Duane Bratt is a political science professor and chair of the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Conservatives in Alberta have a love/hate relationship with Quebec. They hate the fact that Quebec opposes key pipeline projects yet receives billions of dollars in federal equalization payments every year – disproportionately from federal tax funds paid by Alberta taxpayers. They love that Quebec collects its own income taxes, has a provincial pension plan and a provincial police force. They love how Quebec uses the notwithstanding clause and appears to act with impunity against policies of the federal government that they do not like.
The mantra from Alberta conservatives, whether former premier Jason Kenney or current Premier Danielle Smith, is that Alberta wants to be treated just like Quebec. And the recently passed Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act may result in Alberta being treated exactly like Quebec – just not in a way that conservatives want.
Alberta conservatives are convinced that Quebec’s threats of separatism (based on language, culture, and history) gave them great leverage over the federal government, resulting in more autonomy. Those threats were highlighted by the FLQ crisis, the formation of the Parti Québécois in 1970 and its first election victory in 1976, as well as referendums in 1980 and 1995. Autonomy measures include Bill 101 (severe restrictions on the non-use of French introduced by the Parti Quebecois in 1977) and Bill 21 (legislation from the Legault government that bans religious symbols in a wide variety of jobs). Unfortunately for Quebec, threatening separatism and adopting autonomy policies meant that the province suffered population decline and capital flight.
In 1970, Montreal was Canada’s most populous city and Quebec had 28 per cent of Canada’s population. By 1980, Toronto had surpassed Montreal in size and Quebec’s share of Canada’s population had dropped to 26.5 per cent. These downward trends have continued. In 2022, Montreal has only two-thirds of Toronto’s population and only 22.5 per cent of Canadians reside in Quebec.
The rise of separatism in Quebec also resulted in capital flight from the province. In 1970, Quebec accounted for 25 per cent of Canada’s GDP, but this has shrunk to 20 per cent. Quebec’s economic decline is such that its GDP is only a little higher than Alberta’s, despite the fact that it has almost double the population.
It is true that there are differences that might mitigate whether Alberta could suffer the same fate as Quebec. First, the financial sector is more mobile than the natural resources sector. Given that oil and natural gas are situated in Alberta, energy companies need to operate where the resources are. (This is why they have to operate in politically unstable countries such as Nigeria and Iraq.) Second, the UCP government has not explicitly campaigned on separatism like the PQ did, even if some of their supporters have clear separatist leanings. Third, Alberta’s separatists and autonomists have not resorted to violence, like the FLQ.
Despite these caveats, there are enough similarities to cause unease about the economic downside of the Sovereignty Act. The business community in Quebec raised the alarm in the 1970s, and when they were ignored, they picked up and left. Likewise, many in the Alberta business community, such as the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and former UCP leadership candidate Travis Toews (before he reversed himself and joined Smith’s cabinet), warned of the economic uncertainty the Sovereignty Act would create. Both provinces, whether through legislation in Quebec or rhetoric in Alberta, make it unwelcoming for those who they believe are not “real” Québécois or Albertan. That was most noticeably so for Indigenous groups who, during the two Quebec referendums, threatened to secede from an independent Quebec. Given the tight result in 1995, that might have been enough to give the No side a win. Likewise, Treaty 6, 7, and 8 chiefs in Alberta have blasted the Sovereignty Act.
Even one of the big complaints (market access for Alberta’s resources to tidewater) that the Sovereignty Act is designed to solve will not work. In fact, it will make the problem worse. Passing the Sovereignty Act will not restart the Northern Gateway or Energy East pipelines. It could also imperil the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion if B.C. follows Alberta’s lead and nullifies federal authority over interprovincial pipelines. Mr. Kenney explicitly made that point during Ms. Smith’s UCP leadership campaign in the summer.
Clearly, Quebec has paid a severe economic cost because it believes the cost is worth it to preserve its language and culture. This is why it has the highest tax rate in Canada. In contrast, I do not believe that Albertans, who pay the lowest taxes in Canada, will be willing to pay the economic costs of even autonomist policies (provincial tax collection, pensions, and policing) let alone for the consequences of the Sovereignty Act. This is because the primary argument for Albertan autonomy is economic. Unfortunately, too many Albertans believe that Quebec’s “knife at the throat” strategy worked. They need to spend more time listening to those who lived in Quebec during the 1970s.