Alberta Needs Better Deal from Better Neighbours

Commentary, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

When it comes to trading in markets beyond its boundaries, Alberta would have better options as an independent state than under the status quo currently blocking some of its resources.  

Alberta is landlocked, and landlocked states depend on their neighbours for access to trading seaports. It is the reason some people quip that an independent Alberta would remain landlocked. But the core problem is uncooperative provincial cousins, not the fact of being landlocked. 

Pipelines, highways, air corridors, waterways, and canals are among human solutions to landlocked territories. They are created to move people, goods and services. But two uncooperative Canadian provinces are committing constitutional mutiny, Quebec and British Columbia. They are preventing Alberta from further developing solutions to being landlocked. In that sense, it is worth repeating that being landlocked isn’t the problem. 

Access, not geography, is the central issue. The access problem is made worse by the ineptitude of Canada’s central government.

Twenty percent of the world’s states are landlocked, and only three among them are enclaved, meaning surrounded by only one country. Ottawa has artificially enclaved Alberta when it vacated its national leadership role by effectively granting vetoes to provinces for major infrastructure construction across internal borders. And Alberta also requires Ottawa’s consent to deal with our neighbour across the international southern boundary. 

Alberta is naturally landlocked, but the neighborhood’s attitude is terrible. Alberta must therefore urgently find ways to free itself from the enclaving subjection of its Laurentian and Pacific cousins. 

How does Alberta do that? 

Having coastlines alone doesn’t make countries (or provinces) wealthy. Honduras and Nicaragua, among the poorest in the hemisphere, have enviable access to Atlantic and Pacific coasts. If coastline alone were the determinant of economic wealth, Nicaragua (with more coastline in relation to its size) would be richer than Brazil, and Nova Scotia would be richer than Saskatchewan. 

Conversely, Switzerland and Austria, two of the richest countries in the world, lack natural access to sea. 

While most countries with no coastlines are poor (50% of them are in Africa), the difference of Switzerland and Austria when compared to other landlocked states such as Lesotho or Bolivia is access to markets. Put differently, Switzerland and Austria are richer because their neighbours do not blockade their infrastructure and access to markets (remember how Newfoundland & Labrador was blocked from building electricity distribution lines through Quebec?).

An independent Alberta can’t transform its blockading cousins into decent folks. 

But if Alberta were independent and cultivated good relations with the United States, it would no longer be politically enclaved inside its own national home. Alberta could on its own work with the states of Montana and Washington to develop a trade corridor for exporting and importing goods through Seattle. 

Underlining the importance of the neighborhood, consider the example of landlocked Kazakhstan, which became independent in 1991 after breaking away from the most murderous regime in the history of peoplekind. 

Kazakhstan is security-challenged. It inhabits one of the most treacherous neighbourhoods on this planet. From the outset, Russia resisted Kazakhstan oil exports to other countries and attempted to control the outflow of their oil. Sound familiar?

But within two decades, despite a potentially ignitable Muslim majority, neighbours like China and Russia, with Chechens nearby, and with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran not very far south, Kazakhstan has managed to develop capacity, building upgraded pipelines and exporting oil to the four cardinal points. They export hydrocarbons to Russia in the North, to China in the East, to Europe with lines as far as Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, and South through the Persian Gulf.  

They have developed an exporting network through challenging societies and some of the most hostile territories in the world. Kazakhstan even manages to deal with Iran to sell oil out of the Persian Gulf, thousands of miles away across more than one international border. But Alberta cannot bring its oil across Quebec to sell out of New Brunswick shores, inside the very same country. 

While it is true that independence is not the only option for Alberta to solve its induced enclave condition, the crucial lesson here is difficult to miss. Regressive and oppressive Iranian Shiite mullahs have proven to be more reasonable business counterparts than former World Wildlife Fund apparatchiks in Ottawa, populist nationalists in Quebec City, and the rigid eco-zealous alliance of Greens and New Democrats in Victoria. This is Alberta’s problem! 

Kazakhstan didn’t wait for its economic welfare and future to be determined by questionable people outside its borders. Neither should Alberta.

 

Marco Navarro-Génie is president of the Haultain Research Institute and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.