Constitutional crisis and coalition coup
Coalition games fuel the fires of western separatism
Comments | Print friendly | Subscribe | Email Us
- Doug Firby, Alberta Columnist, Troy Media Corporation
Jean Charest’s moderate right party has held onto power in Quebec.Stéphane Dion has decided to end his personal torment as the much-mocked Liberal prime minister-in-waiting. The coalition of the unwilling is on hold, if not on the rocks – while Liberal king-makers have anointed Moses Ignatieff to lead them out of the wilderness.
It’s hard to believe it was just a few days ago that Canada was faced with a potential constitutional crisis and coalition coup.
Yet, while Canadians who crave security and stability may be breathing a sigh of relief that Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government has found a lifeline, it would be a mistake to conclude that there is no fallout from recent parliamentary shenanigans. Instead, the overheated rhetoric and regional back-biting has rekindled old animosities simmering just beneath the surface of civility.
And opportunists are seizing the moment to cast old grievances in a new mould. In Alberta, for example, the turmoil has given new life to the moribund separatism movement.
“I would like to apologize for the inactivity of the Separation Party of Alberta,” wrote leader Bruce Hutton this month. “Our web site and our party has been dormant for a considerable period of time, but these Ottawa good old boys have certainly regenerated interest in our party.”
Hutton isn’t just talking through his hat. With the potential coalition threat still hanging over the head of their Calgary-based prime minister, more and more Albertans are openly declaring that eastern interests are once again undermining legitimate western aspirations. And they’re not just mad as hell – they’re not going to take it anymore.
“The time has come for western Canadians to separate from Canada,” fumed Calgarian Bill Longbotham in a local newspaper. “Confederation was supposed to be an alliance that would be good for every Canadian. This has not been the case for the West for many years. . . . If this power grab takes place, I urge all westerners to contact their premiers and advocate separation.”
Hutton claims the Separatist’s Party’s inbox has been flooded with letters from Albertans who are “fed up with corrupt politicians and an unworkable Confederation. They are looking for a place to vent.
“We don’t want to vent, we want to separate.”
Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, said this week that an eastern-based coalition government would be anathema to Alberta. “We’re going to have a coalition in effect orchestrated by the Bloc that has no interest in the economic success or survival in Alberta,” he told one newspaper.
Non-westerners tend to view Alberta’s separatist movement as the product of a petulant province spoiled by its own success. But such a dismissive view is as inaccurate as it is reckless. In fact, one poll conducted about a year-and-a-half ago found that more than half of Albertans would be willing to at least discuss separation, even if they were not yet ready to act on it.
The roots of western separatism go back decades before it found its apex in the early-1980s National Energy Program. That Liberal program is widely blamed for years of economic stagnation, and lingering resentment of it ensures the Liberal brand in the oil patch is beyond revival.
But this is not just about the NEP; western alienation reaches back to the early 20th Century when Alberta engaged in protracted legal battles to gain control over its own resources. It took a Supreme Court ruling to grant Alberta such a fundamental right.
Further, the mere physical distance from Quebec leads many to view that province’s grievances with cynicism. Federal transfer payments that at once aim to prop up Quebec’s faltering economy and buy grudging loyalty to the Confederation are seen as weak-kneed and ill-fated. Many westerners believe Canada would be better off if its federal government stopped siphoning cash away from prosperous provinces, like Alberta, and shoveling billions toward an underperforming socialist nirvana that holds a radically different view of the nation than the rest of us.
So, the thinking goes, if Canada’s centrist government doesn’t get it, the West should seriously consider heading off on its own.
No one is suggesting a western separation crisis is imminent. Rather, the revived discussions are a symptom of a long-standing frustration with the way the country is run. Perhaps our national politicians can just ignore it and hope it goes away.
But it would be an understatement to say such a strategy would be unwise. When an entire region feels this deeply aggrieved with the way the country is run, it says a great deal about the state of our democracy.
Bring on the crash cart. Confidence in our national party system is missing a pulse. And it may take some high voltage to get it going again.
Doug Firby, former editorial pages editor of the Calgary Herald, is Alberta columnist for Troy Media Corporation