Calgary·Point of View

Paula Simons: My Canada includes Alberta

The independent senator and former journalist says we shouldn't let the whiners and quitters take over our political discourse.

'Exasperated as I sometimes am with the structures of Confederation, I'm not ready to give up on Canada.'

Lane Biron practises carrying the Canadian flag before taking part in a parade during Canada Day 2016 celebrations in Cremona, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

I am an Albertan.

I am Albertan, right down to the marrow of my beefy, beefy bones.

I'm in love with the province of my birth — with its mountains and prairies and forests, with its endless cerulean skies, and, most importantly, with its diverse, polyglot culture and its spirit of boundless optimism.

I was born and raised in Alberta. And I made a deliberate decision to make Alberta my home — and to build a career telling Alberta's stories.

So I bristle when people call me a traitor. When they say I'm not a real Albertan. When they tell me I'm not welcome here.

I sometimes answer defensively.

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"I was born here," I snap. "Were you?"

I rush to tell people that my father was born here, too. That my Jewish relations first began arriving here in 1905. That my family helped pioneer this province.

But in many ways, that's a dangerous impulse.

Your Albertan-ness isn't determined by bloodlines or pedigree. You can be a "real" Albertan even if you arrived here a year ago from Sudan or St. John's or Syria or Sagkeeng First Nation.

There's no one ideology or lifestyle or political alliance or faith that makes you a "real" Albertan. Some Albertans are conservative. Some are progressive. Some are urban. Some are rural.

Perhaps the only thing that makes you a "real" Albertan is your own decision to make a passionate commitment to this province and its future.

That's what frightens me about the renewed rise in angry separatist rhetoric in the province I so love.

Talk of separatism in these parts is nothing new.

Back in the 1980s, in the wake of National Energy Program, western separatism was a full-fledged political movement, real enough that Gordon Kesler, a member of the Western Canada Concept Party, got himself elected to the Alberta legislature as an MLA on a separatist platform.

But back then, Alberta wasn't talking about going it alone. The whole idea was that we'd leave Confederation and take B.C., Saskatchewan, Yukon and the N.W.T. with us.

(Manitoba was occasionally included in that formulation, though some deemed it a little too "Eastern" for comfort.)

Back in the 1980s, a member of the Western Canada Concept Party was elected to the Alberta legislature on a separatist platform. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

The full fantasy was to convince Montana, Idaho and Washington State to secede along with us, so that we could become a new nation known as Cascadia.

The idea was more than a little loopy. But it had a weird internal logic. It recognized that Alberta couldn't survive as an independent nation on its own.

But today's angry "blood-and-soil" Alberta nationalists don't even have that tenuous a grip on reality.

They want to go it alone, based on the creative belief that if we were to separate and become our own country, that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would somehow give us a guaranteed right to build pipelines to the Pacific.

(Oh, the irony, that ultra-conservatives who despise the United Nations in any other context are now placing their faith in the UN and the New World Order to save them.)

Every day I see and hear people who should know better doing their level best to whip Albertans into a frenzy of fury.- Paula Simons

The practical, pragmatic arguments against separatism seem almost too obvious to enumerate.

We are a landlocked province, with an economy largely reliant on international trade. Do we really imagine that it will be easier for us to get our oil, our wheat, our beef, our canola, our lentils, to market if we're cut off from any coast? UN Conventions notwithstanding?

We're already concerned about investor confidence, worried that foreign capital is too nervous to invest here. Do we really imagine that capital markets will be more likely to plow money into pipelines or oilsands developments — or artificial intelligence or pharmaceuticals — if we're a tiny independent nation?

Meantime, we risk frightening off international and Canadian investors just by making secessionist noises. Ask someone from Quebec what all those years of fighting for independence did for its economy.

Should I go on?

Alberta is home to 45 First Nations, which control 140 separate reserves. Those First Nations have legal treaties with Canada and the Crown. Do separatists imagine that all those First Nations will also want to leave Canada? If they refuse — how exactly would a sovereign Alberta respond?

For that matter, what if metro Edmonton, which just elected 20 NDP MLAs, doesn't want to leave Canada either? Would Edmonton end up like some latter-day West Berlin, a city trapped within foreign territory?

It takes only a moment of sober second thought to realize how absurd the current separatism conversation is.

Despite that, there seems to be no shortage of political actors intent on fanning the embers of separatist grumblings into full flame.

A patriotic farmer wears a Canadian flag in his cowboy hat while marching in a parade during Canada Day celebrations in this file photo. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Every day I see and hear people who should know better doing their level best to whip Albertans into a frenzy of fury, with conspiracy theories and false accusations, weaponizing Twitter and Facebook to spread lies and hate and fear.

We've descended to a level where it's now normalized for mainstream politicians to hurl wild accusations of "treason" at fellow Albertans who've allegedly "betrayed" Alberta.

The narrative is clear. If you're not the "right" kind of Albertan, you don't belong here. It's an ugly gutter tactic, a cynical deployment of faux-patriotism, designed to stifle dissent and bully people into silence.

It makes me almost nostalgic for the dreamy days of Cascadia.

I understand why so many Albertans are angry and frustrated and desperate, why they feel that Canada isn't listening to them and their fears. I've been a Senator only since October. And it is true. Alberta and its concerns don't always get the attention they deserve.

To be blunt, most of Canada's "regions" feel pretty alienated from the centres of power in Ottawa and Toronto that run this country.

And yes, some of the Trudeau government's recent legislation has seemed like a heedless provocation. That's why I opposed C-48, the new law that bans supertankers from picking up "persistent" oils from ports along British Columbia's north coast.

The Senate almost defeated the bill: the final vote was 49 to 46. And I couldn't help but think that if Alberta had its fair share of Senators, instead of the mere six we were allotted when we entered Confederation in 1905, the bill might not have passed at all.

But exasperated as I sometimes am with the structures of Confederation, I'm not ready to give up on Canada.

I am an Albertan. I'm also a fiercely proud Canadian citizen.

For all its flaws, and for all its systemic injustices, this is a truly extraordinary country, a nation-state built, not on ideology or ethno-nationalism, but on ideals of tolerance, inclusion and rational compromise.

Canada is a remarkable experiment. It doesn't always succeed. But it's getting better at facing its failures, at acknowledging its colonial original sins, and its current mistakes.

The Latin motto on Canada's coat of arms reads, "Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam." In English, that means, "They desire a better country."

That sums up Canada for me. Not a perfect nation. But one dedicated to the pursuit of creating something better.

And my Canada includes Alberta.

If we in Alberta don't like the way Confederation works, let's fight to make it fairer. If we desire a better country, let's work to build one.

And Canada? You need Alberta.

I don't just mean that you need us economically — or geographically. You also need our political energy, our reforming spirit, our openness to new people and new ideas, our boundless optimism, our sense of the possible.

You need Alberta at its best.

If we in Alberta don't like the way Confederation works, let's fight to make it fairer.- Paula Simons

Now, my fellow Albertans, our challenge is to remember who we are at our best.

We're not a province of whiners and quitters. And we shouldn't let the whiners and quitters take over our political discourse.

We built this province together, with courage, commitment, hard work and open-heartedness. We invited people in. We didn't slam doors in their faces.

We need to stand together, with courage, commitment, hard work and open-heartedness to get us through these tough, tough times. And onto better roads ahead.


Paula Simons is an independent senator representing the province of Alberta. She spent 23 years as a reporter and columnist at the Edmonton Journal, and was awarded the National Newspaper Award for column writing in 2017.