With its resource-based economy contributing significantly to Canadian GDP, Alberta’s natural resources are under threat by internal disputes, leading to growing calls for the province to secede from the nation.
Formed around the main aims of reasserting full constitutional authority over Alberta and the promise of a referendum on the issue of the province seceding from Canada, Alberta Fights Back is a grassroots movement organized to protect Alberta’s economic and political interests. The man behind the movement is Executive Director Peter Downing, who spoke with The Canadian Business Quarterly recently about the growing political situation regarding Alberta’s inability to develop its own resource-based economy.
Conflict over natural resources
“With the regulation right now out of Ottawa,” Mr Downing explains, “with bill C69, tanker bans, expanded regulatory process for approvals on pipeline expansion, [Alberta is] basically at capacity for our crude oil exports. We’re suffering.”
Finding itself with no say over oil capacity, decided in parliament in Ottawa, the province of Alberta is unable to develop its resource-based economy, something that Alberta Fights Back deems unacceptable.
“We need expanded pipeline construction to be able to export more of our natural resource, to be able to make up for the revenue shortfall. We’re unable to develop. Quebec has stated that there is no social acceptability for the Energy East [pipeline].”
The result is a political and economic situation between the province and eastern Canada, particularly Quebec. Much of this conflict has arisen from the way confederation taxes are used across the country in the form of equalization payments.
“Alberta has paid around $622 billion into confederation. It’s basically our federal taxation. Those taxes go to all the federal expenditures, the cost of running federal government, plus social benefits. Overwhelmingly more of those social benefits end up in Quebec, so Quebec has things that Alberta doesn’t have.”
Major sectors such as childcare, post-secondary education and family planning are heavily subsidized in Quebec, with tax money transferred from the federal government for the province to use as it sees fit.
“In Alberta, when we’re looking at Quebec, who hold a large political sway within Canadian confederation, we see that they’re a recipient of $13.1 billion this year, and they’re actively hostile towards the Alberta oil and gas sector.”
Albertans have become disgruntled with the antagonism from the east regarding natural resources, leading to a serious call for change. The conflict has been intensified by concerns that Alberta’s natural resources are playing second fiddle to economic concerns in the east.
“We have a west coast tanker ban – we can’t export our oil offshore. We can’t run our pipelines east. But for anybody who thinks that it’s environmental, there’s certainly no east coast tanker ban. That allows oils from other countries that have terrible human rights records. It’s political, it’s eastern Canadian economic protectionism.”
This discrepancy between the use of equalization payments across Canada and the clear block on developing Alberta’s resource-based economy has become too much for many in the province to accept.
“We have 20,000 people out of work just in December (2018) alone in Alberta, and we’re seeing our money transferred to other people for special privileges. And that same group who’s getting all those special treatments telling us that we can’t develop our economy through their jurisdiction, which benefits everybody – kind of kicking us again while we’re down.”
Why the time is right for secession
“If you go back to the 70s, when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was the Prime Minister, it was the same sort of the thing. The big thing that got the industry’s back up was the oil export taxes, an additional tax on the exportation of our natural resources.”
As now, there was a clear division between federal and provincial jurisdiction in terms of the confederation, with the province in charge of natural resources. Even then, Alberta felt that a grab for their resources was taking place.
“There was a lot of hostility there, the separatist movement kicked up. Peter Lougheed, the governor of Alberta, was able to sooth the anger somewhat, and after Trudeau didn’t win the next round of office, that anger started to subside.”
But many Albertans remember all too well the National Energy Program (NEP) imposed by Trudeau and the Liberal Party. These events have had an impact on how both the national and local party has been viewed in the province ever since the 70s.
“Quebec versus the west has always been a theme. When Justin Trudeau got elected, and the price of oil took a hit, it seems like it is the more traditional Laurentian Allegiance – the older cities in Quebec and Ontario reasserting their dominance over the west, trying to claim virtues of environmentalism, gender equality, but really it’s pure power and politics.”
The electoral structure in Ottawa also has a significant effect on this ongoing rivalry, with any Prime Minister taking office being electorally bound to a large number of seats in Ontario and Quebec.
“The province of Alberta has 34 seats within the House of Commons. The city of Toronto alone has 25, and the city of Montreal alone has 10. You have two old stock cities that have been financial power centers since confederation outvoting the whole province.”
The result is that Alberta struggles to feel any sense of autonomy or control over its own economy, finding itself at the start of 2019 in the middle of a perfect storm of history and politics which has led to serious calls for a secession from the confederation.
“That’s why [pollster] Angus Reid found that 60% of Albertans are willing to vote separatist, and in fact an official separatist party in Alberta, the Alberta Independence Party, has been registered with Elections Alberta. This is now a real electoral option.”
Alberta is not the only province with these concerns. In fact, each of the three western Prairie Provinces are seriously considering the issue of whether to secede from Canada. Around half of voters in Saskatchewan have signaled their intentions to vote separatist, as well as around a third of voters in Manitoba.
“[These] provinces could serve as an effective political and economic block, controlling well over a trillion dollars of natural resources. It really is [about] people here having their economic future, their livelihoods, controlled by eastern Canada, particularly Quebec.”
“We have a federal government that strongly favors Quebec, so we have to look at our situation, and see what we can do about it, logically, legally, ethically, and [Alberta Fights Back] is the strongest option that we have.”
Mr Downing started the Alberta Fights Back movement in January 2019, recognizing that other separatist minded groups or conservative splinter groups, such as the Alberta Independence Party, were trying to get registration, and planning a different approach.
“I recognized that there needed to be more development of the political education around this issue. I started the organization as a political action committee, a third party, independent advertiser, with Elections Alberta.”
In February the organization began transmitting its message from digital billboards in Edmonton and Calgary, asking whether Alberta should leave Canada. The campaign saw a strong response from media, volunteers and donors.
“After that I got invited to join the leadership team with a group called the Prairie Freedom Movement, which has basically been doing the same thing at a more prairie-regional level for the past three years.”
This led to a similar campaign being launched in Saskatchewan, with billboards erected in Regina and Saskatoon, eliciting an even bigger media response. The campaign for Manitoba followed soon after.
“Looking from a political power perspective, what we’re doing is the coordination to develop three co-branded separatist parties at the provincial level in each of the Prairie Provinces, to give a little more economy of scale in terms of negotiation with Ottawa.”
The organization has no affiliations with any other political groups. All funding is handled at grassroots level by Mr Downing and the leadership of the Prairie Freedom Movement.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from some bigger political actors. We’re starting to see more of industry reaching out to us, but [the organization] really is folks looking at the political marketplace and what voters want. We’re offering a product that we don’t think is being offered right now.”
Mr Downing doesn’t believe that Alberta currently has any option to protect its political interests other than secession from Canada. Even the thought of significant negotiation to solve the problem seems out of reach.
“A model where you have elected representatives who are representing regional concerns and interests [would be a start] – but I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. I don’t even think that’s going to be a reality in the current political situation.”
Mr Downing believes it’s important for voters in other provinces to recognize the effect their elected officials are having on Alberta. One of the goals of the movement is to educate the country on the political issues that are going on.
“This movement isn’t based on national or cultural issues. This is purely economics and politics, and trying to have some sort of ability to develop our economy, our way of life, our careers, without being kneecapped and road-blocked by opposing political and economic interests within the same country that we all call home.”
Find out more about Alberta Fights Back by visiting www.albertafightsback.com.