The Last Best West: Meet Alberta’s New Separatists
Here we go again.
The Royal Canadian Legion in south Edmonton was crowded when we walked in, six days after the federal election. We each paid $10 and gave the people at the door our poorly thought up aliases of Buster Douglas and Eric Brown.
The room was full of angry Albertans from all walks of life. There were the experienced oilmen and the inexperienced oilmen; the wives of the oilmen and the (few) oilwomen; the cousins of oilmen and the friends of oilmen. A few men wore their work coveralls while a couple rocked neon windbreakers. It was as if a cast of extras from The Red Green Show decided to take a quick break between segments.
At the head of the table was a tall man with a goatee shepherding the conversation. He gazed upon the fawning crowd, smiled like a pastor, and spoke to us of his plan for a new Alberta. An Alberta free from the tyranny of Ottawa and the greedy hands of Montreal and Toronto.
In the midst of his sermon, an older man interrupted him to ask how the new country could afford free health care. Our leader chuckled before enlightening him.
"I think we can all agree that [Alberta] is going to be a very, very rich country."
Welcome to the new generation of Western Separatists. They're an interesting bunch.
Birth of a Dozen Nations
When talking to Alberta separatists, you can pinpoint the exact moment they converted on the road to Damascus. It was when the media called the 2015 federal election for the Liberals.
The polls in Alberta hadn't even closed, but Canada already had a new prime minister. An eastern leader. A fuckin' Trudeau. And Albertans had no say in the matter.
For Jeff Rout, founder of the Alberta Freedom Party (the largest and most established new separatist party), it was at this moment that he and his comrades decided enough was enough.
"I've been thinking that Alberta ought to be it's own nation for many many years. Well over a decade," Rout told VICE. "And the main reason for that is simply because of the concept that the people should have as much sovereign democratic control over the law of government as possible.
"Alberta has a vote, but that vote is practically meaningless and, as a result of that, is that truly democracy? No, it's not democracy. People in Alberta don't have any direct democratic control over the laws of government. That's not right."
There are many parallels between Alberta's woes and those that fueled the Quebec secession crisis in both 1980 and 1995. But ironically, one of the linchpins of Western Alienation is a burning hatred for the Québécois and fear of a French planet. (Never mind that, as of 2011, one in ten Albertans are of French descent.)
"Here's what needs doing," Larry Smith, leader of the Alberta Independence Movement, wrote to the 13,000 members of the group's Facebook page. "First it would be nice if the Quebec sponges would return the money we have donated to their pathetic welfare state.
"Don't hold your breath. They've probably already doled out the billions we just gave them."
In the meeting, there was plenty of French-bashing. Rout captured the difference between their movement and the failed liberation of la belle province with a delicious little metaphor:
"The reason Quebec failed in their attempt is that they're on the gravy train," he said as his followers nodded along.
"We're the gravy."
During his time as prime minister from the late 1960s to the mid-80s, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Alberta's Great Satan because he ticked every box on the Eastern Bastard checklist. He was an effete urban intellectual from Quebec obsessed with social engineering and transforming Canada into a left-liberal, multicultural paradise. The National Energy Program—Ottawa's effort in the early 1980s to impose federal control over Alberta's oil that wound up cratering the province's economy—was just icing on the cake.
And now, some 35 years on, Pierre's son Justin is rekindling many of those fears in Alberta. Replace "ISIS" with "USSR," McDavid with Gretzky, and undercuts with mullets, and 2016 could just as easily be 1981.
'Lazarus, Come Forth!'
Separatism in Alberta isn't anything new. In fact, it has a long and storied history. It sprouts from Western Alienation—a fertile tract of intellectual land that's produced some of the most prominent political minds in Alberta.
For alienated Albertans, the basic premise of political life is that Albertans should decide for Alberta—but because of the way Confederation is set up, they can't. Albertans can't decide what they do with their oil, they can't decide what languages they print (or don't print) on their cereal boxes, and they can't decide what happens to their taxes when they get to Ottawa.
There are two parts to this problem. One is political economy. The Canadian game is rigged, and has been from the start.
Before the birth of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, citizens and politicians of Canada's Northwest Territories—the catch-all designation for everything west of Winnipeg that wasn't BC —were shopping around a few different ideas about how to carve up the map. Fred Haultain, Premier of the NWT, wanted all the territory south of the 57th parallel between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains to be a single province: Buffalo. Haultain believed that having a large, united province would give the prairies more political power in Ottawa.
And precisely for that reason, the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier was having none of it. The Eastern elites didn't need a Buffalo in the Canadian china shop, wrecking all their shit.
Instead, Buffalo was broken in two. And unlike the original four provinces of Confederation—Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan were initially given constitutional jurisdiction over their natural resources. They wouldn't get it until 1930.
By design, the fruits of the Canadian union were meant to flow into the Laurentian valley. Ernest Watkins, political historian and one-time leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, summed Alberta's view up nicely in The Golden Province: A Political History of Alberta: "in the eyes of Central Canada, the settlers in the west, and the governments that represented them, were not exactly serfs, nor slaves, nor rank and file under the command of a commissioned officer. They were something of all three."
God only knows where the land's Indigenous peoples fit into this equation.
Central Canadian politicians and corporate leaders usually have their own plans for "the Last Best West," and Ottawa has historically never been shy about steamrolling local interests when it suits them.
Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical analyst, is frankly surprised that the mistreatment of Alberta hasn't caused more of a hubbub. Zeihan is an advocate of Alberta joining the United States, and has been a luminary for the Albertan Separatist movement ever since his interview with Jen Gerson at the National Post last year.
"Anywhere else in the world, this would be a secessionist crisis," Zeihan told VICE. "There is no other place in the world where you have one province that is lightly populated but very rich, that doesn't have a certain degree of rebellion."
"The redistribution system that Canada has with the transfer payments, anywhere else would have social instability. But to be blunt, Canadians are just too damn polite."
A Different Breed of Buffalo
The other prong of Albertan Alienation is cultural. Alberta is (or was) fundamentally different from the political culture of the St. Lawrence. Alberta has historically been Canada's conservative heartland. While the provincial NDP victory last May might have shaken things up a bit, Alberta still tends to skew to the right of the East Coast.
A lot of this goes back to the province's settlement. Many of Alberta's early settlers came up from the United States, and they brought with them a penchant for populism unheard of in Toronto and Montreal, where elite power politics were all the rage. Likewise, the political culture they fostered in Alberta favoured the free market over the fuzzy statism dominant in the Canadas (Upper and Lower).
Conservative politics in the province are driven by the idea that "Alberta is for Albertans." This has made direct democracy (referendum, recall, elected Senate, etc.) very popular here. But it's also come with a hefty side of nativism.
There is a persistent belief among many of the separatists that no one outside this in-group of "real Albertans" should get any say in daily life here. Alberta belongs to the True Albertan (presumably, a white dude riding a horse around a farm or a giant truck around the oil sands) and everybody else—Eastern Bastards, First Nations, immigrants, leftists, and Muslims—can get fucked.
What can we say? Here in God's Country, the right leans white.
Back at the meeting things had devolved into more or less a oil sands defence tribunal railing against the tyranny of the current provincial government. To a strong section of true blue dyed-in-the wool conservative Albertans, the NDP coming into power feels like such a slap in the face. A strong majority at the meeting (and online) believe Rachel Notley won the election by "very proudly and openly campaign[ing] to actively and systematically end the oil industry," as Rout put it.
At times, the meeting seemed to move away from the idea of separatism.
"We need to recognize that we're just cleaning up Mother Nature's oil spill," Rout told the crowd when someone brought up the oil sands. "We need to mute the environmentalists."
It's no surprise that there was a bit of waffling off message, because you don't need to buy into separatism to feel the full bite of Western Alienation. 30 years ago, Alberta opted to try and sort this problem out through the Reform Party: "the West wants in," as Preston Manning famously put it. (The Great Reformer himself has recently said that a national unity crisis is brewing in Alberta over Ottawa's handling of the Energy East pipeline.)
In 2006, Stephen Harper fulfilled the Reform Party mission of putting Albertan patriots in the PMO. But now, with Harper turfed in the wake of a Trudeau Restoration, the sense among the separatists in the room was that Manning's dream is dead.
"The West got in," Rout opined to the audience. "And look where that got us."
But there is another hope: Super Stephen Harper, as the group called him.
According to the separatists, Super Stephen Harper is a conservative mastermind just "out there waiting" to lead his people to the chosen land. Imagine a burlier, thickly mustachioed Stephen Harper somewhere in the wilderness, splitting lumber next to his lakeside cabin, ruminating on the mysteries of the market. Some sort of silver-haired hero with his dick in one hand and a copy of Atlas Shrugged in the other, waiting in the wings. Just waiting for the call.
Wherever he was, it was far away from the south Edmonton Legion that night. When the topic of party leadership came up, the group opted to hold out for the separatist messiah.
"I think we should have a interim leader. We don't want to miss out on the Super Stephen Harper," Rout told the meeting. "That Harper was a federalist, we don't want to miss the chance to have a localist Super Harper lead this party."
Both Buster Douglas and Eric Brown waited with baited breath to see if someone in the group would rise up and claim the mantle of conservative ubermensch.
Instead, a portly gentleman in a nylon windbreaker got up and started pacing around and yelling about Ron Paul. He looked to his adoring crowd and clasped his hands. This was it—this was his moment. He would change lives with this speech. He looked to his crowd, took a deep breath, and carried on.
"Alberta is like a beaten wife..."
The Dark Side
To put it politely, the group has a penchant for the dramatic.
Numerous death threats against Notley and Trudeau can be easily found on almost all of the popular Facebook pages exploring the concept of Western Separatism. One extreme example was a meme showing a young girl praying with the text "please let the next mass shooting be in Rachel Notley's office." There is a whole Twitter account dedicated to showcasing the more extreme examples to the world.
The members tend to agitate each other, riling everybody up and leading to one unsettling post after another. Muslims are regularly slurred as "goat fuckers" on the pages and many other posters suggest the best welcome gift for Syrian refugees is a bullet to the head.
Rout says he's seen many of the other separatist groups slip into this sentiment, but is emphatic that Alberta Freedom is based around an "almost religious" belief in freedom, including the freedom of worship. Neither Rout nor his party endorse the violent anti-Muslim positions some proto-parties are proposing, and on social media he actively kicks people out of the group for hateful speech.
"That type of conversation is never appropriate, and it doesn't matter what you think, that is completely wrong. It is appalling," said Rout. "We have a zero tolerance policy since day one.
"Really, if our ideas can't stand up to debate then they're not good ideas."
For a cadre of Western separatists, the meeting we attended was noticeably sensitive to the diversity issue.
"Look around this room, what do you see?" Rout asked that night. "Not many minorities."
He wasn't wrong. For the most part, the group was exactly what you'd expect: old, white, and angry. There were some grumblings about Muslims and Sharia law, but Rout kiboshed it immediately, noting that if they were to be successful they needed to be inclusive. He said that the group was already being labeled as a group of bigots and they have to fight that stigma.
A bearded older man—almost certainly a fossil of the 1980s' Western Canada Concept—agreed.
"Go a little easier on the Muslims. They're not all that bad."
The Rubber Hits the Road
So what's the ultimate forecast for Alberta Independence?
Short answer: not great.
Secession may be technically legal, but that doesn't make it easy. Despite the depth of grievance in Alberta or the gravity of Confederation's economic problems, it's pretty unlikely that the province will ever separate from Canada. The federal Clarity Act passed after Quebec came within 55,000 votes of destroying the country makes the process of leaving Canada as grinding as possible.
It didn't work in Quebec, and the Québécois actually have an identifiably different culture than the rest of Canada, an alternative national vision plucking at their heartstrings, a deep well of historic indignation stretching back to the Conquest, and access to the sea.
All things considered, the Republic of Alberta's odds of becoming the newest settler-state on the North American continent are pretty slim. Most Albertans are deeply emotionally attached to Canada—even the ones convinced that Justin Trudeau is a secret Muslim with a boner for Sharia Law and climate change is a hoax fabricated by the UN as an excuse to throw Christians in the gulag.
Even if they did manage to vote their way to independence, the oilpatch alone wouldn't solve all their problems. How a landlocked petrostate with three-to-four "hostile" borders is going to make it in the international system is an open question. Peter Zeihan believes that the only option for Alberta is to leave Canada and join the States.
"Independence doesn't solve anything," he told VICE. "The only way that this turns out well for Alberta economically, in the long run, is union with the United States, and that's a very different political decision than simply secession."
But even if it never leads to outright independence, an Alberta separatist movement can still get a lot accomplished. Again, just look at Quebec where, within three generations, politically organized sovereigntists totally reshaped political life in Canada. There is no reason a cadre of well-organized, well-funded Alberta separatists couldn't make a big splash of their own if they played their cards right. Nothing trumps the spectre of separatism when it comes to extorting favours from Ottawa.
Either way, between Alberta's economic woes and the tussle over the Energy East pipeline, Zeihan believes a confrontation between the province and the feds is inevitable.
"If Ottawa wins this one, the local government in Edmonton will basically be tarred and feathered and there will be a political rebellion. In Canada, in five to ten years, this issue will probably be decided.
"There are no easy decisions in Edmonton, and there won't be until this is all over."
There were no easy decisions at the Edmonton Legion that night, either. Towards the end of the meeting, a stocky rig worker who had been silently leaning up against a pool table in the back all night started asking people, one by one, about their line of work. It was a way to gauge their Albertan cred.
It was a tense moment. The unease in the room had been ratcheted up by the appearance of would-be leaders from another Separatist party who were attempting to flaunt their superiority. This was a way to decide who really belonged in the movement. Both Eric Brown and Buster Douglas hoped that this surprise interrogation wouldn't force them to explain to a room full of pissed off conservatives that they actually worked for VICE.
Instead, the extraordinarily ripped petrol prole quickly aimed his slow Prairie drawl at our leader in the front.
"What do you do?" he barked.
Rout told him that he works in housing. This wasn't what our man in the back wanted to hear.
"And you think you can help free us?"
Rout gave an emphatic yes. And honestly, why not? Stranger things have happened.
Right now, in the promised land of blossoming rye and untapped oil, everything seems possible.