Disenfranchisement and disappointment: Idea of western Canadian separation has deep roots in Prairies

A recent poll suggests at least some people in Saskatchewan think separating from Canada would be a good idea, and Alberta’s premier referred this summer to a “truly profound sense of alienation.”

But Western Canada has long had a segment of the population calling for separation and pointing to alienation from the east.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have both recently warned of western alienation, along with expressing their displeasure with the federal government on issues like the carbon tax and delays to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

“This is not just some random political opinion,” Kenney said in July, citing two polls as evidence.

An Environics survey published earlier this year found 53 per cent of Saskatchewan respondents agreed with the statement “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.”

“I don’t think Albertans are actually ready to do that,” Kenney said in July, at the end of a premiers’ summit. 

“I think they believe in this country, but that’s a way that they are expressing a truly profound sense of alienation. And all they ask for is fairness within the federation.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says people in his province are feeling a ‘truly profound sense of alienation.’ (The Canadian Press)

Billboards promoting separation have also popped up in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon in recent months. 

A recent poll conducted over the phone by the University of Saskatchewan and commissioned by CBC and Postmedia also asked Saskatchewan respondents about separation.

In that survey, 35 out of 400 respondents — or almost nine per cent — said Saskatchewan should separate from Canada, while 346 people disagreed. 

Eighteen people didn’t know how to answer the question, while one person refused to answer.

The poll had a 4.9 per cent margin of error, 19 out of 20 times.

Separation idea ebbs and flows: prof

Joseph Garcea, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the feeling that Western Canada is alienated has “ebbed and flowed” through the last century. 

Western Canada has always had people calling for separation, he said, going back to the days when the region was known as the North-West Territories.

Some of that sense of alienation started off with the idea that the Prairies should have been a unified province. That was proposed by politician Frederick Haultain, the first premier of the territories, in 1904, when he called for the creation of a single unified Prairie province called Buffalo. 

In 1904, Frederick Haultain proposed a single Prairie province called Buffalo. (Saskatchewan: A New History)

Garcea said Wilfrid Laurier, then the prime minister, did not want one single province with too much centralized power, and rejected Haultain’s proposal.

The modern provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created instead one year later. 

Alienation came up as a theme again during the Great Depression. 

“[That’s] when the Alberta government in particular started, essentially, to feel disenchantment, disappointment with what essentially is referred to as the eastern establishment,” Garcea said. 

“It felt as if the east had too much control over financial matters, over trade matters and over political matters.”

Joe Garcea said alienation and the idea of separation have ‘ebbed and flowed’ throughout Western Canada’s existence. (University of Saskatchewan)

Decades later, the creation of the National Energy Program in the face of rising oil prices once again raised frustrations in the West, Garcea says.

“What the [Pierre] Trudeau government was trying to do was try and provide a supply for Canada, at a reasonable price, and to some extent influence exports,” Garcea said. 

“He believed he was doing it in the national interest, but the West, and particularly Alberta, felt that it was for the national interest against the provincial interest, or the regional interest.”

Garcea said the renewed sense of western alienation now stems from the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline project and government policies like the carbon tax. 

Representation in Ottawa

Earlier this year, Peter Downing — a spokesperson for the pro-western separation group Prairie Freedom Movement — told CBC Radio the west is under-represented in Ottawa. 

Downing said electoral realities favour the east and now is the time for industries in Western Canada — like the agriculture and oil and gas sectors — to take a stand.

It’s a message we’ve heard before….western alienation. This time it’s coming from a group called Prairie Freedom Movement. And they’ve just launched a billboard campaign, asking the question … Should Saskatchewan leave Canada. Peter Downing is the media spokesperson for the group. 7:41

Jim Farney, the head of the politics and international studies department at the University of Regina, said part of the reason people in Western Canada may feel their voices aren’t being heard boils down to demography. 

“Alberta in particular has grown, but we’re still only about a seventh of the Canadian population, if you look at the three Prairie provinces,” he said. “It’s kind of not surprising that we get washed out.”

University of Regina political studies professor Jim Farney says he thinks western separation is unlikely, but ‘anything can be a reality, if you’re watching Brexit right now.’ (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Farney said the sentiment that the Liberal Party of Canada is “the natural governing party” has existed since the 1930s, even while the Prairie provinces have generally voted for conservative parties “pretty reliably.”

Farney said today’s alienation isn’t like what was seen in the 1980s, but it still exists. 

“A lot of it is bound up with energy policy, a lot of it’s bound up with provincial opposition to the carbon tax,” he said. 

“I think it’s important to distinguish between, let’s say, the normal bumping back and forth between federal and provincial relations … and a full-blown separatist movement.”

Is separation feasible?

Farney said the West has never seen a separatist movement on the scale of the Quebec separatist movement, and while western separatist parties have existed, they’ve been “pretty far out on the fringes.”

He doesn’t think the West is at a point in history where it’s going to separate, nor does he think it is moving in that direction — but he wouldn’t rule out the possibility entirely.

“Anything can be a reality, if you’re watching Brexit right now,” Farney said. 

What is at the root of feelings of western alienation and how real of threat is it to national unity? We spoke with University of Saskatchewan Political Scientist Loleen Berdahl and Allan Kerpan, a former Reform Party MP and Sask Party MLA who is part of the western separatist movement. 50:45

Downing told CBC’s Saskatoon Morning that the Prairie Freedom Movement was in the process of commissioning a study to look at the feasibility of western separation.

But Farney says he feels separation “is pretty unlikely,” in part because of Canada’s geography.

“The kind of alienation that’s out there in the Prairies isn’t being reflected in B.C. so much. It’s hard to imagine a landlocked Prairie country solving the economic problems that seem to drive much of what’s going on.”

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