Separated at birth, how two provinces have now reunited in alienation
The alliance between Alberta and Saskatchewan brings added leverage to a fight over long-standing grievances
Twins separated at birth. Not a bad way to describe Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Sir Frederick Haultain, the first premier of the North-West Territories, argued the territory that went on to become the two provinces in 1905 should enter Confederation as one province named Buffalo — an idea Sir Wilfrid Laurier rejected.
As former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says, "It's on the record, maybe quite prescient, that the province, if it was admitted as recommended, would rival the centre for economic and political influence."
Wall recalls that the unofficial motto in Saskatchewan is "hard to spell but easy to draw," referring to the straight line between the two provinces. But that line is a bit more blurry to the eye these days as a combination of factors — political, economic and social — has been working to reconstruct the "Buffalo" Haultain envisioned.
Created together, drifted apart
Saskatchewan got out of the Confederation gate with the kind of alacrity that Alberta could only dream of. Its population growth was explosive in the early years, easily outpacing its neighbour to the west.
A rich deposit of oil, discovered in Leduc, Alta., in 1947, changed all that. The trajectories shifted dramatically to where Alberta now has four times the population with a GDP that is more than four times the size.
Political scientist Duane Bratt with Calgary's Mount Royal University argues this is why any alignment or alliance can't really be a partnership of equals. But he says it can still serve both.
"Saskatchewan benefits by having the greater heft of Alberta, and Alberta has the benefit of saying it's not just us."
For years, Saskatchewan was little more than a source of labour for an Alberta with the kind of swagger only wealth can buy. It must have been irritating.
Saskatchewan was acknowledged for its role in creating social programs like medicare, but was an economic afterthought.
As Wall puts it, "We saw so many Saskatchewan people seeking opportunity in Alberta. You know, that's the origins of the roots of the joke, or I guess the one-liner, about how McMahon Stadium, when the Riders are in town, is maybe the third-largest city in Saskatchewan."
Oil and gas, potash, uranium and gold finally helped Saskatchewan graduate out of "have not" status. The province no longer receives equalization — a word and a program that can make the staunchest Canadian recoil and retreat from the inevitable misinformation and inflamed rhetoric it engenders.
Becoming a "have" province changed everything. Saskatchewan has embraced its heightened hubris and has joined the fight with Alberta.
What is the fight all about? It's essentially about resource-based economies without sufficient electoral power within the federation. It's about being, in the view of the political leadership of Alberta and Saskatchewan, lectured and hectored about the source of their wealth and its impact on the climate, with little consideration to the realities of the economies and their respective contributions for the federal bottom line.
Adam Legge, the head of the Business Council of Alberta, summarizes it this way: "I think both Albertans and Saskatchewanians feel that many parts of the country are very happy to take the money that's transferred to them through the wealth generated out of our provinces, but are also very happy to obstruct the further development and progress of those sectors across the country."
It is for this reason that "Buffalo" has found common cause, according to Legge.
"It's easier to dismiss one voice," he says. "Aligned voices of the two provinces, I think, can bring some additional heft."
Wall says each province has made different choices politically and economically that allowed Saskatchewan to lose its early advantage. Although the two provinces diverged in their paths for decades, this year's federal election results intensified an alliance that has been building over the past dozen years or so.
Wall was often emblematic of that alliance, even though — as premier — he never shied away from trying to lure people and businesses to move from Alberta to Saskatchewan.
During the early years of Rachel Notley's time as Alberta's premier, before she got her elbows up when advocating for the oil and gas sector, Wall was, for many conservatives, the de facto political spokesperson for the energy industry.
In my conversation with him, he refers to "Buffalo" easily and often. (The word was also chosen for the name of the Buffalo Project, a conservative-leaning political action committee he helped get off the ground.)
Wall points out that Alberta and Saskatchewan have come together many times before in times of crisis, including the fight against the National Energy Program, in which Saskatchewan's NDP premier, Allan Blakeney, supported Alberta's PC premier, Peter Lougheed. It happened again during the fight for the notwithstanding clause in the constitution.
Wall says, "I think there have been occasions throughout our history where I'll call it the spirit of Buffalo, that place that was supposed to be both provinces together, was manifest in governments that didn't agree on everything ideologically, but understood their interests were aligned."
That alignment, that alliance, is hardening.
Soon after the votes were counted in the federal election, and Saskatchewan and Alberta went blue with the lonely exception of one NDP seat in Edmonton, premiers Scott Moe and Jason Kenney each sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a list of demands that were similar in content and tone.
Those demands included getting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built, ensuring more pipelines can follow, equalization reform and scrapping the federal carbon tax.
Since then, some language has changed.
Saskatchewan is now asking for a one-year reprieve from the carbon tax. An equalization re-write is on pause and the more immediate request is for some kind of rebate or payment on a per-capita basis to resource-based economies.
As Wall says, "If they propose some non-constitutional things to the federal government and they have an earnest partner, then the two of them could get a lot done. And I think that might alleviate some of the alienation ... the pressure that's building."
Wall seems to believe, based on his observations post-election, that Trudeau might be on the cusp of a kind of epiphany.
"I saw, for the first time that I could remember, maybe some humility. Or he was chastened, or something. But I just sensed that this might be different, that he wasn't just expressing words or thoughts and prayers for the West, but a desire to reach out. And, if he does, I think he'll find in those two premiers willing partners who are also federalists," says Wall.
Struggling to quantify the level of alienation
But these "federalists" have also been among the loudest voices warning of a unity crisis.
Critics have characterized it as stoking a separatist sentiment. Others have argued that both Kenney and Moe are simply reflecting a deepening and dark angst and sounding the alarm. No one disagrees that there is a strong feeling of alienation, anger and anxiety in both provinces.
A recent Wexit rally attracting several hundred people in Edmonton is seen as a warning shot.
It's proving to be a struggle for business and political leaders to quantify and respond to voices growing louder and demanding a more radical reaction to perceived inequity in the federation.
However, as Legge from the Business Council of Alberta says: "The escalating rhetoric around alienation and separation might bring the parties to the table in a more constructive way. It might not. I don't know."
That sense of uncertainty is shared.
"I'm sensing an intensity to it here that I have not witnessed," says Wall. "I hear it from people who I know are federalists, they're proud Canadians … with disappointment and sadness as a tone, saying, 'No I don't know. I don't know what else we're going to do here ... What we should do?'"
"This … is different somehow," Wall adds.
"I should be doing a better job of explaining why it's different. But that's the best I can do."