Western separation remains as unviable today as it was in the early 2000s, says former panel chair

When Premier Jason Kenney announced a panel to find a "fair deal" for Alberta, it made news headlines -- but the idea itself is hardly novel in this province.

Filed and forgotten, members of 2003 panel say report was quietly shelved

There was little response in 2004 to a report by MLAs dismissing many ways for Alberta to gain more autonomy from Ottawa, (CBC)

When Premier Jason Kenney announced a panel to find a "fair deal" for Alberta, it made news headlines -- but the idea itself is hardly novel in this province. 

In 2003, then-Premier Ralph Klein struck a panel in response to the now famous "firewall letter" written two years prior by a group of influential Calgary conservatives, loosely organized as the Alberta Agenda group.

It was officially called the Strengthening Alberta's Role in Confederation panel. 

But some argue the simmering notion behind that probe, and its 2019 counterpart, is the potential for Alberta separation. 

"Is (Premier Jason Kenney) unwilling to take the lead on countering the whole separation issue?" said former PC MLA Mary O'Neill, who sat on the 2003 panel.

Wexit, Twitter offer new backdrop for discussions

These days, a burgeoning Wexit separatist movement is openly bubbling in Alberta and will inevitably affect discussions about withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating an Alberta police force.

As will the incredible force of social media. 

When Klein appointed his panel, there was no social media. There was no Twitter to force a fight. There was nothing more than town hall meetings and the telephone. 

Klein -- who often mused his big tent coalition was more vulnerable to attacks from the political right than the left -- appointed Ian McClelland to lead a nine member panel of MLAs.

The Edmonton-Rutherford MLA was considered a caucus moderate. 

A former MLA who led a panel looking into Alberta autonomy believes social media could change the direction this time around. (CBC)

McClelland recalls when he and the panel went on the road there were discussions around kitchen tables and small crowds of about 50 to 100 people. 

"This is entirely different," said McClelland in an interview with CBC News.

With social media commentary available on our phones 24-7, McClelland said it will be much harder to keep things in a "positive direction" and to keep a lid on divisive issues such as western separation.

And, says McClelland, separation isn't an issue that needs another platform. 

"It (separation) wasn't viable then, it isn't viable today," he said. 

A louder voice 

Past panellist O'Neill wonders if Kenney has an ulterior motive by "passing off" the separation issue to a new panel exploring old ideas.

O'Neill said the the report from the 2003 panel reflected views from "thinking Albertans" who, after assessing the cost and impact, realized Alberta would not benefit from setting up its own police force and pension plan. 

But now, O'Neill is worried revisiting ideas discounted in the past will only create more hostility among those who want separation and those who just don't like Ottawa.

"It's going to give them a voice, especially through the social media context these days," she said. 

During his announcement of the "Fair Deal" panel last weekend in Red Deer, Kenney said he wants to acknowledge that some western Canadians no longer feel at home in their own country, and suggested "Laurentian elites" have both benefited from Alberta's wealth and abandoned Alberta in its time of need.

Separation rejected

One of the signatories of the original "firewall letter" Ken Boosenkool, thinks good ideas will be generated from Kenney's appointed panel and those who decide to contribute to the discussion.

One of the signatories to the so-called "firewall letter", flatly rejects the notion Alberta's "Fair Deal" panel will have anything to do with western separation. (CBC)

Boessenkool, who has spent two decades advocating for more Alberta autonomy, believes the new panel is "exactly the opposite" of a forum for separatists.

"I utterly and completely reject that," Boessenkool told CBC news. Reform Party founder Preston Manning will lead the panel. Stephen Lougheed, son of late former premier Peter Lougheed, former PC MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans and three current UCP MLAs are also members.

A series of public meetings will be held and online surveys conducted before the end of January.

The panel is scheduled to file its final report to the Alberta government by March 31, 2020.