Wexiteers are the new pawns for Canadian conservative leaders

Right now, no mainstream Canadian political party outside Quebec supports separatism. But that doesn't mean they won't flirt with Wexit or otherwise profit off a sense of western alienation.

No one with any power supports western separatism, but that doesn't mean they won't find it useful

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney are disavowing western separatism while trying to harness the anger behind the sentiment. (Bryan Eneas/CBC; Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

When 52 members of the Reform Party of Canada stormed into Parliament in 1993, the rallying cry for Preston Manning's political movement was "the West wants in."

A quarter of a century later, vocal elements in Alberta and Saskatchewan insist the West actually wants to bail on Confederation.

Anger toward Ottawa runs so deep in oil, potash and canola country, advocates for western separatism are amassing support on social media.

"You gotta know that there's a huge number there that are willing to take the next step," Wexit Saskatchewan spokesperson Allan Kerpan told CBC Saskatoon, referring to the 220,000 members of his organization's Facebook page.

Do one in six Saskatchewan residents truly want to leave Canada? Some of the posts on Kerpan's page may be Russian bots, trying to sow dissension, but even if those posts are by real Saskatchewan residents, the question is irrelevant.

Right now, no mainstream political party outside Quebec wants anything to do with separatism. But that doesn't mean they won't flirt with it.

The sharpest rise in western alienation since the early 1980s, when Albertans slapped "let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark" stickers on their vehicles, has presented leverage opportunities for Canada's conservative leaders.

Chief among them is federal Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer, who claimed on election night Canada is more divided than ever. 

As a student of politics, Scheer almost certainly knows this isn't the case. In recent memory, the nation's lowest point of cohesion was Oct. 30, 1995, when Quebecers narrowly avoided leaving the country in a referendum vote.

A picker unloads pipe from a truck and stacks it in a Trans Mountain Pipeline yard in Edson, Alta. The failure to expand the pipeline is fuelling anger against Ottawa. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Albertans themselves were far angrier with Ottawa and Pierre Trudeau during the National Energy Program era that spawned the "eastern bastards" bumper sticker than they are with his son, who is trying, and so far failing, to expand a pipeline.

A history of division

Conscription during the First World War threatened to divide the country. So did the treatment of Louis Riel, back when Manitoba, not Alberta, was the most rebellious region in what is now Western Canada.

Canada has always suffered through these bouts of division. What Scheer appears to be doing, in playing up the anger among his base, is demonstrating Conservatives won't make life easy for a Justin Trudeau minority government that's flirting with support from the anti-pipeline NDP, Bloc and Greens. 

At the provincial level, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan's Scott Moe are doing some flirting of their own. They're trying to harness the anger of western separatism while overtly disavowing the idea.

Moe called for a "new deal with Canada." Kenney rejected separation in the same address where he stated "we should not let Justin Trudeau … make us feel unwelcome in our own country."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister also entered the fray this week by stating he has no time for the separatist sentiment that no one with any actual power is espousing.

"I don't think you ever get anywhere building a stronger relationship by threatening to leave it," Pallister told reporters, comparing Confederation to a marriage. "I think you have to work together. You have to overcome your difficulties."

While it's safe to say this is precisely what Pallister believes, it is very easy to knock down a straw man. Manitoba's premier got to appear magnanimous to the nation and honourable to his constituents, without actually offending any of his peers.

Premier Brian Pallister could play diplomacy into a better deal for Manitoba, especially from a weakened federal Liberal government. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

He also sent a signal to Ottawa. Trudeau, who is short on allies right now, could stand to bolster his working relationship with Manitoba's premier.

There is a relatively recent precedent for this. At the start of Stephen Harper's minority Conservative governments, he developed a productive relationship with Gary Doer, then Manitoba's NDP premier.

Doer was soon appointed Canada's ambassador to the United States. Pallister may desire a different plum — a break on the carbon tax Manitoba is fighting in court.

In other words, advocates for western separatism may yet have a significant effect on Canada: their voices will help conservative leaders get what they want.

Unfortunately for Wexiteers, that doesn't mean a smaller Confederation.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.