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OPINION | CBC News Poll: More autonomy isn't on the agenda for most Albertans, especially given Covid-19

Even before the impact of COVID-19 became clear, before the conciliatory tones at the podiums and this new imperative for interprovincial and federal co-operation, Albertans showed little support for the fair deal proposals.

In this time of enormous stress, Confederation appears to be working rather well

Attendees at a Wexit rally in Calgary last November. A CBC News poll shows support for separatism is low in Alberta, as is support for the proposals being considered by the fair deal panel. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Editor's note: This opinion piece is part of a series of articles on a new CBC News poll. You can read the first and second articles, and listen to a West of Centre podcast about it here.

CBC News commissioned this public opinion research before concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic mounted. About half of the total survey of 1,200 respondents was conducted before stock markets and oil prices plunged (March 2-8).  The other half of the interviews took place after this economic shock (March 9-18). Growing concerns about the pandemic continue to shape public attitudes. As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. CBC News — and the public opinion experts consulted on this survey research — believe the data offers some valuable insights into Albertans' attitudes about the economy and politics just at the moment when COVID-19 changed everything.

Right about now, the fair deal panel report was supposed to be submitted to the Alberta government. That deadline has been extended until Easter. 

I don't know what the report will say, but what we do know is that we are in the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic, and Wexit supporters have gone silent. So have Albertans who have claimed for years that the province is getting a raw deal from the rest of Canada. 

Clearly, the reason why critics of Alberta's place in Confederation have gone quiet is that the benefits of being in Canada have become so apparent. The federal government and provincial governments have been co-operating, with little public friction, in addressing the severe health and economic impacts of COVID-19. 

The give and take of Confederation in this time of enormous stress appears to be working rather well.

Governments at all levels have been listening to experts, particularly their chief medical officers, in responding to this unprecedented crisis. Unlike the United States, provinces are not competing for scarce medical resources. 

More importantly, the benefits of federal resources have become apparent, as Ottawa is deploying an $82-billion economic rescue package. In addition, Alberta awaits an imminent financial bailout package from Ottawa for its oil and gas sector. 

But even before the impact of this pandemic became clear, before the conciliatory tones at the podiums and this new imperative for interprovincial and federal co-operation, Albertans showed little support for the fair deal proposals.

As polling data from the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 survey illustrates, proposals for greater Alberta autonomy in Canada were well below majority territory, and support for separatism was even lower. 

Since this survey took place March 2-18, just at the moment when oil and gas prices fell and the first stages of the pandemic response were initiated, it is highly likely that those low numbers would be even lower today as the COVID crisis deepens.

Alberta's dissatisfaction

While Alberta's dissatisfaction with Canada had been growing over the past several years, it became white hot in the aftermath of the October 2019 federal election. 

There were no Liberal MPs elected between Winnipeg and Vancouver, the Trudeau government was scrambling to address a national unity problem, and the Wexit movement was gaining steam. 

An attendee at a Wexit rally in Calgary wears a sweatshirt depicting a tree with a noose hanging from it and the words 'Come West Trudeau.' Supporters of more autonomy for Alberta tend to be male, rural and UCP voters without a university degree. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

In the midst of this turmoil, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney outlined his fair deal agenda. 

A panel would be created to explore the feasibility of establishing a provincial tax collection agency (replacing Revenue Canada), a provincial pension fund (replacing the Canadian Pension Plan), a provincial police force (replacing the RCMP), and other measures designed to generate more autonomy for Alberta within Canada.

This panel conducted town halls across the province in December and January, built an online survey instrument, and was to issue a report to the Kenney government by March 2020. 

In a March 13, 2020, appearance on the West of Centre podcast, panellists Donna Kennedy-Glans and Drew Barnes said that during their town hall meetings there was overwhelming support for the proposals.

This would have been consistent with the views of members of the United Conservative Party (UCP) who unanimously endorsed all of the fair deal proposals at their AGM on Dec. 1, 2019.

Kennedy-Glans and Barnes were likely correct that the people they listened to agreed with greater autonomy for Alberta in Canada. However, that was not a representative sample of all Albertans. 

In fact, as the CBC News Road Ahead public opinion data shows, just before and in the first days of the current pandemic situation, most Albertans gave a thumbs down to the proposals. 

Many Albertans still said they were unhappy with the federal equalization program. Seventy per cent of respondents agreed with the statement "Canada's system of equalization payments is unfair to Alberta." (This was the same percentage as the 2018 CBC Road Ahead survey.) Nevertheless, there was little appetite for a radical restructuring of Alberta's place in Canada.

Let's look a the numbers for some other fair deal proposals:

Only 37 per cent of Albertans agreed that "the provincial government should establish an Alberta Pension Plan to replace the Canada Pension Plan for Albertans." 

Only 34 per cent agreed that "the provincial government should establish an Alberta Revenue Agency to collect our own taxes and replace the Canada Revenue Agency." 

Only 31 per cent agreed that "the provincial government should establish an Alberta Police Force that would take over rural policing from the RCMP." 

As far as separatism was concerned, only 25 per cent agreed that "Alberta would be better off if it separated from Canada."

Obviously, there was a major disconnect between those who attended the UCP AGM and the fair deal panel's town halls versus Albertans as a whole. These numbers highlight the stark difference between those who self-select and those who are a representative sample. 

When we look deeper into the data, the cross-tabs on the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 survey provide more information about who might have been attending those town halls, and who supports the fair deal proposals.

Who supports what?

In general, supporters are male, from rural Alberta, work in the oil and gas sector, vote for the UCP, don't have a university degree and identify as ideologically right of centre.

There's a lot of numbers here. But they tell a story.

For example, here are the percentages for those who wanted an Alberta Police Force:

Look at the way the numbers break down by gender and education levels. Look at the divide between urban and rural, private versus public sector, and by political leaning.

And it is notable that even the strongest demographic groups for the fair deal proposals were still shy of 50 per cent.

These low numbers for the proposals and separatism should not be surprising. 

After all, Albertans, many of whom have roots across the country, have always been attached to Canada. According to the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 survey, 18 per cent are more attached to Canada than Alberta. While 29 per cent are more attached to Alberta than Canada. And 52 per cent are equally attached to Alberta and Canada.

Changing times

The panel report was supposed to be delivered by the end of March, until the deadline was extended. This polling was done between March 2 and March 18. Since then, it can seem that the entire economic landscape of Alberta has shifted, and no doubt numbers and opinions have shifted along with that.

How the political landscape could shift we won't know for some time. There are still far too many unanswered questions.

What does the report to the Kenney government state? How will the government respond? Will it be publicly released? If so, when?

Will the Kenney government, as was promised, hold a referendum on the proposals? Who would hold a referendum on proposals that have the support of about one-third of Albertans? Would there be an appetite for a major fight with Ottawa in the midst of a health pandemic and a major economic recession? 

If I were Premier Kenney, I would put the report on the shelf and say that this is not the time to pursue the fair deal proposals in the midst of a pandemic.

Alberta alienation has waxed and waned over the past century. It reached a peak in the fall of 2019, and now, in the spring of 2020, it has reached a trough. 

Crises often bring people together, but the fact is Albertans did not want greater autonomy from Canada before this crisis.


Methodology:

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 2 and March 18, 2020, by Edmonton-based 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, consisting of half land lines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialled 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 13.2 per cent.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story omitted the fact that the fair deal panel has been given an extended deadline to submit its report.
    Apr 07, 2020 11:58 AM MT

About the Author

Duane Bratt is the chair and a professor in the department of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University.

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