History of Alberta’s Independence

History of Alberta’s Independence

Towards an Independent Alberta: A Brief History of Alberta Separatism

By Michael Wagner

Alberta separatism began in the 1970s. To a large degree, it was a response to the policies of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau wanted to remake Canada to fit his leftist ideals, so he aggressively pursued policies such as bilingualism and multiculturalism, as well as a new constitutional provision, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most importantly (in this context), Trudeau attacked Alberta and its oil industry. Pierre Trudeau, it can be said, is the father of Alberta separatism.

The first people to see a need for a new alternative was a small group of Albertans, mostly Calgary oilmen, who formed an organization called the Independent Alberta Association in 1974. They were disgruntled by the federal government’s apparent contempt for Alberta’s exclusive jurisdiction over its natural resources. Therefore they decided to explore the possibility of an independent Alberta.

Tensions mounted between Alberta and the central Canadian provinces over the increasing price of oil during the 1970s. Alberta was subsidizing central Canada by receiving much less than the world price for its oil. However, with the election of Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative minority government in 1979, it was hoped that Alberta would get a better deal. That hope was dashed when Clark’s government fell and was replaced by a Liberal majority government under Pierre Trudeau in February 1980.

The 1980 election and the National Energy Program

Many Albertans believed that the 1980 federal election demonstrated that western Canada had virtually no influence on the national government because elections were decided in Ontario and Quebec.

This led to the formation of a new pro-West organization called West-Fed, led by Edmonton businessman Elmer Knutson. Knutson denied being a separatist, but West-Fed was widely regarded to be a separatist organization. Also, Doug Christie, a British Columbia lawyer, had formed the Western Canada Concept (WCC) in an effort to promote Western separatism.

In October 1980, the Trudeau government introduced the National Energy Program (NEP) which was widely viewed as an attempt by the federal government to seize control over Alberta’s oil resources. It was arguably the most socialistic peacetime power grab in Canadian history. Much of the province erupted in anger. Support for separatism soared, and even a few prominent citizens publicly declared support for western independence.

Both West-Fed and the WCC held large meetings across Alberta. One WCC meeting at the Edmonton Jubilee Auditorium in November 1980 had an audience estimated to be at least 2500 people, the largest separatist meeting ever held in Western Canada.

The WCC subsequently organized a provincial political party in Alberta. In February 1982, WCC candidate Gordon Kesler won a convincing by-election victory in a rural constituency north of Calgary. Support for the WCC increased sharply.

However, the WCC became discredited by infighting and leadership squabbles. When Premier Peter Lougheed called an early general election for November 1982, the WCC did not win any seats despite receiving almost 12 % of the total provincial vote.

The Mulroney government

In 1984 Pierre Trudeau resigned as prime minister. In the federal election of September that year, the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney won a majority government. Alberta had voted for the PCs on a massive scale, and it was believed the province would receive a better deal from the new federal government. Support for separation largely dissipated.

However, the Mulroney Tories proved to be a big disappointment for westerners. Much of the PC caucus consisted of MPs from central Canada, including the Prime Minister himself. They were not particularly sensitive to Alberta’s concerns.

Once again anger began to build in Alberta toward the federal government, especially after it awarded a CF-18 jet maintenance contract to a Montreal company despite a western company having a better bid.

Support for separatism began to build steadily. The Alberta WCC came back to life. In a November 1987 by-election in central Alberta, Alberta WCC party leader Jack Ramsay finished second. The separatist WCC, which had been struggling since its 1982 general election defeat, re-emerged as the Tories’ main rival in some parts of Alberta.

However, after that encouraging by-election result, the Alberta WCC would never run another candidate for election.

Many of the people who had been involved in Alberta separatist politics were not actually devoted to independence. They simply wanted a fair deal for Alberta. When Alberta was getting ripped off by Pierre Trudeau, separatism seemed to be the best solution. Later, when the Mulroney government was blatantly favouring Quebec at the West’s expense, separatism again became attractive.

The Reform Party of Canada

However, by 1987 efforts were underway by prominent citizens, most notably Preston Manning, to build a non-separatist western-based federal party to represent the West’s interests in Parliament. This party, the Reform Party of Canada, did not have the problems of infighting and leadership squabbling that so often afflicted the WCC and other separatist groups. The Reform Party was a credible organization for defending Alberta’s interests.

The Reform Party thus largely absorbed the people who had been interested in Alberta separatism. Separatist tendencies were contained within (and moderated by) a non-separatist organization. The Reform Party became the institutional vehicle for those concerned about defending Alberta’s rights within Canada and it had a profound impact on Canadian politics. However, the Reform Party no longer exists.

In an effort to unite right-of-centre voters in Canada, the Reform Party was folded into the Canadian Alliance in 2000. But voters in eastern Canada were largely uninterested in the Canadian Alliance in the November 2000 federal election. Resentment at the election results reawakened some separatist sentiment in Alberta.

Without the Reform Party to articulate Alberta’s concerns, the separatist movement began to organize meaningfully for the first time since the 1980s. Once again, however, support for separatism would dissipate due to renewed hope in an apparently favourable federal government.

Stephen Harper became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002 and then led it into a merger with the PC Party in 2003, forming the Conservative Party of Canada. Harper had been a key Reform Party figure, so when he was elected Prime Minister in January 2006, Albertans believed he could be trusted to protect the province’s interests. As long as Harper remained prime minister, there was no incentive for an Alberta separatist movement.

Another Trudeau

Of course, the situation changed dramatically on October 19, 2015, when federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the spawn of Pierre, was elected prime minister with a majority government. Many Albertans justifiably became fearful for the future. The revival of separatist sentiment was immediate, and a number of Facebook groups supporting Alberta separatism began to form. Efforts to create a new Alberta separatist party were also initiated. Just as Pierre Trudeau was the father of Alberta separatism, his son has become the spark that reignited this movement.

As the 2017 cancellation of the Energy East Pipeline demonstrates, Albertans’ fears of the new Liberal government are being realized. Justin Trudeau and his associates are not interested in Alberta and its economic prosperity. They want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, which would also be the end of Alberta’s economy.

Albertans need to realize that the deck is stacked against them. With federal political leaders seeing Ontario and Quebec as the key to their personal political ambitions, Alberta’s well-being will always be at the bottom of their priorities. Independence may be the only political arrangement that offers a permanent solution to this intractable problem.

Michael Wagner has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta and is the author of the book Alberta: Separatism Then and Now.