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Albertans deeply frustrated with Ottawa, but not enough to actually leave: survey

Many Albertans are deeply frustrated with Ottawa, but not enough to seriously threaten leaving the federation, according to a new ThinkHQ survey.

Economic anxiety, lack of respect, low political clout fuelling sentiment, says panel

This billboard campaign launched in Edmonton and Calgary in February asked Albertans to consider separation from Canada. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Albertans are deeply frustrated with Ottawa, but not enough to actually leave the federation, according to a new public opinion survey.

Of the 1,236 Albertans surveyed between Oct. 4 and 7 for the ThinkHQ survey, more than seven in 10 said federal policies over the past several years have hurt the quality of life of Albertans.

Nearly 6 in 10 of the Albertans surveyed feel that Ottawa's priorities have badly hurt the quality of life in the province. (ThinkHQ)

"Disdain in the federal government in Alberta is rising and sits alarmingly high today," said ThinkHQ president Marc Henry in a news release.

"If the Trudeau Liberals are hoping for any pleasant surprises from Alberta in Monday's election, they shouldn't."

Nearly 60 per cent of Albertans surveyed said they would vote to remain in Canada if a provincial referendum on separation were held tomorrow, compared with 23 per cent who would vote to create a new, independent country. Seventeen per cent were undecided.

Separatist intentions are least common in Edmonton and more common in central and northern Alberta, but there is no region of the province where it is prevailing, according to ThinkHQ's news release. (ThinkHQ)

Among those who believe Ottawa's policies have hurt Albertans' quality of life, only 32 per cent of respondents were in favour of separation.

"For most alienated Albertans, leaving isn't an acceptable answer, so we can expect these sentiments to drive political events in other ways," said Henry.

"It will be interesting to see the outcome of next week's federal election and how that either abates or exacerbates feelings of alienation in Alberta."

Separatist sympathy

Although only one quarter of the Albertans surveyed said they would actually vote for independence, two-thirds of respondents empathize with the sentiments underpinning separatism.

Nearly four in 10 said they "totally understand" those feelings, along with another three in 10 who said they "somewhat understand" those views.

The margin of error for a comparable sample of this size is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

What's driving the frustration

The separatist debate was a recurring topic at a CBC federal election discussion with a panel of experts Thursday night in Calgary.

"In an abstract sense, Alberta alienation is this idea that we don't have economic … or political clout that is proportionate to the economic clout that we have," said public opinion researcher John Santos.

Political commentator Jen Gerson called separatist sentiment "a bit of a red herring that channels a lot of people's anger and rage."

What Albertans really want is, one, fairness — particularly when it comes to equalization payments — and, two, for Ottawa to get out of the way, she said.

"I don't really hear a lot of Albertans saying, 'We want Ottawa to come in and fix all of our problems, and fund all of our industries, and do all these things and give us handouts,' but 'at the very least, get out of the way.'"

In fact, the fundamental problem is that there isn't anything Ottawa can do to mitigate the painful economic anxiety plaguing Alberta, Gerson said.

"A lot of the problems that Alberta is facing right now can't be fixed by any federal government, because a lot of the problems we're facing right now have to do with global economics and global oil markets."

'Left out of the family'

Others speculate Alberta feels it's not paid any respect within Confederation, and that instead of being appreciated for its economic contributions, the province is demonized as a dirty polluter.

"I think Albertans feel a little bit left out of the family," said economist Peter Tertzakian, particularly when it comes to debating contentious issues like energy and the environment.

"There is just a sense of carbon elitism that has divided our country … and now, it's way beyond carbon."

Political strategist Najib Jutt said part of the problem is that political discourse often pits the economy against the environment, as though Albertans must choose between feeding their families and the greater good of saving the planet.

"This is what we keep getting hammered into us all the time," Jutt said.

Bluffing to gain leverage

But if what Albertans truly want is to be heard, to be shown respect and offered a seat at the table, does talking about leaving get in the way of that, or does it bolster the odds of achieving it?

"I think there's a real sentiment among a lot of Albertans that, if we have a credible separatist movement, that will give us leverage in Confederation. Then people will take us seriously," said Gerson.

The danger with bluffing is there's a chance no one will blink, said Santos.

"Then we have Brexit, which is a situation that nobody wanted. And it happened because people kept escalating the rhetoric, and then they got to a position that nobody wanted to be," Santos said.

"Separation, if you just think about it logically, is absolutely bonkers. But don't underestimate the capacity of a group of people who have been pushed to the very edge to go bonkers."

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