Analysis | How Kenney's win shifts the federal-provincial dynamics for Saskatchewan

In congratulating Jason Kenney on his victory, Scott Moe quickly locked arms on the battle with Ottawa.

We’re about to discover just how much the times have changed

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe had another conservative ally elected as premier. Alberta UCP leader Jason Kenney is the province's premier-elect. (Canadian Press)

Believe it or not, in the late 1980s a young Jason Kenney was briefly an executive assistant to then-Saskatchewan Liberal leader Ralph Goodale. How times change.

Today, as the leader of a newly-elected United Conservative Party (UCP) government in Alberta, Kenney is positioned to reconnect with his Saskatchewan roots, but in a much different and far more significant way.

Kenney has vowed to take on the Justin Trudeau government in a growing battle over the federal government's imposition of a carbon tax, its treatment of the oil and gas sector and its inability to get the Trans-Mountain (TMX) pipeline constructed.

At his side in the battle will be Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who has staked much of his political capital on fighting the Trudeau government. In congratulating Kenney on his victory, Moe quickly locked arms on the battle with Ottawa, saying "Alberta has chosen a free enterprise government, and Saskatchewan is pleased to have another ally at the table fighting for pipelines and standing against the disastrous Trudeau carbon tax."  

The emerging political alliance doesn't end there. Both Moe and Kenney have expressed their frustration with Canada's equalization program, arguing it is unfair to energy and resource dependent economies like Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Where the 'Buffalo' looms

The bottom line politically is that the federal-provincial dynamics in Canada shifted in a very fundamental way with the election of the UCP. Alberta and Saskatchewan are now fully on the same page and have the federal government in their political sights as Canada heads towards a federal election in October.

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney celebrates his victory in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

No one should be surprised. The mysterious "Buffalo Project" has been lurking ominously in the background for months. It's attracted only some cursory attention, but reflects the kind of western alienation sentiment that that can't be ignored, especially after Kenney's election.

The Buffalo Project draws its name from the early days of the 20th century. Before the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed in 1905, the idea of one province called Buffalo spanning what was to become Alberta and Saskatchewan had been advocated by Robert Haultain, premier of what was then the Northwest Territories.  

Fearing that the rapidly-growing region might form too strong an economic and political counterbalance to Ontario and Quebec, Ottawa made the decision to create two provinces. Some people, apparently, have never gotten over it.

The so-called Buffalo Project is still largely undefined. It was started by wealthy Albertans who believe the province has been ill-treated by the current federal government and argue there needs to be a vehicle to express their anger with Ottawa. The person they see as the primary voice for the western discontent is former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

The fuel for their alienation has been the punishing downturn in the oil and gas sectors of Alberta and — to a lesser extent — Saskatchewan. More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs in Alberta since the oil price collapse of 2015. Today almost 25 per cent of downtown Calgary office space is vacant.

Where is it all headed?

In the face of such economic pain, the inability to get the TMX pipeline project advanced, the federal government's imposition of a carbon tax and an equalization formula some claim is biased against the two provinces has produced a toxic political environment.

The result has been truck convoys to Ottawa in support of pipelines and the oil sector, coupled with rallies that have fed the public sentiment that the two provinces are being either ignored or treated unfairly by the Trudeau government.

It's not surprising the rhetoric has at times reached threatening tones. Is it any wonder, then, that a recent Angus Reid Institute poll found 82 per cent of Albertans and 71 per cent of people in Saskatchewan believe the federal government's policies in the last "couple of years" have hurt their province's economy?

Put all the factors together – Kenney's landslide election, the political alignment between Alberta and Saskatchewan against the federal government, the so-called Buffalo Project, the public sentiment in the two provinces and a looming federal election – and you can't help but wonder where it is all headed.

What's clear is that Canada is in a far different place than in 2015. Back then approximately 27 million Canadians were governed by provincial Liberal governments. Today the number is 1.2 million.

We're about to discover just how much the times have changed.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Dale Eisler is a senior policy fellow at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina. He is a former Assistant Deputy Minister in various roles with the Government of Canada and was Consul General for Canada in the United States. His book “False Expectations, Politics and the Pursuit of the Saskatchewan Myth” is an analysis of the evolution and development of Saskatchewan’s political economy through its first 100 years as a province.


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