There are not very many countries that have trade deals with themselves, but due to the strength of its provincial governments, Canada is one of them. Indeed, Canada is perhaps the most decentralized nation in the West due to its strong regional identities. A poll last year found that in nine out of ten provinces, a majority of people did not prioritize their Canadian identity over their provincial one. (Though I must add that many people rated these identities equally.) Consequently, Canada is no stranger to secessionist movements. Historically, Quebec has had the strongest support for leaving, with 49.42% of Quebeckers voting to leave the country in 1995. In the 2020s, however, provinces in Western Canada, particularly Alberta, may cause the most headaches for the federal government. Last year, 56% of Albertans either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.”
Alberta is a black gold mine, which has made the province the wealthiest in Canada. Fortunately for Alberta, in Canada, natural resources are a domain of the provinces, which has allowed it to raise a huge amount of money from oil and gas royalties over the years. Unlike Norway, which decided to use its oil money to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, Alberta has preferred to spend most of its royalties as they come in. This has allowed Alberta to have the lowest taxes in Canada. It’s hard to overstate the reliance of the Albertan government on these royalties historically--in 2014, for instance, they represented over 20% of the government’s revenue
Naturally, Albertans are quite protective of the oil and gas industry. In a 2018 poll, just 54% of Albertans answered that climate change was caused by human activity, compared to 70% of Canadians as a whole, while 46% preferred to attribute climate change to natural factors. Unsurprisingly, Albertans are not fans of carbon taxation. Unfortunately for the province’s current rulers, who repealed Alberta’s carbon tax last year with the justification that it hurt the economy, the federal government now mandates carbon pricing for provinces that don’t have their own tax, a popular policy in the rest of the country.
In addition to anger at Justin Trudeau for trying to impose a carbon tax, a couple of other issues contribute to Albertans’ feelings that they aren’t respected in the other parts of the country. In 2018, the British Columbian government tried to block the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, to which the Albertan government responded by blocking BC wine imports. This occurred despite the fact that both governments were actually provincial branches of the same national party!
Meanwhile, Albertans also resent the fact that people in Quebec are generally anti-pipeline while receiving a significant amount of money in equalization payments from the federal government. Equalization payments are essentially extra money that the Canadian federal government gives to provinces that are less wealthy than average, so they can provide better social services. Quebec receives the most money out of any province, as it is the largest province who is eligible for payments, which makes it the subject of attention whenever equalization comes up. Meanwhile, taxpayers in Alberta disproportionately contribute revenue to this program, given that they tend to make more money than the average Canadian. The view of Albertans here is basically a much more extreme version of the somewhat common American-liberal sentiment that blue states subsidize red states too much. In recent years, this tension has been exacerbated by the fact that Quebec had balanced budgets (pre-coronavirus) due to high taxes, while Alberta has had budget deficits partially due to a decline in oil royalties.
In polling, Albertans are much more likely to say that the province receives the respect it deserves when the federal Conservative Party of Canada is in power, which makes sense given that Albertans overwhelmingly vote for it. The CPC, unlike the American right, does not deny that climate change is anthropogenic, but promotes policies that are favorable to the Albertan oil industry. However, it is unlikely that the CPC will take power again soon given that the electoral system is skewed towards the Liberals and that CPC views are broadly unpopular with not-Conservative voters, which incentivizes them to vote for the strongest not-Conservative party. The CPC actually won the most votes (34% vs 33% to the Liberals) in the 2019 election, but the center-center-left Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats because the Conservatives ran up the score in the Western oil provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. (The electoral system is the same as the one for the US House of Representatives, so winning a district by two points or twenty points does not make any difference.) The LPC did not win a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but partially because it is much closer ideologically to the other parties than the Conservatives are, it is able to get the votes necessary to prop up the Trudeau government when they are needed.
After Trudeau won reelection last fall, Wexit started trending on social media, and soon a federal party named Wexit Canada was created. (Confusingly, they changed their name to the Maverick Party just last month.) The “Western Canada” in Wexit technically refers to the four Western provinces in Canada, but the party’s target audience mostly lives in Alberta and its small neighbor, Saskatchewan. They are currently led by a former Conservative MP and have already started lining up candidates for the next federal election, whenever that occurs.
Meanwhile, there are two small provincial parties, the Wildrose Independence Party and the Independence Party of Alberta, that advocate for independence in Alberta. Collectively, they have been polling between 7 and 10 percent this year, before even becoming established parties. During the next election, they may be able to siphon off support from the governing United Conservative Party given the current unpopularity of its leader, Jason Kenney.
Now, would Alberta be better off as its own country, as 20% or perhaps even 40% of Albertans believe? If it chose this option, it would face some problems. Firstly, as a landlocked nation, Alberta would still need to convince Canada and the US to build the new oil pipelines that it wants, so independence would not help in this regard. Secondly, becoming a new nation would require forming new trade deals with countries that already have trade deals, which would give the non-Albertan countries significant amounts of leverage when negotiating.
Maybe there is a better option. One of the cofounders of Wexit now thinks that Alberta should join the US instead. This would certainly solve the problem of Alberta having to create trade deals on its own. One poll suggests that about 22% of Albertans would approve of this option. However, it is unlikely that a majority of people in Alberta would want to become a state while either a Republican or Democrat holds the presidency. Biden is currently beating Trump 68% to 32% in Alberta, so it is unlikely Albertans would want to vote to join the country during times when the Republican Party represents America. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is less favorable to oil than the Canadian Liberals are. For example, while Joe Biden wants to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, Justin Trudeau supports it. Because Alberta would represent a much smaller percentage of the American economy than its current percentage of the Canadian economy, the Democrats would not be nearly as worried about accommodating it.
Welcome to Political Union's blog! All opinions expressed are those of our writers, and not NU Political Union.