearted, as he later let it expire in 2005. Federally, Stephen Harper kept a tight lid on some Conservative caucus members’ attempt to revive the abortion debate, even as other Conservatives joined in the “It Gets Better” movement aiming to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Some social conservatives in Alberta were upset, but the rest of us just shrugged and changed the channel. Klein and Harper suffered pretty much zero consequences from Albertans for their actions, while they might have been game-changers in Republican America. On the other hand, the old Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith lost an election that was theirs to lose in 2012. One of the big reasons was a candidate’s claim that gay people would burn “in a lake of fire.” In the resulting fallout, Smith said that the party needed to do a lot of “soul searching” regarding what to do next.
I can’t see many defeated Republicans saying that sort of thing, especially these days.
The same thing happens with gun control – while many Albertans hated the long gun registry, no one here seems to mind the handgun registry that’s been in place for years. From everything I’ve seen, most Albertans who own long guns use them for pest control and/or to hunt their own food rather than “keepin’ the gubmint outta my business.” Alberta wasn’t actually that different from other parts of the country on this one – why else could 12 NDPers and eight Liberals vote in favour of Harper’s original attempt to repeal the long gun registry?
And then there’s health care. Preston Manning’s father Ernest, who spent 25 years as Alberta’s Premier, talked about ensuring that “Alberta continues to … secure for every man, woman and child complete and permanent freedom from fear and worry and from social and economic insecurity.”6 Those words wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Tommy Douglas’s mouth, but Albertans constantly reelected the man who actually spoke them. Preston Manning also specifically debunked the idea that the Reform Party wanted to abolish public health care. When he asked for a show of hands in support of the idea at many public meetings, nobody moved.7
Every single conservative Albertan I’ve ever asked said they support public health care. When they support some private delivery, it’s because they think it will take pressure off the public system. Even that support for private delivery only goes so far. In 2005, Ralph Klein’s attempts at a “third way” for health care that would have brought more private delivery failed thanks to a widespread public outcry. Our support for fossil fuel mining has its limits too. Jason Kenney’s attempt to rescind a decades-long ban on coal mining in the Crowsnest Pass region provoked a massive backlash in a part of the province that’s rock-solid Conservative country even for Alberta. Ranchers were just as angry as environmental and Indigenous activists.
Danielle Smith’s victory in the May 2023 election might seem like a drastic swing to the right for Alberta, but there’s more to it than that. Conservative Sun pundit Lorne Gunter commented that it was more a case of many voters holding their noses and supporting the UCP instead of supporting the NDP. Other writers like the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples and CBC’s Jason Markusoff both talked about how the UCP won in large part by moving back toward the centre. The UCP’s own platform specifically denied that it would make Albertans pay for health care. The UCP also lost 14 seats and over 113,000 votes compared to their 2019 results.
Wild roses and maple leaves
Alberta has caused some of its own problems. We’ve badly mismanaged the Heritage Savings Trust Fund and a lot of our oil royalty windfalls. A popular bumper sticker here begs God for another oil boom, promising not to piss it away this time. We also haven’t done enough to keep more good-paying processing jobs here in Alberta instead of (literally) sending them down the pipeline with the oil in a variation on the old saw about Canadians being “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Even Peter Lougheed criticized our letting this happen, such as with the proposed Keystone pipeline. We’ve also, arguably, put too many eggs in the oil and gas basket instead of diversifying, as former Alberta MP Brent Rathegeber lamented.
But the roots of Albertans’ frustrations run really deep, and often with good reason. When our efforts at developing our economy – as well as Canada’s – aren’t being hindered, we’re depicted as real-life Captain Planet villains who only care about lining our own pockets. This isn’t a new thing, either: as the Grain Grower’s Guide shows, a lot of Albertans have felt this way for decades.
Hopefully this piece explains a little of why so many Albertans react the way they do. It’s worth noting, though, that in spite of everything Alberta’s separation is still largely a nonstarter. Academic Roger Gibbins, who’s studied western Canadian alienation for decades, feels Albertans aren’t ready to give up on Canada just yet. Former premier Jason Kenney describes Albertans as patriots. Most of us still feel a powerful bond with the rest of Canada.
And, as I’ve shown, Albertans have a lot more in common with our fellow Canadians than any of us realize sometimes.