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Expert weighs in on Alberta separatism

One political scientist at the University of Alberta says separating from the rest of Canada is not going to help get a pipeline built.

One political scientist at the University of Alberta says separating from the rest of Canada is not going to help get a pipeline built.

Days after the writ dropped in Alberta for the upcoming April 16 provincial election, the Alberta Independence Party got an official designation as a provincial party. The main party platform for the Alberta Independence Party is to separate from the rest of Canada.

Jared Wesley, associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, said the idea of the province separating from the rest of confederation has always been a fringe sentiment bubbling in the province, at least since the late 1970s.

“The notion of Alberta leaving confederation, it’s always kind of been there, but the extent to which people think it's realistic that would happen or whether it's a solution to our problems, I think is far less widespread.”

The academic said that with every separatist movement, including Brexit and the Quebec separatist movement, there are hard and soft supporters. Hard supporters actually want to leave, while soft supporters are hoping the notion of leaving will send a message to those in charge.

“In Britain, you had a ton of people that thought this is a great way to send a message to those elites in Brussels that were not happy with the way we're being treated. And now they have regrets about it,” Wesley said.

The issue of separatism has come up in the province before and is rooted in Western alienation. In the 1970s, separatist sentiment picked up steam because of the first round of constitutional conversations that would eventually lead to the Canada Act, the provincial distaste for then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and a feeling that Alberta was being taken advantage of by the National Energy Board.

Wesley said the most recent triggers to these feelings are Albertans being upset over equalization, a lack of federal funding to cushion against the impact of the economic downturn and the inability of the country to get pipelines built. Separation may feel like a solution to those problems, but Wesley said it isn't.

“There are clear economic disadvantages to Alberta leaving confederation. And this was really puzzling to me, because they're saying, 'We're upset because pipelines aren't being built, so we're going to leave the country.' Nobody honestly thinks (it) is going to be easy to build a pipeline through a sovereign territory.”

The academic's concern with separatist rhetoric isn't about the Alberta Independence Party, but rather with how the main political parties in the provice appear to be courting separatist notions and voters.

“My eyes go not necessarily to the leaders of the fringe parties, but to the leaders of the establishment parties and how they cope with it. And it's a natural reaction from observers that have seen populist movements overtake mainstream parties like (in) the United States and Europe.”

Wesley said Jason Kenney and the UCP in particular have been courting fringe separatist voters.

Over the weekend, Kenney warned Ottawa that he was fighting for a fair deal because of the provincial separatist sentiment. He promised a referendum on equalization in 2021 if there had been no progress on a pipeline.

“You can have the conversation (about equalization), but the conversation is not had in a province-wide referendum,” Wesley said, adding Kenney knows the province cannot pull out of equalization as he is a former federal minister.

The Alberta Independence Party gained official party status last week and by the weekend had 56 candidates nominated to run in the provincial election. They beat out six parties for the number of candidates running in provincial seats, including the Alberta Liberal Party with 51 candidates and the Green Party of Alberta with 26 candidates.

Jennifer Henderson

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette and has been with Great West Media since 2015
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