A Little Friendly Talk About Alberta Separatism

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Al Capone notoriously said you can get a lot more done with a kind smile and a gun than you can with a kind smile alone. Notwithstanding the low-life provenance, this is genuine negotiating wisdom. It’s now circulating in Alberta constitutional reform circles.

It is received wisdom in the West that the blackmail strategy – “or else” – has been enormously successful for Quebec in extracting money and special treatment from Ottawa because that province has fashioned the political equivalent of a gun in the separation threat. Alberta is (for the moment) the only other province that could credibly use this tool.

The operative word is in the conditional tense, “could.” The economic and geopolitical necessities for an independent state all exist in spades in Alberta. But the political will and the true urge to sovereignty hasn’t been there. These things can’t be faked. You have to be able to win a referendum if push comes to shove, and that only happens with broad support. This past weekend’s Calgary Congress may show the first stirrings among solid citizens.

The 350 people at the Congress were no doubt conservative in their views, but then so is Alberta generally. One of the gathering’s conveners was Link Byfield of the legendary Prairie family. Jason Kenney, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary blessed the assembly with greetings. Preston Manning spoke at lunch. We’re not talking radicals here.

The Saturday night speaker was Premier Ralph Klein, whose assigned topic was Ottawa’s intrusion into provincial affairs. In his typically subtle way the Premier framed his policy on that topic, repeating the same words twice in his talk: “Stay out of our face.” That nicely summarized the deeply decentralist sentiment of the weekend.

The Congress heard from L. Ian MacDonald (of the Institute for Research on Public Policy) on the two great theories of constitutionalism, namely our 1867 deal, the Conservative and decentralist British North America Act, and the Liberal and centralist Charter of 1982.

For sure this was not planned as a separatist gathering. It was about renewing the federation. The walls of the hall were bedecked with portraits of Fathers of Confederation. The debate was all about making Canada work. The three main resolutions passed called for Ottawa staying out of provincial affairs, a reformed Senate and an effective counterbalance to activist courts.

But the most interesting speaker, in terms of content and crowd reaction, was an avowed Alberta separatist. Leon Craig, a respected professor at the University of Alberta, told the gathering that unless they had an “or else” in their back pocket they were wasting their time.

He didn’t see an Alberta Prime Minister making any difference.

Political reality requires seeking a majority (which means seats in Quebec and the Atlantic) and “. . . any ruling party would use our money to buy votes wherever they are for sale” adding that “Their behaviour is dictated by the structure of the Canadian regime.”

He offered a thought experiment. “If you were already independent, would you consider joining Canada under the same conditions as today?” The big laugh and long applause made it clear the answer was “No.”

He advocated, as a first step, pressing the claimants for the premiership now under way on the “Alberta Agenda,” a plan that would have Alberta collect all taxes and remit some to Ottawa, setting up its own health and retirement schemes and saying goodbye to the RCMP in favour of a Royal Alberta Mounted Police.

At the conclusion of his talk the applause was extended, including cheers and a standing ovation. (Mr. Kenney of the PMO remained seated.) The question period was not just civil; it was friendly and interested.

This is quite a change from the Alberta separatism of a couple of decades ago. The speech and the dialogue was quiet and reasoned, no firebrand stuff. Prof. Craig said that this was his first and last political appearance, and anyway hard-core separatism in Alberta was probably only 10 per cent. But he may have started something. Quiet and reasoned talk is especially dangerous.

I remember covering a meeting of similar size, in Vancouver in 1987, where the makeup was also majority Albertan. It was the founding assembly of the Reform Party, which then went on to up-end the political life of the country within six years, in the 1993 election. This Calgary Congress had a similar flavour.

Central Canada will not take this seriously, though it is a fact of history that hard-core separatism in Quebec was only 10 per cent 40 years ago, and things change more quickly these days.

But Central Canada may be right, because it all comes down to will.

With no “or else,” nothing will happen, and the restructuring-of-the-federation talk will be just a lot of “all hat and no cattle,” as they say of big talkers hereabouts.