Why Alberta isn't treated more like Quebec

Many in Alberta ask, what would Ottawa do if one in every five Quebec men under 25 was unemployed? Fred Youngs says there can be costs when you always vote the same way.

There's a price to pay for reliably, proudly and almost universally voting conservative

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 10, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Fred Youngs, a former journalist for CBC News in Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto. He was senior producer and executive producer for CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network) in Calgary from 1991 until 2006.

As meetings of minds go, the result of the gab session between Premier Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could hardly be called either dramatic or decisive. But it did show that, at least for now, the two politicians can play in the same sandbox without creating a ruckus.

If that counts as progress, frustrated and fearful Albertans might well wonder why it took being wiped off the electoral map in Alberta and Saskatchewan for their plight to work its way to the top of the federal government's agenda.

Why, in short, did it take so long to get the prime minister's ear? 

And that leads to another question, one that Albertans often raise on social media and in commentary.

It seems that many of them think the response from Ottawa would have been much, much stronger and would have come much, much faster if Quebec had to grapple with problems similar to Alberta's.

What, they might ask, would Ottawa do if one in every five Quebec men under 25 was unemployed? How would Ottawa respond if a similarly deep and prolonged economic downturn had happened in Quebec? 

The answer may well lie in voting patterns in Quebec and Alberta.

Exact opposites

Quebec voters are reliably unreliable.

They may love you this election and forsake you in the next. So politicians have to work diligently to woo them over, and that effort goes on before the campaign starts, and continues after it has ended.

Federal politicians never take Quebec voters for granted.

Albertans are exactly the opposite.

If, as the idiom goes, death and taxes are the only certainties in life, a close third is how Albertans vote: reliably, proudly and almost universally Conservative or, if you prefer, conservative.

Thus Alberta is fly-over country for the most part in federal election campaigns, and not just for the Liberals. The Conservatives aren't going to spend time, energy and money on votes they know are in the bag.

In every federal election since 1984, Alberta has voted overwhelmingly for some variation of a conservative party — the Progressive Conservatives, Reform, Canadian Alliance, and the Conservatives under Stephen Harper and this year Andrew Scheer.

Oh sure, there were occasional drifts in a riding here or there, where a Liberal or NDP candidate would win. But for any political party that isn't blue, Alberta is pretty much a wasteland. This last election wasn't the first time that the Liberals had been shut out in the province, and it likely won't be the last.

Quebec, in that same period, has been a veritable land of opportunity for federal parties.

It swung hard to the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney, abandoned them under Kim Campbell, alarmed the rest of the country by sending the Bloc Québécois to Ottawa in three successive elections, surprised the NDP with 58 seats in 2011, and were all-in for the Trudeau Liberals in 2015. 

Keeping a wary eye on Quebec

It's no mystery that the Liberals would worry more about how something plays in Quebec than they would worry about Alberta. It helps explain the all-hands-on deck attempt to squelch charges facing SNC-Lavalin — an effort on behalf of a single company that cost Trudeau two of his highest-profile female cabinet ministers, and was a factor in the Liberals losing their majority.

Even Stephen Harper, who forged a majority government with just six seats in Quebec, kept a wary eye on that province.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen on a visit to Quebec in this file photo. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

He short-circuited a Bloc Québécois plan by introducing a motion that would recognize Quebec as a nation within Canada. Then he made sure there would be no mixed message to Quebecers by ordering his caucus to vote in favour of it or be expelled. Some Conservative MPs had deep reservations, and six — all from Western Canada — were absent for the vote. 

Whether it is Conservative or Liberal, Ottawa has long used federal largesse to remind Quebec voters who's got their back.

In November 2018, the Liberals split billions of dollars in maintenance work between Davie shipyard in Lévis, Que., and Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. An irritated Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeill — a Liberal — accused his federal counterparts of changing the procurement process to allow Davie to get a piece of the pie. 

Serious wooing

Montreal-based Bombardier always seems to be at some crossroads that requires it to ask for financial support from Ottawa and/or Quebec City. The Montreal Economic Institute think tank estimates the company has received $4 billion from various governments since 1966. That's some serious wooing.

Compare that to what the federal government eventually offered to Alberta: a $1.6 billion aid package for the energy sector that was mostly in the form of loans. It was widely panned in the province, even by erstwhile ally and then premier, Rachel Notley.

Then there is Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols (read hijabs and turbans) while on the job.

Politicians of all stripes have contorted themselves into human pretzels trying to say something that means nothing about the legislation, lest they get offside with Quebec voters who overwhelmingly support the bill. 

Party leaders were roundly criticized for that weak-kneed response, but they aren't going to go too far out on a limb for fear of riling Quebec voters. One can only assume that if Doug Ford had brought in similar legislation, the reaction would have been different.

The cost of being true blue

In the end, there is no right or wrong way to vote. People cast their ballots for all sorts of different and personal reasons that range from social or economic issues to family traditions to disliking a party leader because of something his father once did. 

Quebec voters' willingness to make politicians earn their votes has worked for them. But no one should expect that Albertans are going to water down their fealty to all things Conservative just so they can get the attention of Ottawa. 

At the same time though, if politicians of every stripe know what to expect from Albertans, then Albertans shouldn't expect those fly-over federal leaders to expend a lot of effort — or a lot of money — trying to woo them anytime soon either. 

That's just the cost of being true blue.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Fred Youngs was a journalist for CBC News in Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto. He was senior producer and executive producer for CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network) in Calgary from 1991 until 2006. He left the CBC earlier this year.


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