Jason Kenney says he pulled an all-nighter to write his speech on a “fair deal” for Alberta.
And what a speech it was – clocking in at more than an hour, the Premier’s Saturday address to a Manning Centre conference in Red Deer was focused on what he says are unprecedented levels of frustration among Albertans with Ottawa. He announced the makeup of a special panel to examine how best to advance the province’s economic interests.
While Mr. Kenney reiterated his position that Alberta separation is illogical, he certainly gave a lot of air to ideas that would set the province apart from the rest of Canada. His government will consider ideas such as a separate police force to replace the RCMP, breaking away from the Canada Pension Plan and writing a distinct Alberta constitution.
Former Alberta premier and Opposition Leader Rachel Notley rightly concludes that Mr. Kenney is again stoking the fires of Western alienation for his own political purposes. I think his focus on forces outside the province is partly meant to distract Albertans from bad news in his own government, including a provincial budget that is hitting people hard through cuts to schools, postsecondary institutions, public transit, capital projects and public-sector jobs.
With the rise of separatist sentiment in the province, Mr. Kenney also wants to make sure that he is not outflanked. Wexit movement founder Peter Downing doesn’t think the governing United Conservative Party pledge to have a referendum on equalization goes far enough, and is demanding a provincial vote on separation. Mr. Kenney has to be concerned that leaders such as Mr. Downing will take control of a Western alienation movement the Premier himself wants to lead.
But this points to a larger truth: that the Alberta Premier will continue to find a receptive audience for anger directed at the rest of Canada as long as Alberta’s position on federal energy policy, and worry about jobs and investment, are dismissed as whiny and regionalist.
Mr. Kenney and the Alberta NDP’s Ms. Notley – who don’t agree on much – both believe key federal energy policies such as C-69 and C-48 are flawed, and disproportionately and unfairly target Alberta’s main industries.
But at this point, it’s about something much more potent than policies. It’s about hurt feelings.
Everyday, I talk to someone who says they don’t want to be having this debate about Alberta’s place in Canada. But they also don’t understand how provinces that gladly accept the benefits of federal tax dollars accrued from oil and gas industry activity work against the construction of pipelines across their territories.
And for some Albertans, giving credence to theories that foreign actors are conspiring to land-lock Canadian oil and gas is a more pleasant narrative than believing people in other provinces just don’t care about Alberta’s economic fortunes.
Albertans also have paid keen attention to the federal Liberals’ machinations to keep SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. happy, mostly because it stands in such contrast to Ottawa’s more-muted reaction as tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in the oil patch.
It’s understandable why the rest of the country might feel a sense of schadenfreude regarding Alberta now. For many decades, on and off, oil and gas resources created wealth that in many ways destabilized the economic and social balance of the country.
Yes, tens of billions of dollars flowed from Alberta to other parts of the country. And many people from other parts of Canada also found work in the West. But the structure of the federation meant that the riches accrued disproportionately to the West. And in hindsight, Alberta should have shown more grace in the boom years, when its advice to workers in economically depressed regions was often to simply pick up their lives and move to Fort McMurray or Red Deer if they wanted a job.
Now the shoe is on the other foot – oil prices are down, pipelines are hard to build, key companies are moving operations and offices to the U.S., and a growing cohort is facing long-term joblessness.
In that context, it’s hard to see how a focus on comeuppance makes for good public policy. It doesn’t really move the country forward to lambaste Albertans as they express legitimate frustration about policies that will make it difficult to build any new pipelines in the years ahead. Simply saying that prairie provinces should stop complaining in the face of unemployment or rising mortgage arrears isn’t helpful.
And telling Alberta or Saskatchewan residents how ridiculous they are for discussing separation is not a strategy for changing anyone’s mind.
In Alberta, Mr. Kenney is seizing on the fact that many people feel a lack of hope regarding their economic future. He will continue to find many willing to listen, as long as he can point to actions in the rest of Canada that smack of kicking the province while it’s already down.