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Preston Manning listens as people make statements to a panel representing the Alberta government during a town hall on fair deal ideas, in Edmonton on Dec. 3, 2019.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

An Alberta government panel examining how best to achieve greater autonomy for the province is also asking the public if they support separation.

The province’s “fair deal” panel, which was formed last fall as part of Premier Jason Kenney’s push for a new relationship with Canada, has been gauging public support for a range of ideas, such as the creation of a provincial pension plan and increased control over natural resources. An online survey posted late last week added another: separation.

Members of the panel say many people who attended a series of town halls in recent months raised the prospect of separation and that needs to be reflected in their work. But they say they don’t have any intention of recommending that the government seriously consider going down that road.

Mr. Kenney has repeatedly said he’s a federalist and thinks separation doesn’t make sense, but he has pointed to an apparent increase in support for separation as a sign that the country is facing a unity crisis. Critics have accused the Premier and his United Conservative Party (UCP) government of inflaming that sentiment.

The survey asks respondents to rank how much they support: “Alberta alone or with other Western provinces separating from the rest of Canada.”

Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Progressive Conservative MLA who is on the panel, said the separation question became impossible to ignore.

“We have never been supportive, as a panel, of separation; our mandate is to work within Confederation,” Ms. Kennedy-Glans said.

“But we have to report back on what we heard, and we heard people say they support separation, that nothing else is possible. That has to be honestly recorded.”

Ms. Kennedy-Glans said thousands of Albertans have already participated in the panel’s work, including 17,000 survey responses. She said the panel plans to hold smaller focus groups and has also met with interest groups and experts.

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Mr. Kenney formed the panel last fall as anger and alienation in the province appeared to be on the rise, particularly in the wake of the federal Liberal government’s re-election. Aside from a pension plan, the panel is also considering a provincial police force, an Alberta tax-collection agency, changes to the equalization formula, a provincial constitution and a greater role for the province in international relations.

Recent opinion polls have suggested that an increasing proportion of Albertans are questioning their place within Canada, and a small but vocal separatist group with the Brexit-inspired name Wexit has been holding rallies and garnering media attention.

Mr. Kenney’s government plans to table legislation that would allow citizens to force referendums through petitions, which the Premier acknowledged could include a vote on separation if such a petition meets the thresholds set out in the law.

Drew Barnes, a UCP MLA who also sits on the panel, rejected the suggestion that the panel, and its decision to ask Albertans about separation, will add to that anger. In fact, he said, it could do the opposite.

“Any time you can put a light on something, it’s good for Albertans," he said. “And it’s good for Canadians, for everybody, to understand where Albertans are at.”

Opposition NDP critic Sarah Hoffman said the panel is a dangerous attempt to distract from the government’s own record.

“I’d say it’s irresponsible and inappropriate,” she said. "He [Mr. Kenney] is stoking the fires of separation for his own political purpose.”

Lori Williams, who teaches political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said including a question on separation risks exacerbating the issue.

“It’s fanning a very passionate groundswell that we’re seeing,” she said.

“Sooner or later, there’s going to be a reckoning and you’re going to have to take a position one way or the other. And that anger could easily turn on the provincial government if they don’t deliver on some of these things."

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