Another decade, another Trudeau, another stab at sovereignty in Alberta

After three years of tough times, Alberta's separatists are back. A slow climb out of recession, two years of NDP rule and another Trudeau as prime minister have sparked a renewed interest from some Albertans in turning their backs on Confederation.

Sluggish economy and a second Trudeau as PM have rekindled interest in independence

Mark Henderson of the Western Independence Party of Alberta finds a supporter for the fledgling political movement at the Lilac Festival in Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

On a sunny Sunday in Calgary, Alberta's separatists are on the move, pounding the pavement at the city's popular Lilac Festival on the hunt for signatures.

Larry Smith is working the crowd, looking for support for his fledgling political movement, the Western Independence Party of Alberta (WIPA).

Truth is, WIPA isn't quite a political party just yet. Before that can happen in Alberta, it needs signatures — and lots of them.

To be registered as a political party in the province, you need 7,868 electors — or about one-third of one per cent of eligible voters — to sign on the dotted line. 

Jacques Tredoux sports a Western Independence Party of Alberta shirt as he waves his Alberta flag in Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Trying to achieve that goal has these three middle-aged Alberta sovereigntists wading through the sweaty festival crowd as pulsing reggae music drifts along with them. 

Their pitch is simple: Alberta doesn't get a fair deal financially or politically in Confederation and it's time to get out.

"We are essentially governed by Central Canada and that will never change unless we get our sovereignty," says Larry Smith, WIPA's founder and de facto leader.

For Smith, the list of grievances against the federal government is long: "Taxes, immigration, regulations, carbon tax, I could probably go on," he says with a laugh.

'Keep our money here'

And after three years of tough times, those beefs resonate in Calgary, with most people the three approach happy to sign.

Clipboard in hand, WIPA member Larry Stadler makes his case to Karen Foster as he presses her for a signature.

"The whole point is we want to keep our money here," Stadler says as he hands Foster a pen.

WIPA's Marc Henderson, left, Larry Stadler and Larry Smith work the crowd at Calgary's Lilac Festival looking for signatures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

She signs, perhaps seeing an opportunity to mitigate some of the pain felt by Calgary's energy sector in recent years.

"Anything that can be done to help rebuild the city would be great." says Foster.

But when asked why she supports Alberta`s secession from Canada, Foster is less sure.

"Is that what it is? Oh, I did not hear that part of it."

It is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the afternoon. Most people sign the petition, but few seem to fully comprehend that the fellows with the clipboards want to take Alberta out of Canada.

Longstanding grievances

No matter, according to Smith. "Just get the signatures and then they can read our policies and decide."

What that independence looks like isn't entirely clear. Smith would be open to merging with other Western provinces like Saskatchewan and British Columbia to form a new country or to having Alberta go it alone.

To understand the allure of Alberta independence, you must first grasp that the chief grievances are both longstanding, and based in fact, even if they are at times taken out of context.

For a start, federal elections are often decided in Canada before voting has wrapped up in the West, adding to the perception for some, that Alberta voters don't matter.

And Albertans generally pay more than the average Canadian in federal taxes, while less cash flows to Alberta from Ottawa compared to other provinces.

Statistics Canada figures show that in 2015, only four provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C and Ontario — contributed more to federal coffers than they received back in services and Alberta's deficit was significantly larger than the other three combined.

In 2015, Alberta paid $27 billion more into the federal treasury than it received back in services, according to figures from Statistics Canada. (Trevor Tombe)

The numbers speak for themselves, according to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe.

"We definitely pay more to the federal government than the federal government spends in Alberta."

Tombe says that including CPP payments, the federal government collected about $27 billion more in Alberta in 2015 than it spent in the province.

Yes, that is billion with a "B."

Actually a good thing

It is that discrepancy that is most often cited by supporters of separation as the reason for Alberta independence and the one that resonates most as the men from WIPA make their case.

However, Tombe argues that the discrepancy is actually a good thing, "an unavoidable consequence of Alberta being a very rich province."

Tombe points out that — with some exceptions — all Canadians are taxed at the same rate federally, which means that Alberta pays more because "we have a lot of high-income households and a lot of very profitable corporations."

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe says the discrepancy between what Alberta pays to the federal government and what it receives is 'an unavoidable consequence of Alberta being a very rich province.' (CBC)

As for the lower-than-average levels of federal spending in Alberta, Tombe says that is also primarily a result of the province's demographics.

"We have by far the lowest share of people over 65 and so what that means is that payments of Old Age Security will be a lot lower, payments from CPP will be a lot lower." 

But these nuanced arguments often fall on deaf ears in a province immersed in an economic downturn and struggling to get its sputtering energy industry humming again.

At times like this, rightly or wrongly, any perceived meddling by the federal government is seen by many Albertans as particularly egregious.

Cue the backlash to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national carbon tax, which would kick in even if the provincial NDP is punted from the premier's office in two years and the provincial carbon tax is repealed.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because it is.

Supporters of the Western Canada Concept party march in support of Alberta separation in Red Deer in 2003. (CBC)

It was a similar scene in 1982, the last time Alberta separatists were gaining any real traction. Trudeau's father, Pierre, was prime minister and his reviled National Energy Program had been in place for two years. 

The attempt to redistribute wealth from Alberta's energy sector had a devastating impact on the province's economy. The unemployment rate exploded from less than four per cent when the NEP was introduced to nearly 10 per cent just two years later.

Bankruptcies skyrocketed 150 per cent and housing prices in Edmonton and Calgary cratered, dropping more than 40 per cent by 1985 and forcing many Albertans to walk away from their homes. 

Visceral reaction

Not surprisingly, reaction to the NEP was visceral and the popularity of the separatist Western Canada Concept party surged. 

Smith passes a pen to another potential supporter of his Western Independence Party of Alberta. (Erin Collins/CBC)

In February 1982, WCC candidate Gordon Kesler was elected in a byelection to serve as an MLA in Alberta. Kesler was the first separatist to be elected to a provincial legislature outside of Quebec.

Back at the Lilac Festival, the boys from WIPA are taking things one step at a time, one signature at a time. Their message of Western alienation isn't a new one — it once fuelled the rise of the Reform Party and still hits home with many in the province today.

Stadler makes his case to Karen Foster as he presses her for a signature. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Smith squats down next to a couple sitting on the sidewalk eating ice cream. In less than a minute, both have signed the sheet of paper on Smith's worn clipboard, enamoured by his promise to "keep the money in Alberta."

Smith says that if WIPA gets the nearly 8,000 signatures it needs, it hopes to run a full slate of candidates in the next provincial election set for 2019.

It's a goal that will require more than just pen strokes, and will test what, if any, actual support exists for sovereignty in Alberta. 

Despite the daunting task ahead, Smith remains upbeat about his fledgling party's prospects in two years.

"Realistically, I think we have a very good opportunity to form the Opposition."


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.