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An affair of the heart, not of the head. That's how Roger Gibbins, the consummate westerner, describes the case for Alberta in Confederation.

Mr. Gibbins is the president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank. The foundation has just released a poll revealing that most Albertans believe the affair is mainly a case of unrequited love.

Looking West shows that 54 per cent think the rest of Canada doesn't care about the West, and 60 per cent think Albertans don't get the respect they deserve. And one in four is a separatist.

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Mr. Gibbins is not a separatist. Not because there are economic advantages to Alberta's being in Confederation, but despite the fact there aren't. "It's been a long time since I've heard an economic case for being part of Canada," he says.

It's like a scientist who views the body as a collection of molecules and electrical impulses. Based on the data, he'll never come up with Ralph Klein or Stéphane Dion. Or Madonna, for that matter. Mr. Gibbins remembers when he was asked, on behalf of the Council for Canadian Unity, to analyze the economic impact of Quebec separation, and he found himself making "silly" arguments about the cost of lettuce.

But you know that the loss of Quebec would be catastrophic. As would the loss of Alberta, which makes the recent renaissance of Alberta separatism, as a topic of discussion at least, troubling. The 25 per cent who declare their separatist intentions don't represent a significant increase in the number who felt that way before relations between Ottawa and Edmonton cooled over Kyoto, but Mr. Gibbins expects the movement for an independent Alberta to grow stronger.

Frustrations continue to build. The economic ties between West and East are weakening, so there's less glue keeping us together. Over and over, the figure $7-billion is drummed into the heads of Albertans who now believe that's the annual cost of the privilege of listening to lectures on national unity from Mr. Dion. His most recent lecture so incensed Mr. Klein that he fired off a letter to the Prime Minister, using up his quota of "condescending" for the rest of the year.

Mr. Dion, says Mr. Gibbins, "reflects a deeper problem within the federal government. We've had a national political leadership for 30 years that has been raised on the linguistic conflict between anglo and franco. English Canada is seen in some homogeneous way and, emotionally, it doesn't connect."

Still, Mr. Gibbins does not want to live in a nation of 2,907,882 people, a society that, for all its economic zip, is "too small, too claustrophobic to be invigorating." He imagines taking his sons to the top of the Calgary Tower and, with a sweep of his hand, offering them the world as far as they can see. That world, however, ends at Medicine Hat.

So is the Republic of Alberta a plausible alternative to Canada? "It's the same question westerners like to use to beat up Quebec: How would you survive?"

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Still, he remains optimistic. "It may be foolish on my part, but, in 2004, we're going into a federal election with new leaders in all four parties. I have some hope we can make headway in engaging Western Canadians more enthusiastically in a national government."

Even if it doesn't make dollars and sense, Roger Gibbins is a Canadian. If more of us thought that way, there would be no need for Stéphane Dion. It's a prospect that makes the heart sing.

psullivan@globeandmail.ca

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