Unlike Quebec, Alberta has some genuine grievances. The “night of the long knives,” pretext for decades of national handwringing over the constitution, was always a fraud – a laboured, if largely successful, attempt to turn René Lévesque’s botched negotiating strategy on patriation into a humiliation for Quebec, though the province emerged from it with a raft of new powers and protections.
But the National Energy Program – now there was an actual example of domineering federalism! An honest-to-goodness confiscation of revenues that rightfully belonged to the province, combined with the near destruction of its most important industry – and all in the service of a policy, insulating Canada from world oil prices, that made no earthly sense to begin with.
That was 40 years ago. Since then the province’s grievance collectors have had to make do with less impressive atrocities. There is Bill C-69, which regulates pipeline construction more tightly than the province would like. There’s Bill C-48, which does the same to shipments of oil off the coast of British Columbia.
There is the shelving of several pipeline projects, though how much blame should be assigned to the federal government, and how much to world oil prices, excess pipeline capacity, and the opposition of other interested parties, is a matter of some dispute. And there’s the federal carbon tax, though all of the revenues Ottawa collects from it are rebated to the province’s citizens.
These are legitimate complaints, even if you think the policies are justified in light of the threat presented by climate change. Still and all – what province in Canada would not trade places with Alberta if it could? Even now, even with all it has been through in the past few years, Alberta remains the richest province in the country.
Per capita incomes in 2019 (the last year for which Statistics Canada has figures) were 15 per cent above the national average. The province’s government imposes the lightest tax burden in the country, relative to GDP, yet because the province’s per-capita GDP is so much higher, it still collected, until very recently, the most revenues per capita.
As for the fabled $600-billion – the amount, made folklore through constant repetition, by which federal revenues collected in Alberta over the past 60 years exceeded federal spending in the province – that is for the most part simply a restatement of the province’s success. As the richest province in the federation, its citizens naturally pay more federal tax than the others, while relying less on federal transfers.
As the province with, by far, the highest tax capacity, Alberta has likewise not been eligible for federal equalization payments. Equalization is undoubtedly a mess, and costs more than it should. But that’s not why the province is in the fix it is in today. If its deficits have lately become unsustainable, notwithstanding its relative abundance of revenues, it is mostly because its government also spends more, per capita, than almost any other province.
All of this is meant to provide some factual context for the Free Alberta Strategy, the latest and most extreme in a parade of attempts on the part of the province’s increasingly demented right wing to argue for a Quebec-style “knife at the throat” approach to the rest of the country – if not for outright separation. There would be little justification for this even if Alberta were the hapless victim of Confederation the report pretends. But read in the light of reality, the report appears even more to be a work of fantasy, of the most paranoid kind.
“Alberta’s treatment within Canada has become intolerable,” it begins. It has been “economically terrorized” by the federal government, whose “decades-long plundering” of its finances poses “an existential threat” to its economy and “the core freedoms of our people.”
To avert this awful fate, the report proposes, in effect, a revolution. The province would pass the Alberta Sovereignty Act, empowering its government to refuse to apply any federal laws that “in its view, interfere with provincial areas of jurisdiction or constitute an attack on the interests of Albertans.”
Of course, the courts might have something to say about this: so the Act would also apply to federal court rulings. And just in case Alberta courts were inclined to agree with them, there would be a separate bill transferring the power to appoint all judges in the province from the federal to the provincial government. Federal law enforcement would be further hampered by the expulsion of the RCMP from provincial soil.
Why would the federal government agree to any of this? Because the province would also have seized much of its revenues. Federal withholding tax on the paycheques of all provincial public employees would be diverted into provincial coffers. Private employers would be encouraged to do likewise. Federal efforts to recoup revenues from them through the banking system would be thwarted by the establishment of a number of provincial financial institutions, answerable only to the province.
There’s more: an Alberta Pension Plan. An Alberta Employment Insurance program. The province would take over international trade negotiations, resulting in Alberta “gaining full access to all domestic and international markets, including to and through the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans.”
And if the federal government, or the other provinces, attempted to obstruct this unilateral rewriting of the constitutional order? Well, then, they’d hold a referendum – either on this, or if necessary on independence. And that would be that, apparently.
“This will certainly require courageous political leadership,” the report’s authors, to all appearances adults, observe. “It will also require the commitment and fortitude of a majority of the people of Alberta.”
And therein lies the rub. At the heart of this fantasy, as much as the earlier indépendantiste fantasy that inspired it, is the supposition that the population of either province is prepared to embark upon these wild forays into a legal no-man’s-land, complete with shuttered courts, collapsing banks, currency and debt crises and the rest.
This is what ultimately makes separation not just unjustified or ill-advised, but impossible. It isn’t the army or the RCMP that would prevent either province from leaving. It is the desire of their people to live in a law-based state. Or indeed, a reality-based one.
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