Former Conservative MP Jay Hill, who was a capable party whip and House leader in Stephen Harper’s first two governments, wrote an eyebrow-raising column that appeared in the Calgary Herald last Saturday.
In that column, Mr. Hill put forth the case for the Western provinces to declare their independence from Canada.
Among other grievances, Mr. Hill cited equalization payments that funnel billions from taxpayers in “have” provinces, in particular Alberta and Saskatchewan, to Quebec and other “have not” provinces.
He cited what he sees as the unfairness of the Liberal government’s carbon tax, Ottawa’s inability to get pipelines constructed and its obsession with protecting jobs in Central Canada while neglecting Western economic needs.
“While western independence may never achieve the critical momentum necessary to become a reality, these issues need to be addressed before it does,” Mr. Hill concluded, urging the Conservative Party to do just that at its August policy convention in Halifax.
At the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank, Carlo Dade dismisses the idea of Western separatism. “But there is real anger and real frustration toward Ottawa,” he said in an interview. “It is real and it is deep and it is growing.”
There is great peril in an Ottawa-based columnist writing about Western discontent, but let’s plunge in anyway.
Mr. Hill’s unhappiness with equalization is hardly an exclusively Western concern. The program’s formula has Newfoundland and Labrador classed as a “have” province, which means it does not qualify for equalization payments, even though the unemployment rate hovers around 15 per cent, more than twice the national average.
The federal fiscal stabilization program is available to aid provinces that experience a sudden drop in revenues. But anger over equalization isn’t simply a policy disagreement in the West – it’s visceral, and directed at Quebec, by far the largest recipient.
The anger over pipelines is premature. After all, the Liberals did nationalize the Trans Mountain project. If the government is able to construct the pipeline, despite opposition from the British Columbia government and from environmental and Indigenous protesters, then Alberta will have no cause to complain. If the government fails to build Trans Mountain, however, Alberta’s oil-dependent economy will have been let down by Ottawa, and people there will and should howl.
As for Mr. Hill unhappiness with carbon taxes, he isn’t angry so much with the rest of Canada as he is with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. Nothing stokes Western alienation like the word Trudeau, especially when oil and gas are involved
But Mr. Hill’s beef is actually not with the Prime Minister, but with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Mr. Hill began his political life as a Reform MP. He believes to this day that the courts have used the Charter to deliver rights – such as rights for sexual minorities – that should have been the province of Parliament. In his column, he chafes against the absence of any provision for property rights in the Charter. He seeks a new deal with First Nations “built around future shared economic well-being, rather than continuing to dwell on past grievances.”
The Liberal Party could never be expected to embrace such principles. The real problem for Mr. Hill is that his Conservative Party doesn’t embrace them either, because they are not popular with most Canadians, including many conservatives.
What Mr. Hill should be advocating for is reform of the voting system. The Liberals promised that reform, but reneged when a parliamentary committee recommended a referendum on moving to proportional representation, which Mr. Trudeau doesn’t favour.
For better or for worse, PR would open the door to more ideologically pure parties, including a socially conservative party that would be able to influence any future right-leaning coalition government by requiring at least some consideration for its core demands.
But we are stuck with the status quo. Mr. Hill and others like him are going to have to convince Conservatives, at the convention or elsewhere, to listen to their grievances.
That said, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Western alienation, which has deep roots. And if that pipeline doesn’t get built, watch out.