Political leaders representing a large chunk of Canada are talking about breaking off from the rest of the country in the wake of Justin Trudeau’s reelection — and this time they’re not primarily in French-speaking Quebec, long known for its independent streak.
Instead, it’s the country’s western, oil-dependent provinces fueling the breathless talk of secession amid a perception that Trudeau and eastern urban liberals are calling the shots at their expense. And it’s emerging as one of Trudeau’s most complicated headaches as the prime minister moves toward the start of his second term next month.
“Is it real? Yeah. People are mad,” Randy Hoback, a Conservative Party member of Parliament in central Saskatchewan told POLITICO. “I’ve never seen it like this.”
Citizens in the western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan agitated for political change in Ottawa over the past year as attempts to build a coastal pipeline expansion continued to falter and as farmers got trounced by trade tiffs with China.
They got what they wanted in their region — Conservatives swept all but one parliamentary seat in the elections, leaving Trudeau’s Liberals with virtually no presence in Canada’s oil country. But it didn’t translate to new federal leadership, as Trudeau’s party dominated in eastern Canadian cities, including Toronto and Montreal, and still commands a strong plurality of seats in Parliament.
The result: Talk of a break with the rest of Canada — dubbed Wexit on social media — is accelerating as some in the western part of the country say enough is enough.
“Is it real? Yeah. People are mad. I’ve never seen it like this.”
– Randy Hoback, a Conservative Party member of Parliament in central Saskatchewan
A Trudeau spokesperson said the government is considering ways to incorporate western perspectives into the incoming government. Some pundits are suggesting he should take the rare step — for Canada — of appointing an unelected person to the Cabinet he’ll swear in on Nov. 20 to ensure oil country’s views are heard.
The elections also breathed new life into a Québécois separatist party previously believed to have been extinguished in the east. The Bloc Québécois reinvented itself — by downplaying talk of independence, ironically — and more than tripled its seat-count from 10 to 32.
Long the two most restive regions of Canada’s federations, Alberta and Quebec have often shared similar complaints about an intrusive federal government; Quebec’s concerns, in particular, have dominated the national agenda as the province occasionally flirts with leaving Canada.
But the political dynamics in western Canada are driving the conversation in Ottawa this week. And at the heart of the west’s disillusionment is the oil industry, which is a major driver of the nation’s economy.
Politicians in Alberta and Saskatchewan say the livelihoods of many of their residents are under attack from Ottawa, given the Trudeau government’s focus on shrinking Canada’s carbon footprint to combat climate change.
“I think this is maybe a little bit more serious,” University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper said. “And because so much of it is symbolized in this kind of concatenation of environmentalism and basic anti-Alberta sentiments, it might actually lead to something.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney regularly joins in the Ottawa-bashing, including last week when he blamed the Trudeau-led economy for his own budget cuts.
Kenney has obliquely nodded at separatist sentiments since coming into power last spring, though he used the months before the federal election to call on Canadians to vote Trudeau’s party out of power rather than push for his province to go it alone.
With the results in, Kenney is calling Ottawa unsupportive during the province’s economic downturn and imploring Albertans to “be self-reliant.”
Kenney faces a complex dual challenge: being seen as fighting for Alberta without letting nationalist passions rage out of control. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron famously got burned trying to simultaneously fan and contain nationalist flames, with the result being Brexit.
Trudeau will need to overcome the perception in western Canada that he campaigned against Alberta and Saskatchewan in the final days before the election if he wants to prevent alienation from growing, Hoback said.
Westerners will be watching to see whether he appoints anyone from those provinces to Cabinet, and, if so, whether he opts for a mayor who represents one of the few urban centers of the prairies or for someone hailing from a rural area.
“This government has to now really take western Canada seriously, or it’s going to lose it,” Hoback said.
The day after the election, Kenney promised to appoint a panel of “eminent Albertans” to conduct a deep-dive into the province’s position within Canada and to come up with ideas on how to “fight for fairness in the confederation.”
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the panel is a smart move for Kenney because it provides an outlet to Albertans venting about separatism.
“He can focus then on governing … and he will assign this panel to deal with all the anger,” Bratt said.
These are lean times for Quebec’s once-mighty independence movement.
That French-speaking nationalist cause once brought huge crowds into the streets and packed far more formidable political power than anything in Alberta.
Five times, the province elected a provincial party devoted to achieving independence from Canada. It’s held two referendums on the issue, and in the most recent, in 1995, Québécois came within 1 percentage point of voting to leave Canada.
But the formerly powerful provincial party, the Parti Québécois, has sunk to fourth place in the provincial Legislature.
Support for independence, which decades ago had soared into the high 50s, has languished in the low 30s in surveys over the past few years.
One academic who studies opinion polling and has analyzed hundreds of surveys on Quebec independence since the 1970s said the movement is at its nadir.
“You know that sovereignty is low when pollsters don’t ask the question anymore,” said Claire Durand of the University of Montreal.
Some of the Parti Québécois’ senior members have quit to form other parties, including the premier of Quebec, who runs a soft-right government that never talks about separation.
So how did a federal version of the separatist party triple its seat-count in last Monday’s election and reemerge as a political force that potentially cost Trudeau a parliamentary majority?
By not talking about separation at all.
The Bloc Québécois, historically seen as a minor-league adjunct to the Parti Québécois and a messenger for separatists’ complaints to the federal Parliament, was on the verge of extinction. But in this campaign, it managed to reinvent itself.
The new party leader, Yves-François Blanchet, took up every cause promoted by popular Quebec Premier François Legault.
But a telling moment occurred during Blanchet’s triumphant election-night speech: Supporters began chanting the old Quebec independence slogan, “On veut un pays!” — We want a country! — and Blanchet replied, “Me too,” before he smothered those embers with a wet blanket: “For this time, the achievement of [independence] is not our mandate.”
Quebec’s and Alberta’s independence movements differ fundamentally in that the francophone province’s issues have always revolved around identity and culture, whereas Alberta’s has always been political, Bratt said.
“But when people see Quebec opposed to pipelines and receiving equalization [payments], you can understand where that anger comes from,” he said. “It’s like, we’re paying you, and you’re running low-cost daycare and stopping Alberta’s resources from getting to market, but you’ll take our money. And that’s a big problem.”
The University of Calgary’s Cooper said Alberta has the economic ability to achieve independence, unlike Quebec. And being independent from Ottawa would give the region more latitude to insist on things like building pipelines to the British Columbia coast, he said — or else Vancouver doesn’t get gas deliveries, or every train traveling from east to west gets stopped for inspection in a newly independent Alberta.
Still, Alberta is landlocked and there would be huge costs in transitioning away from Canada, Bratt notes. And even though Alberta’s economy has been sluggish for the past five years, its economy still outperforms much of the rest of the country.
But there’s another factor at play in Alberta’s anger: The prime minister is a Trudeau.
Albertans still recoil at the memory of the National Energy Program, which was instituted by Trudeau’s father, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. That policy was geared toward handing Ottawa more control over Canada’s oil industry.
What remains to be seen is whether separatist passions die down or continue to simmer as Canadians get further away from Election Day — and how the country’s politicians, both federal and provincial, respond to that.
“I love my country. I’m proud of what Canada has been and what it can be together. We are the strongest together, so I’m going to fight for a unified Canada,” Hoback, the Conservative MP, said.
“Unfortunately, I don’t get to control the chess board. Justin Trudeau does,” he added. “We’ll see what he does. The ball’s in his court.”