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A crowd attends a Wexit Alberta rally in Calgary on Nov. 16, 2019.Todd Korol/Reuters

Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and a former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine

In politics, timing is everything. And when it comes to Alberta’s burgeoning separatist movement, the timing of COVID-19 couldn’t be much worse. It was just last October, in the wake of the federal Liberal government’s re-election, that it appeared to be building some momentum. And while Alberta Premier Jason Kenney argued that he didn’t share their ultimate objective, he did effectively legitimize many of their other priorities by striking the “Fair Deal” panel to assess their merits. Their final report was due last week, but any recommendations it contains are almost certainly moot.

That’s because the fallout from COVID-19 is serving as a powerful reminder of how much we depend on each other and how much we’ll need to keep doing that as we emerge from its shadow. For most of us, this growing sense of social and national solidarity is a good thing.

But for Alberta’s separatist movement, it’s a major setback. That’s because, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there won’t be many people who believe they’re better off on their own after this pandemic finally passes. As Albertans stare at the possibility of an economic downturn that’s reminiscent of the Great Depression, some of them are realizing they could use a little help from their friends – even the ones they don’t particularly like.

This is a nightmare for those who have been dreaming about an independent Alberta, one that’s equal parts political revenge fantasy and Ayn Rand fan-fiction. Only once unshackled from the burdens of supporting the rest of the country and the ungrateful people in it who were holding them down, it suggests, will their province truly flourish.

The combination of their oil and gas resources and a determination to see them fully and unapologetically exploited would mean lower taxes, better services, more freedom and a long-overdue opportunity to watch the eastern bastards freeze in the metaphorical dark.

But that dream deliberately ignored the contributions that the federal government had made to their province and its oil and gas industry. It was the federal government that helped fund the oil sands in their earliest days – and helped rescue them when a key American backer pulled out of the Syncrude consortium in 1973.

It was the federal government that implemented important tax changes in the 1990s that made the oil sands a far more attractive investment and helped kick off a decades-long building boom that disproportionately benefited Alberta. And it was the federal government that bought and is building the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, effectively doing for Alberta what the private sector couldn’t – or wouldn’t.

The separatist dream of an independent Alberta also conveniently overlooks the fact that separating from Canada wouldn’t mean separating from geography. British Columbia would still stand between Alberta and the Pacific Ocean, and the vast majority of its residents would want no part of a right-wing Libertarian petrostate, to say nothing of the many untreatied Indigenous communities who have made their feelings about Alberta’s favourite industry clear.

And as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde has said, the Indigenous communities that do have treaties with the federal government expect those to be respected. “You have to be careful when you go down that road of Western alienation, Western exit,” he told the CBC. “We have inherent rights; we have treaty rights, and those are international agreements with the Crown.”

I don’t expect everyone who showed up at last fall’s pro-separation meetings to give up on their dream. There will always be a radical fringe of people who believe that Alberta would be better off if it separated from Canada, facts be damned, just as there will always be people who believe that the real source of climate change is the sun.

But I do hope that politicians such as Jason Kenney and Michelle Rempel, who have carefully nurtured the idea that Albertans are being mistreated by the federal government and used that feeling to advance their own political objectives and agendas, will stop trading in this fiction. Mr. Kenney’s equalization referendum, for example, is a cynical effort to feed the sense of alienation rather than fix it. Now, more than ever, we need to be building bridges between different parts of the country, not trying to blow them up.

I also expect the federal government to rise to the occasion here, and use its financial clout to help the province that has done so much to help the rest of the country. For years, Alberta taxpayers made contributions to the federal treasury that weren’t matched by the transfers coming back, and the imbalance between the two fed the growing sense of alienation in places such as Calgary and Red Deer.

Now, it’s time for Ottawa to repay that debt. If it comes through with a sufficiently ambitious rescue package, it could even heal the divisions that have persisted between the two levels of government for so long – and put an end to Alberta’s separatist movement in the process.

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