ANALYSIS | Does the West want out? Not really, but the rallying cry needs to be heard

Albertans are angry, frustrated, anxious and hurting. And that comes with implications for the rest of Canada.

Western alienation is hard to define but easy to feel

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, left, chats with Quebec Premier Francois Legault in this file photo. In decades past, Canadian politics dealt with the prospect of Quebec separation. Now, some are raising the spectre of a Western separation or 'Wexit.' (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

There's been no end of headlines about western alienation and separation.

While the sentiment exists across the Prairies, Alberta is ground zero, and it's the Alberta premier who has been chief among those sounding the alarm. 

Jason Kenney, who is quick to assure Canadians he's an avowed federalist, often uses the "unity crisis" rallying cry to pivot to partisan politics.

In this Aug. 3 video posted to social media, Kenney's core message is clear: "Rather than focusing on Alberta separating from the Canadian federation, I'd like to focus on separating Justin Trudeau from the Prime Minister's Office".

Similar exhortations from Kenney, specifically citing a separatist surge, have dwindled after several months of a steady theme.

In fact, there has been a perceptible shift, with Kenney now talking more about Alberta's nation-building role and the province's integral place within Confederation.

There's no mystery as to why.

Tinder dry sentiments are easy to ignite

There is a danger that whatever frustration and anger is out there could be inflamed further and become politically explosive.

Kenney knows this.

Keep stirring it up and soon an ember is a fire.

However, Alberta-based pollster Janet Brown argues it's his job to reflect a sentiment that is deep and abiding in many Albertans. 

"There is really a sense of frustration here," Brown says.

"When people talk about separation, mostly it's just an expression of frustration, rather than a clear desire to separate."

If anyone understands how that frustration can grow and fester, it's the man who turned "The West Wants In" into a movement that challenged political orthodoxy.

Preston Manning, the founding leader of the Reform Party, offers a warning.

Preston Manning says western 'anger and disillusionment' will be a challenge for whoever forms the next government. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"The challenge, I think, is to try to channel that energy and that anger and disillusionment into some constructive change, rather than just tearing things apart. And that's going to be a challenge for the next Parliament, no matter who ends up winning the next election," Manning says.

Brown thinks the winner does matter. 

"Western separatism ebbs and flows depending on who is in government, and I think the fact there is a Liberal government federally is one of the things that's sort of driving that frustration," she says.

Been there, done that

The Western Canada Concept Party managed to elect Gordon Kesler in a provincial byelection in 1982. It was the first and only electoral win by a separatist outside of Quebec.

Just months later, the party won close to 12 per cent of the vote in the provincial election, but that support didn't translate into seats — including Kesler's.

This was the National Energy Program (NEP) era, so anger at Ottawa was visceral and profound in Alberta.

Former Reform and later CPC MP and cabinet minister Monte Solberg wrote about western alienation earlier this year.

He says, despite today's grievances over pipelines and equalization, "nothing, but nothing, approaches the damage done by the NEP."

So a separatist resurgence is possible, but not probable.

In fact, Brown says based on her scanning of the various polls on alienation and separation in recent months, while there is a clear sentiment favouring separation that garners substantial support, it should be viewed with caution.

A woman with blonde hair and glasses is smiling in front of a TV set, which shows a map of Calgary.
Janet Brown is a pollster based in Calgary. (CBC)

"When you dive even deeper (into the polls)... those people are saying I'm going to answer this way on the poll because I want somebody to hear me and I want somebody to hear how frustrated I am," Brown says.

Solberg writes that "western separation is not many people's first choice, it's also not very realistic." 

But he also argues that years of policies which have stymied Alberta's prime industry means "the only dignified response is righteous anger… the West didn't pull away until it was pushed away."

 A nascent group dubbed Wexit says its slogan is "The West Wants Out."

View from the ground

We brought together members of a focus group, assembled by Brown as part of a poll commissioned by CBC Calgary, to hear directly from voters about this. They largely echo Solberg's view.

Stephen Carlton spent a career in the resource sector. He says, "I'm not a separatist. I'm a Canadian first and foremost. But, you know, with the continued aspect that we feel powerless here, separation, is that a viable plan B if we can't work this out?" 

From left, Alberta focus group participants Stephen Carlton, Carla Paradis and James Vy. (CBC)

That's the question being asked by many, including James Vy, who also makes his living in oil and gas.

"You know. I don't think it'd be a good idea. I don't know what it looks like after Alberta does separate," Vy says.

Carla Paradis, an entrepreneur with rural roots, says she wants "to get back on the same page as the rest of Canada."

Kenney shifts tone

Kenney's message has evolved from angry and stark warnings about a burgeoning unity crisis a few months ago, to a pitch arguing that the Constitution is on the side of Alberta.

This is directly linked to his stumping for Andrew Scheer and his challenges to the federal carbon tax and Bills C-48 and 69; one a B.C tanker ban, and the other a new assessment process he argues blocks future pipelines.

It's also true that there is an inherent danger in stirring up separatist sentiment.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to the media while attending the Global Business Forum in Banff, Alta., on Sept. 26, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

This week, when asked about the re-election of a Trudeau government, he replied, "Honestly, I think that frustration will go off the charts." But he didn't characterize that frustration in the context of unity or separatist sentiment.

What is also very telling is his response to a question about equalization — a formula he's railed against as being profoundly unfair.

When a reporter asked whether he'd raised the subject with any federal leaders and, further, if any of them had made any commitments to changes, the reply was a curt "no and no" and on to the next question.

Now what?

No question, many Albertans are angry. They're also anxious, fearful, bewildered and, in some cases, feeling defeated.

Brown explains the zeitgeist Kenney is channelling is rooted in a perceived "hypocrisy in the way Alberta is dealt with."

She goes on to explain, "The rest of Canada is happy to take equalization from Alberta. They're happy to benefit from the prosperity that Alberta has. But then at the same time, they're going to turn around and try and block Alberta's key industry."

Of course that conclusion can be rebutted and rejected, but as Manning says, it needs also to be acknowledged. "The populist dimension of western alienation can't be ignored; it has to be addressed."

"I think the challenge for others is to recognize the validity of the concerns and don't dismiss them and don't tell people you've got no right to be angry or mad but to try to provide a constructive alternative," Manning says.

Whether that can be accomplished at the ballot box on Oct. 21 is anyone's guess.

West of Centre is an election-focused pop-up bureau based out of CBC Calgary that features election news and analysis with a western voice and perspective.


Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.