Tony Coulson is the group VP of corporate and public affairs at Environics.
In his first week as Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney delivered a message in Ottawa about the unhappiness of his constituents, describing “a growing crisis of national unity in Alberta.” Mr. Kenney is not wrong. Visiting my home province in recent months, I’ve observed that economic concerns are powerful and growing, as is dislike for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government.
Mr. Kenney tapped into these sentiments over the past few years and eventually rode them to electoral victory. The hopes of Albertans are now resting on the new Premier’s ability to kick-start the provincial economy, bringing jobs and renewed prosperity to households and the community.
But economic headwinds are only one part of the pain Albertans are feeling: They also feel disrespected by their country. In a recent report from the Environics Institute and its partners, titled “Canada: Pulling together or drifting apart?,” the findings are clear: Seven in 10 Albertans feel their province is not treated with the respect it deserves, and the same proportion feel the province has a less than fair share of influence in the federation. Eight in 10 Albertans agree – 56 per cent strongly – that the West usually gets ignored in national politics, and almost six in 10 agree that the West gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that it may as well go it alone. Many of these sentiments have increased substantially since a comparable survey was conducted in 2010.
Some of this feeling of neglect and disrespect may derive from a sense that other Canadians don’t understand how tough things have become in Alberta. The province’s economy slowed in recent years, following a fairly long period of strong performance fuelled by sky-high oil prices. After an extended boom, the bust seems harsher than in the past.
We recently updated an economic confidence survey, previously conducted in 2009. The Alberta results demonstrate that many in the province are feeling the strain: Almost half say their household is struggling to make ends meet (up from 29 per cent in 2009), and six in 10 feel the current economic conditions are the worst in their lifetime (up from 48 per cent in 2009). Concern about a potential household job loss now stands at a third, the same level as in 2009.
When asked about the state of the economy in Canada, six in 10 Albertans see it getting weaker, down from 75 per cent in 2009, and slightly more than half now believe the country to be in a recession, a level comparable with that of 2009, but twice the national average.
On whether the federal government is doing enough to address Canada’s economic challenges, fewer than one in 10 Albertans respond yes today, down from 46 per cent in 2009. Back then, an Albertan Conservative was prime minister, which may have given some Westerners greater trust in the person at the helm. It was also true at the time that the government, like many others around the world, was taking active and conspicuous action to limit the effects of a global economic downturn.
What do Albertans prioritize at this moment? Six in 10 believe that creating more jobs should be a top priority, while four in 10 prioritize reducing poverty and homelessness, and only one in four would like to see a strong focus on protecting the environment.
Moreover, when asked if protecting the environment improves economic growth and provides new jobs or reduces economic growth and costs jobs, Albertans are evenly split, whereas for Canada overall, seven in 10 say environmental protection improves economic growth.
Albertans are struggling through an economic downturn that many see as the worst in their lifetime. The feeling that other Canadians don’t understand what they are going through is strong – so strong that it’s straining commitment to the federation itself. If Mr. Kenney is able to turn things around for Alberta’s economy, he might just bring the federation back to health in the process. In the meantime, he’s sounding the alarm about just how frustrated his constituents have become.