Roger Gibbins is a Vancouver-based political commentator. He was president of the Canada West Foundation from 1998 to 2012.
In the wake of the uncertainty regarding the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline, the phrase "western alienation” has been slipping back into conversations and journalistic commentary, particularly in Alberta. Whether this rhetorical rebirth in Western Canada has the potential to recast the national political landscape is a question worth asking.
At first glance, the prospect is remote. The outlook has changed dramatically from the time when Preston Manning and the Reform Party dominated the region. The more populous West is now much stronger economically, and leads the country in most measures of economic performance. It has moved from the periphery of the national economy to become its principal driver. And, as Asian trade beckons, the region’s economic future is bright. The sun is rising, not setting, on the West.
The contemporary West is emphatically urban, and in many ways its cities are where Canada’s future is being forged. The historical and debilitating tensions between Quebec and the West have receded, as support for independence evaporates in Quebec and Western Canadians increasingly define their aspirations on their own terms. Quebec is no longer a significant point of comparison.
The region is also more politically diversified as British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba challenge Alberta’s past dominance. Certainly the sporadic conflict between Alberta and B.C. make it difficult to speak of the West as a unified region.
Yes, there are disputes with Ottawa, but these have come to be seen as the unavoidable consequence of federalism and not as a reflection of structural flaws in our system of government.
Many have argued (myself included) that the social movements associated with environmentalism and feminism will shift the political agenda to a greater focus on trans-boundary and indeed transnational issues, and that in an era of identity politics, ethnic, gender and racial identities will supplant historically rooted regional identities.
At present, there is no federal leader waiting in the wings poised to unfurl the banner of regional discontent. Nor are any of the Western premiers well positioned to reach beyond their provincial constituencies. Thus, on balance, the odds are long that a virulent brand of Western alienation will re-emerge, or spread beyond pockets in the oil fields of Alberta.
However, regional identities may be more durable than we assume. As recent European experience has demonstrated, it is far from certain that new transnational identities will displace those associated with place. Locality may be eroding in an age of increasing globalization, but it has not disappeared entirely.
Moreover, social movements such as environmentalism may exacerbate rather than bridge regional divides. Urban electorates outside the West, for example, may look to resource industries to fund their environmental aspirations.
Finally, a nagging worry is that in the past Canada’s political leadership too often failed to heal the rift between the West and the rest, and indeed may have intensified that disconnect in the pursuit of electoral success in other regions. National values – Canadian values – became defined in ways that failed to reflect Western Canadian experiences and aspirations. The West was written out of the Canadian vision.
Unfortunately, this strategy is not off the table today. As the 2019 election approaches, the possible outcome of a national government centred in Ontario and Quebec, with no more than a light dusting of seats from the West, cannot be ignored.
Let’s hope, therefore, that national political leadership does not fail us again as it has in the past.