I’ve lived in Alberta all my life. I’ve seen the worries and frustrations many Albertans feel that has led some people to support ‘Wexit’, the idea of separating from Canada. I’m just as opposed to the idea of Alberta separating as I am to the idea of Quebec separating. Losing either province would be like losing a piece of myself. When I see the the acrimony, I wonder how we as Canadians can find some kind of common ground.
And there is acrimony. Many of the issues surrounding oil and gas development, ranging from the changes of Bill C-69 to the opposition of many environmentalists, Indigenous people and provinces such as Quebec to pipelines are seen by a lot of Albertans as just the latest in a long line of actions by Ottawa and the rest of Canada that left Alberta holding the bag. Former MP Monte Solberg gives a lot of examples that frustrated Albertans cite. There’s a view that we’re expected to continue paying into programs such as equalization and Employment Insurance, while being demonized for developing the resources that actually get that money.
It’s no wonder so many Albertans feel like we’re being crapped on and being attacked as ‘blue-eyed sheiks’ despite all the contributions we’ve made to support the rest of the country.
Solberg talks a lot about Alberta’s conservatism, as if that were the only political view that exists here. And as as Jen Gerson observes, the loudest advocates of Wexit seem to be conservative oil and gas workers. But Gerson also notes they’re not the only frustrated ones. There’s a feeling that, because we have some racist assholes here and are generally the most conservative province in Canada, other Canadians see us as bad people who deserve all the bad things that happen to us.
Gerson notes that it’s easy for Albertans to feel like we’ve been singled out as scapegoats for all of Canada’s environmental issues…even though the rest of the country sure likes the money the oilsands produces. Never mind that the Alberta oil and gas sector is working hard to reduce its emissions .It also doesn’t help that some American environmentalists have openly admitted to targeted the oilsands, as pipeline advocates have claimed.
Now, with unemployment rates for men under 25 reaching 20% in Alberta, and Quebec Premier François Legault referring to Alberta oil as ‘dirty energy’,it’s no wonder that so many Albertans feel like we’re being crapped on and being attacked as ‘blue-eyed sheiks’ despite all the contributions we’ve made to support the rest of the country. As one Calgary Herald editorial wrote in 2001, “Albertans wouldn’t begrudge the financial imbalance; helping one’s neighbour is a value that thrives in the West. It’s just that a little appreciation is overdue.”[i]
I’m personally very proud that Alberta’s supported the rest of the country through equalization payments and the money that workers from other provinces send home. As Stephen Maher points out, equalization has been a reciprocal thing. Alberta sent money to the rest of the country, allowing provinces like Quebec and Nova Scotia to pay for their residents’ health and education needs. In return, Alberta got human capital in the form of those provinces’ residents coming out here to find work in the oilsands. Maher noted that other provinces spend money to educate their youth, see many of them work and pay taxes in Alberta, then require the provinces to spend on their healthcare when they come back to retire.
As proud as I am of what Alberta’s achieved and how we’ve helped the rest of the country, there are some things that make me shake my head. I facepalm at the arrogance some of us showed during the booms, especially when we rubbed our good fortune in other Canadians’ faces. Snide comments about how everybody having hard times should just move to Alberta haven’t exactly won us a lot of sympathy when we‘re the ones on hard times’.
A lot of of us also seem to believe that equalization directly transfers provincial money from Alberta to other provinces, which it doesn’t. Andrew Leach shows how it’s based on each province’s fiscal capacity. Trevor Tombe showed how our GDP has been one of Canada’s highest for decades even with our current problems. Jocelyn Maclure shows how provinces like Quebec receive equalization payments-which come from federal money-because their fiscal capacity is lower than Alberta’s. Equalization allows the provinces to better set their own priorities on taxes and spending. Quebec pays for its more generous social programs through higher taxes, while Alberta’s paid for its programs through oil royalties. Notably, Quebec also imports 40% of its natural gas and 47.6% of its oil from Alberta.
We caused some of our own problems with our own fiscal choices. Bumper stickers promising God not to piss away the next oil boom are a common anecdote in Alberta. Unfortunately, we’ve paid a lot of our day to day expenses with oil revenues to keep income taxes low. Even our conservative governments have historically been big spenders in good times,[ii] which didn’t leave us a lot in our Heritage Fund for rainy days like today. It doesn’t help that the boom times aren’t expected to come back anytime soon.
I see so many valid points on both sides, and a lot of people worried about their families’ livelihoods and futures.
Not to mention that a lot of the opposition to pipelines in other parts of Canada is motivated by concerns about everything from climate change to the impacts of spillage on the environment, drinking water and other ways people earn their livelihoods, notably Indigenous ones. When it came to resource development, Dene leader Don Balsillie quipped to federal officials, ‘you got the gold, we got the shaft’ .[iii]
I’m struggling about where to go from here. I see so many valid points on both sides, and a lot of people worried about their families’ livelihoods and futures. Many Albertans feel the Liberals’ legislation changes and opposition to pipelines are just another example of how the rest of the country doesn’t care about us. Meanwhile, pipeline opponents like many Québécois and Indigenous people feel like Alberta’s push for pipelines is just another example of how the environment and other peoples’ livelihoods (e.g. if they work in farming or tourism, or rely on traditional hunting and fishing) are expected to be sacrificed for oil and gas development.
One idea that I’m completely and totally against as an Albertan, though, is the idea of Alberta or Western Canada separating from Canada.
I hear a lot about phasing out oil and gas and moving to other forms of energy. I have a lot of questions about it, though. Where do we get the tax revenues for investing in green energy? How do we heat our homes and transport people, especially to outlying communities or islands? Why is it alright for some place like Venezuela to sell oil but not Canada? Martha Hall Findlay notes that we can’t avoid this conversation. Other energy sources have had their problems too, such as the Quebec hydroelectric dams that severely disrupted Cree hunting and fishing activities.[iv] What kinds of issues are there with wind and solar power, among others? Wouldn’t we still need to mine the materials needed to make solar panels and windmills?
Ideas exist, of course. Will Dubitsky, Geoff Dembicki and Shelley Wilson all suggest that Alberta’s infrastructure and its workers technical know-how could transfer to the green energy sector. Regan Boychuk and Avi Lewis suggest that Alberta could create decades of work through cleaning up the impact of oil and gas development.
One idea that I’m completely and totally against as an Albertan, though, is the idea of Alberta or Western Canada separating from Canada. Cory Morgan points out that separation raises way too many unanswered questions. Doug Cuthand notes that separation would have to reckon with the the First Nations Treaties covering Alberta and the rights of Indigenous people. Chantal Hébert talked about all the problems that Quebec separatists have had trying to separate. And no, separation would not make it any easier to get pipelines built.
Separation would be nothing short of a disaster for Alberta. More than that, it would mean we-all of us, not just Albertans-will have failed at building a stronger relationship as a country.
Things are bad in Alberta, but there are a few encouraging signs. Sharon J. Riley writes about the former oil and gas workers who’re working in the solar industry. Chris Varcoe writes about the workers who’re working in agribusiness, and how a lot of the skills they developed in the oilpatch are transferable. Quebec’s Finance Minister Éric Girard writes about how la belle province wants Alberta to prosper, and supports Alberta’s proposed changes to the federal fiscal stabilization program. Heather Scoffield writes about the politicians and activists who are trying to get around the seeming polarization on pipelines.
I see so many people worried for so many reasons. I see fellow Albertans who are deeply frustrated and unhappy, but don’t want to separate. I see possible solutions and areas of common ground. I wish I could find that common ground, and I almost hate myself for not being able to.
I wish there was more that I could do, and I wish I knew what to do.
[i] Quoted in Roger Gibbins and Loleen Berdahl, Western Visions, Western Futures: Perspectives On The West In Canada. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003. Page 61.
[ii] Ibid, page 106.
[iii] Quoted in Ellen Bielawski, Rogue Diamonds: The Rush For Northern Riches On Dene Land. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003. Page 61.
[iv] Harvey A. Feit, “Hunting And The Quest For Power: The James Bay Cree And Whitemen In The Twentieth Century.” In Native Peoples, The Canadian Experience, edited by R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pages 181–223.