In the '70s and '80s, some wanted Alberta to separate from Canada

The recent talk of Alberta separating from Canada isn't the first time some have spoken about separation. It goes back decades, to the early 1970s, and ramped up in 1980.

After election day, Alberta premier said he'd heard political moderates muse openly about Alberta separation

The reasons for Albertans' attitudes towards the rest of Canada are varied and historic. 1:22

No Liberal candidate was elected in Alberta or Saskatchewan in Monday's federal election, leaving each province without a single MP in the minority Liberal government.

The next day, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced his intention to call an expert panel "aimed at suggesting ways to improve Alberta's role within Confederation." 

At the news conference, Kenney said he'd already heard political moderates muse openly about Alberta separation.

It wasn't the first time that Albertans, politically moderate or otherwise, had spoken about separation. That goes back decades, to the early 1970s, and ramped up in 1980.

Built-up resentment 

In January 1981, a CBC News special called Alienation: Our Uneasy West catalogued some of the grievances Western Canada had against federal governments in Central Canada. 

"In 1967, Montreal asked for $150 million to help pay for Expo. Prairie farmers asked for $200 million to subsidize them," said reporter David Burt. 

"The East got their money; the West got turned down."

Burt gave more examples: a request to help sell western wheat in 1969 that was denied, and an $8-million Royal Commission on bilingualism that went ahead, but no support for a study on western alienation.

To cap the list was the country's new flag of 1965.

"Even choosing a red maple leaf — rarely seen in the West — as Canada's national emblem [is a grievance]," Burt reported.  

A 'bargaining tool'

Prime Minister Trudeau says that rather then thinking of separating, Alberta should find a way to demand more from the federal government. 1:26

Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau dismissed the emerging separation threat as nothing more than "a bargaining tool" of Western premiers, according to CBC's The National.

In October 1980, he had begun negotiations with the provinces over proposed changes to the Canadian Constitution.

At a news conference, Trudeau had been asked about separatist sentiment fuelled by his proposals and an upcoming budget that was expected to levy new energy taxes.

"The chances of western separatism are absolutely nil," he said. "Canadians are Canadians, and I don't think they'll fall for that kind of thing except as bargaining tools by the premiers."   

And he suggested the West should "take a page from the Quebec book" by electing representation at the federal level. 

"Get into governments in Ottawa and scream for more at that level, too, rather than always sit on the opposition benches," he advised.

Lougheed agreed

"People in western Canada ... want to be part of the mainstream of Canadian life," says Peter Lougheed. 2:42

The same day, the then-Alberta premier seemed to agree with the prime minister.

"I don't think that people in Western Canada want to separate," Peter Lougheed told reporter Don Newman. "They want to be a part of the mainstream of Canadian life."  

But Lougheed said Albertans had "a great deal to complain about, and they're justified complaints."

Lest anyone think separation was a fringe movement, Stanley Roberts of the Canada West Foundation think-tank told Newman it was "very real and a growing threat."

"It's being supported by the businessmen, by the business community.… It isn't at the working-class level," Roberts said. "It was, and those people are still there [but] it's moving through government circles and into the boardrooms. It's a frightening thing."

Rallying for separation  

Hundreds turn out in Eckville, Alta. to hear from the leader of an organization called WestFed. 1:27

The movement was still growing less than two months later in December 1980,  as evidenced at a rally in Eckville, Alta., about 180 kilometres north of Calgary.

Elmer Knutson, founder of the Western Canada Federation (also known as WestFed), had drawn more than 650 people to hear his arguments for western separation despite frigid temperatures.

"How many people in this audience really believe in separatism is an open question," said reporter Newman. "But separatists like Knutson are tapping a stream of Prairie populism that runs deep in the political history of Alberta."


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