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What Justin Trudeau Can Do About #Wexit

Western provinces have a long history of feeling neglected by Ottawa, but the Liberals' best option might be to wait out the secession hype.

by Steven Zhou
Oct 23 2019, 7:14pm

Photo via the Canadian Press

The hashtag #Wexit started trending on Canada Twitter Tuesday morning, hours after Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority in the federal election, while the Prairies basically went entirely to the Conservatives.

#Wexit is Western Canada Exit or, more specifically, the secession of both Alberta and Saskatchewan into separate, independent nations. The VoteWexit.com Facebook page has over 200,000 members right now. In Saskatchewan, groups like the Prairie Freedom Movement have popped up to pay for billboards asking, “Should Saskatchewan Leave Canada?”

It’s a far-fetched idea but the sentiment isn’t new. #Wexit is the angry culmination of a sense of Western alienation that’s long been a theme in Canadian politics and history. Trudeau’s latest win has just breathed new life into it.

The Conservatives handily took every riding in Alberta and Saskatchewan except Edmonton-Strathcona, which went NDP, but the Liberal wins in Toronto, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada won them the election. The Conservatives took 121 seats (and the popular vote), but the Liberals won 157 seats. As a result, both Alberta and Saskatchewan don’t feel like they have the kind of representation they want from a Liberal minority in Ottawa that can play nice with the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, and Greens to pass legislation.

Likewise, Trudeau’s cabinet won’t have any ministers from Alberta and Saskatchewan. Premiers in both provinces want Ottawa to fast-track plans to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Trudeau’s Liberal government bought for $4.5 billion last year. The NDP and Greens have all criticized this decision. Trudeau also made it a priority to visit Alberta over two dozen times as prime minister. But such overtures, along with the Liberals’ overall investments into the fossil fuels industry, landed the Liberals zero electoral wins in the region.

“There’s probably nothing he can do policy-wise to completely appease the West,” said Jared Wesley, a political scientist from the University of Alberta. “It’s more about group identity than policy, and people want to be acknowledged for making a contribution to the country instead of being blamed for climate change or whatever.”

But if Alberta were a country, it’d be the fifth biggest oil-producing country on earth. The Canadian oilsands, located almost exclusively in Northern Alberta, produced more pollution in 2017 than the entire provinces of B.C. or Quebec. It’s a significant reason why Canada likely won’t meet its 2030 Paris climate target: a 30 percent reduction in emissions as compared to 2005.

Wesley said that the perception in the rest of Canada is that Trudeau bought a pipeline with the rest of the country’s money to appease Alberta. If that doesn’t work, then not much else will.

“There’s never been a real policy solution or even foundation for Western alienation,” Wesley said. “The narrative also changes; it used to be about Alberta being held back by Ottawa, now it’s about getting left behind, like America’s rust belt states.”

Shortly after the election results came out, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe tweeted that his province is unhappy about their interests being held hostage by “a fourth place party that has never governed or a party that does not want to be party of this nation” (referring to the NDP and the Bloc respectively). He called for a “New Deal” to be struck between Ottawa and Saskatchewan, which includes scrapping the carbon tax, re-negotiating the amount of funding his province gets from Ottawa, and building more pipelines.

“We have a long-standing problem of national unity in Canada and leaders can’t afford to ignore it,” said Loleen Berdhal, head of the University of Saskatchewan’s political studies department. “Just because a problem is challenging doesn't mean we don't deal with it, and we certainly don’t do that with Quebec.”

Berdhal said Moe’s “new deal” isn’t a great place to start addressing the problem because asking the federal government to kill the carbon tax would leave it without a climate strategy. She noted that Moe and Kenney are using divisive tactics at a time when leaders “should be thinking about ways to bring the country toward unity.”

“Right now, the federal government should just let some things die down,” she said. “Then leaders should really think about coming out to Western Canada a lot more to talk to people, the public, and with premiers. It’s not so much about policy than it is about respect and voice.”

There’s a big difference between feeling left behind and shortchanged by Ottawa versus telling Ottawa to go screw itself forever and forming your own country. Issues related to alienation can be addressed via negotiations, but “Wexiting” would mean negotiating as a separate country altogether. Alberta and Saskatchewan would be surrounded by a foreign country—Canada—that exercises near-vetoing power over its relations to the outside world, from trade to tourism.

“The straight-up secessionist voice is very much still a fringe element,” political commentator Tristin Hopper told VICE. Hopper has written extensively about why Alberta secessionism is the “dumbest political movement in Canada.”

He explained that the separatist idea makes no sense on a policy level because it’d make everything Alberta and Saskatchewan wants much harder to obtain: pipelines, more funding, more independence, etc.

“It’s more of a cultural thing because people do feel like they’re getting piled on by the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s a sentiment that cuts across political lines, and even the NDP talks about it in Alberta.”

“Soon it begins to feel like a bunch of people with nothing in common with us deciding everything that happens from miles and miles away,” he added.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has echoed this sentiment, warning that he’ll hold a referendum in Alberta on Canada’s current framework for equalization payments, or the funding provinces that make less money get from the rest of Canada, if Ottawa doesn’t make some immediate moves on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. Such a referendum would be purely symbolic and possess zero legal consequences.

Wesley noted that equalization payments are for provinces who really need the money, and Alberta, currently a resource-rich province, doesn’t qualify. The last time Alberta got a payment was in 1964, before principals of equalization were enshrined into the constitution in 1982.

“Kenney knows this,” Wesley said. “He’s even admitted that threatening a referendum is more a tactic to get Ottawa to the negotiating table about helping Alberta after the drop in oil prices these past few years.”

There are also voices in Alberta calling for it to achieve Quebec’s “nation within a nation” status.

In an op-ed last week, former leader of Alberta’s conservative Wildrose Party (now part of the United Conservative Party) Danielle Smith argued that the province needs to stop being a “national doormat” by transitioning into being a province that can “collect our own money, pay for our own programs, take charge of our own policing and have our own border control.” She even called for provincial border to be redrawn by returning to 1903, when Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories were one entity. This would give Alberta access to “tidewater,” or the ocean, thus making it less dependent on the rest of Canada.

Despite the recent #Wexit Twitter hype, an online poll conducted this month found that less than a quarter of Albertans would actually vote to secede. Some of the hype seems to be generated from Twitter bots, according to an analysis by public relations firm H+K Strategies.

So while it may look like Canada is about to break apart on social media, that’s not a reality anyone in any level of government is taking seriously.

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