Lawrence Solomon: If Alberta turns separatist, the Rest of Canada is in big trouble

Lawrence Solomon: If Alberta turns separatist, the Rest of Canada is in big trouble

Canadians don’t value our fossil fuel economy, which explains why so many are OK to trash pipelines and see Alberta tank. Only 19 per cent think it more important to pursue oil and gas development than to go green and regulate oil, according to EKOS polling. That 19 per cent figure shrinks to eight per cent for Canadians who consider themselves Liberals, six per cent for NDPers and two per cent for those who vote Green, meaning that politicians of most stripes have no interest in alienating their supporters to help Alberta’s energy economy recover.

Those figures also explain why Alberta’s sense of alienation is on the rise. According to Ipsos, fully 62 per cent believe Alberta “does not get its fair share from Confederation” (up from 45 per cent two decades ago), 46 per cent feel more attached to their province than to their country (up from 39 per cent) and 34 per cent “feel less committed to Canada than I did a few years ago” (up from 22 per cent). Just 18 per cent of Albertans believe “the views of western Canadians are adequately represented in Ottawa.”

One-quarter of Albertans now believe Alberta “would be better off if it separated from Canada,” a number that may well rise if the provincial economy founders, and would certainly rise if Albertans realized that they need Canada a lot less than Canada needs them. Without Alberta’s wealth and foreign-exchange earnings, the living standard of Canadians outside Alberta would drop and the Canadian dollar would plummet, likely leading to inflation as the cost of imports rose. Albertans, in contrast, would see their affluence rise and, because oil sales are denominated in U.S. dollars, Alberta would be largely insulated from the inflation to its east and west.

Those pooh-poohing independence claim Alberta, being land-locked, would be held hostage if it were an independent state. Those scoffers have it backwards. Alberta is today held hostage, its pipelines east and west kiboshed by its fellow Canadians. If Alberta were independent, its newfound bargaining power would certainly cause the Rest of Canada to capitulate, and speed to completion any and all pipelines Alberta needed to either ocean.

An independent Alberta would control access to its land mass as well as the skies above it, requiring Canada’s federal government to negotiate rights for, say, Vancouver-to-Toronto flights over Alberta airspace. Canada would also need Alberta’s agreement to have trains and trucks cross its now-international borders. Threats of tolls and tariffs could abound as needed to chasten those perceived to be wronging Alberta, whether Quebec, which exports dairy to B.C., grain interests that now commandeer rail to the detriment of Alberta’s oil shippers, or the B.C. ports that depend on commodities going to and from points east. Anyone thinking that Alberta would be unable to police its borders needs to be reminded that, for the past 70 years, Alberta’s patrols have made it the continent’s only rat-free jurisdiction.

Should Alberta become a credible threat to leave the federation, the debate would embolden Quebec separatists, make Canada seem unstable and scare off investment

The Rest of Canada has other reasons to avoid pushing Albertans to the point of separation. Should Alberta become a credible threat to leave the Canadian federation, the debate would likely embolden Quebec separatists, make Canada seem unstable and scare off both domestic and international investment. Alberta would have the United States as a bargaining chip, too: Manifest Destiny, the U.S. dream of controlling the entire continent, would experience a revival at the prospect of welcoming Alberta as its 51st state, strengthening America’s influence over the world’s energy markets and, in particular, over a now energy-dependent Rest of Canada.

While history suggests Alberta would almost surely be better off outside Canada — Singapore, Norway, Taiwan, the Czech Republic and other breakaways have generally thrived — divorce would be messy, costly in the short term and unnecessary. The Supreme Court of Canada made separation plausible — separation negotiations would start as soon as a clear majority of Albertans in a clearly stated referendum voted to leave Canada. It wouldn’t take too many more blows to Alberta’s economy and Albertans’ pride for the 46 per cent who now see themselves more as Albertans than Canadians to become 56 per cent or even 66 per cent, figures setting Canada on a path to dismemberment.

The last time Alberta was pushed toward the brink, it argued that “the West wants in.” The next time it might argue that “Alberta wants out.” The Rest of Canada needs to understand it has no hand to play if it continues to fuel Albertans’ discontent. If we don’t come to have regard for the needs of Alberta, Alberta will come to have no regard for Canada.

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