Albertans feel alienated from the rest of the country, new poll suggests

A new poll suggests the majority of Albertans feel equalization payments are unfair and think other parts of Canada will come ahead of them.

Most Albertans feel equalization payments are unfair and other parts of Canada will always come 1st

Roughly 1,500 people gathered outside the McDougall Centre in downtown Calgary this month to rally for the Trans Mountain pipeline project. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

"He skips right over us in his speeches. He doesn't even say Alberta," says Cheryl Hurtak of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "Like we've all forgotten that little blunder. We mean nothing to him."

As an Albertan, Hurtak is not happy, and she wants Ottawa to know it.

The 52-year-old grandmother recently helped organize a rally for the province's resource sector. 

"When the majority of the voting power is down east, they are the loudest voice," she said. "So any politician, every politician, is going to answer where their voting power lies first."

That kind of talk is becoming common coin in Alberta — chatter inside coffee shops and taxi cabs but also in the offices of academics and politicians.

And now, a new poll for CBC News provides some hard numbers that show that such feelings of "Alberta alienation" really do run wide and deep.

Equalization seen as unfair

A survey of 1,200 Albertans suggests the majority of people are upset about Canada's "unfair" system of equalization. They also feel that nothing will change regardless of who is running the country.

The poll shows that 60 per cent of Albertans feel that no matter who's in charge in Ottawa, other parts of Canada will always be looked after first. In fact, 70 per cent of survey participants said that Canada's system of equalization payments is unfair to Albertans. Only seven per cent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement.

Cheryl Hurtak, who helped organize the rally for Alberta's resource sector, says, 'when the majority of the voting power is down east, they are the loudest voice.' (Mark Matulis/CBC)

"I think there is a very strong sentiment that we're being taken for granted and that the interests of other parts of Canada take precedent over the interests of Alberta," said pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC.

"And that was OK when things were booming here in Alberta. Even if we felt we were giving an excess to Ottawa, we still felt we had more than enough in our coffers. But now that we don't feel quite so economically secure, our sense of western alienation is growing."

But while a majority of Albertans might be united in feeling alienated, the depth of that feeling divides us — along political lines, lifelong Albertans and newer arrivals, and between Calgary and Edmonton.

Take a close look at this chart.

Forty per cent of longtime residents "strongly" agreed Albertans' needs would always come second to those of other Canadians compared to 29 per cent of respondents who were raised elsewhere.

Interestingly, even people who move to the province seem to adopt those feelings the longer they live here. As the chart shows, only 21 per cent of people who moved to Alberta less than 15 years ago "strongly" support the statement, but that number soars to 33 per cent for those who've lived in the province more than 30 years.

The sentiment was largely the same in Calgary and Edmonton, where roughly a third of the people (32 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively) "strongly" agreed with the statement. That in itself is interesting given that most of the oilpatch head offices, and job losses, were in Calgary.

But the topic was even hotter in smaller cities and rural Alberta, where 41 per cent of respondents "strongly" agreed with the view. 


The biggest differences could be found along the political spectrum.

Nearly half (48 per cent) of Albertans who identified themselves as being on the political right strongly agreed that other parts of Canada would always come ahead of Alberta.

But only 16 per cent of Albertans on the political left felt as strongly.

And yet, a third (33 per cent) of respondents who considered themselves to be centrists "strongly" agreed with the statement.

So why do people feel this way?

Formal way to transfer funds

The poll demonstrates what many Albertans have already detected in that Albertans feel Canada is handing them the short end of the stick. And the problem is primarily with equalization payments.

Canada's equalization program was first introduced as a formal way to transfer funds from the federal government to the provinces so that each could provide "reasonably" comparable services at "reasonably" comparable rates of taxation. 

The payments are intended to even out fiscal disparities among so-called "have" and "have not" provinces.

In the survey, half of Albertans "strongly" agreed that Canada's system of equalization payments is unfair to Alberta. An additional 21 per cent of respondents "somewhat" agreed.

Less than a fifth (19 per cent) of Albertans disagreed with the statement.
Pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC News, says there is a very strong sentiment amongst Albertans that they are being taken for granted. (CBC)

Albertans most likely to agree that the system is unfair were between the ages of 45 and 64 (76 per cent), worked in the private sector (75 per cent), lived outside of Edmonton (74 per cent) and lived in the province for 16 to 30 years (73 per cent) or 31 years or more (70 per cent).

But the angst, anger and frustration runs wide. To better understand the sentiment behind the statistics, CBC Calgary hosted several focus groups where participants — Alberta voters all — told us how they felt.

It was fascinating to watch.

Beyond the numbers

Silence first fell around the boardroom table when people were asked if they felt Alberta was becoming alienated from the rest of Canada.

And then, like water breaking through a dike, it began.

First, one person would complain about transfer payments, then another about "eastern arrogance," and a third threw in a decades-old complaint about the National Energy Program, and a fourth called out Trudeau for some slight. A chorus of complaint, running the political spectrum of voters from right to left.

It was not universal. There were voices in our focus groups that argued Alberta always retreats to alienation as a defence posture, and that "transfer payments are fair." But most people who voiced their opinions had a very low opinion of the way Alberta is treated by the "rest of Canada."

"One thing that I know that frustrates me, as well as some other people that I know, is that if we're ever ... in an economic downturn, we're still expected to pay," said focus group member Tristan Arsenault, 22.
Remember the National Energy Program? Many Albertans still do as this photo, taken in Airdrie during 2015 federal election, perhaps demonstrates. (Stephen Anderson)

"If anybody else … needed more money, they'd get more money. Whereas Alberta, they're like 'tough luck.'"

"It's always been there, I think," said 84-year-old Estelle Mathews of Albertans' sense of alienation. A self-identified political moderate, Mathews said transfer payments are a major issue.

"The economy is bad … and yet we're still sending money to Quebec and these other portions of the country who basically think we're nothing — think nothing about the West — and yet they want our money."

Kalpana Mistry, 57, who describes herself as being on the political left, said she doesn't think Alberta is unappreciated by the rest of the country, but is perhaps taken somewhat for granted.

"Our oil industry is not doing well and yet we're not getting any help," Mistry said. "I have lived in Quebec, which also felt like an alienated province, and moved to Alberta, and Alberta feels like an alienated province, so I kind of get both sides of the story."

Equalization understood

Some people might look at these numbers, and read the comments, and think Albertans simply don't want to share with the country. That they would rather hoard their cash from the rest of Canada.

But the focus group discussions indicate otherwise.

Across the political spectrum, Albertans who participated in the sessions said they understood the need for equalization and acknowledged their role in making the system work.

But many said the system needs fixing. And when it comes to transfer payments, how about a little appreciation, please?

"We pay taxes to a government to make a better society for us, and the transfer payments serve exactly that purpose," said Stephen Carlton, 55. "But then it gets lost in that people don't understand where … their infrastructure came from and they misattribute it.

"They say, 'Well, we don't need the oilsands.' And they completely lose sight that [their] new hospital came because of the oilsands.

"So not only do they not show appreciation for the resource and commodity-rich provinces, they don't understand it, and they don't appreciate it."

Still, whether Canadians appreciate it, Alberta does play a valuable role as the economic engine, and there's pride in that, said John Toplensky, 53.

"We've got it pretty good in this province," he said. "It's the price of confederation."

The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 13 to April 5, 2018, by Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, comprised of half landlines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 20.8 per cent.

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Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is a senior producer with CBC in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and news services on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on business as well as civic, provincial and federal politics.