Western Alienation: Manufactured Conservative Grievance Oil Politics

Photo credit: Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

Western Alienation! Wexit! Separation! Are these merely tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Team Advantage convenes to discuss the phenomenon of western alienation, examining its long history, how it obscures capitalist alienation and reconstructs it to defend regional capitalist interests, and shapes an explicitly right-wing collective identity for Alberta. How is it that western alienation coincidentally makes the concerns of oil millionaires “everyone’s problem?” Does blaming Ottawa for everything really distract from policy failures here in Alberta?

Visit LeftWexit.com for a real plan to guarantee Alberta’s independence.

A full transcript follows the break.

Sean: [through the laughter of the other hosts] In 1980, the Fidel Castro government brought in a national energy program —

[intro music begins]

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to patreon.com/albertaadvantage and support our work with a monthly donation.

[intro music ends]

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson. I really don’t like the opening bit of this episode, and joining Team Advantage today we have Sean —

Sean: Fund domestic environmentalists to shut down the oil industry.

Kate: Rory —

Rory: Alberta will be socialist and free.

Kate: Hm. Tyler —

Tyler: Freedom!

Kate: And Joel.

Joel: Bonjour, les amis.

Kate: Well, now that we’ve gotten that all out of the way, we are going to be doing an episode today talking about western alienation. So, what is happening right now is: “There is a Trudeau in power in Ottawa, Alberta’s hurting again,” is the narrative that we keep seeing in our media, etc, etc. And a lot of people are saying — or, a lot of disproportionate media coverage of very few people is saying — that Alberta, and possibly the other western provinces, need to separate from the rest of Canada. They need to Wexit (a western exit, like Brexit, although it kind of sounds like you’re a baby when you say it). A fair deal panel has toured the province to learn more about possibly separating from Canada, a Buffalo declaration has been made to warn the feds to listen before it’s too late, parties have sprung up to campaign for Wexit, and this is all animated by the way people here really, really, really hate Justin Trudeau, but not necessarily in the way that they should. And even on this podcast, it has been a contentious issue, with some people claiming that a Left Wexit is both desirable and possible. However, since we practice democratic centralism here at The Alberta Advantage, the Left Wexit faction lost the vote, and so this episode will instead be arguing that Alberta separatism is incredibly stupid and that the core of it is rotten capitalism, settler colonialism, and petty cultural grievances.

Tyler: Justoon Turdeau. Just wanted to get that in there.

Joel: There’s a French version which is “Justin Trou D’eau,” which means “hole of water.” Pretty clever.

Tyler: Owned!

Kate: So, Wexit separatism, unfair equaliation payments, all these sorts of things — this is basically a whole genre of regional Prairie grievances, and it is something that can really broadly be called “western alienation.” And we consider this to be the political expression of the feeling that Alberta is not getting a fair deal in Canadian Confederation. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that the federal government in Ottawa does not care about Alberta and is, in fact, hostile when Alberta is successful, and that this same federal government is showing favouritism to other regions of the country, particularly towards Quebec, although sometimes — particularly, as we’ve seen, as pipelines have become a bigger and bigger part of western alienation — towards British Columbia.

Sean: This feeling of western alienation is real enough that public opinion polls are regularly commissioned to ask about it and learn more about it. Over the past year, those polls have shown that large majorities of Albertans are dissatisfied with their treatments in Canada as a part of federation. And, on the spicier question of separation — it depends what’s asked, but it’s probably less than 20% of Albertans who would seriously vote to leave, but to me, that’s still pretty high. The numbers also shift based on events like elections, energy prices, pipeline approvals or rejections, and they generally align with partisan affiliations — conservatives are, surprise surprise, most likely to support separation. Lots of real people believe this stuff, and these are voters and active members of political life. And, kind of like Brexit, it seems unlikely now, but if a referendum was ever actually held on these issues, things have the potential to change really quickly.

Tyler: Yeah. I think, on that point, it’s important to note that, pre-referendum being officially announced and before there was essentially license given to two groups to be the official messaging of the “Leave” and “Remain” votes for Brexit, that the polls were not showing that Brexit was likely. In fact, I think a lot of the discussion leading up to the vote still felt that it was very unlikely, or mainly unlikely, that it would have happened the way it did. So I don’t think anyone should take comfort right now in the fact that the polls that we have right now are showing a low percentage.

Kate: And while Sean has outlined the myriad ways in which western alienation is real enough — at least as a political phenomenon — western alienation, as it currently exists, is also very fake, and a closer examination of this makes it abundantly clear. It is mostly a type of conservative grievance politics that is based around channelling the alienation that we all know and feel under capitalism, this idea of being alienated from your labour, and reconstructing this to defend the interests, the very specific interests, of regional capitalists in the Prairies. It really intentionally, and does a very good job, of constructing an explicitly right-wing collective identity for Alberta, and it centres the interests of the oil industry as indistinguishable from the public interest. This is the symbolic nationalization of the oil industry, where the oil industry is taken to be a stand-in for the public good or for the national interest without actually materially manifesting in that in any ways. And then western alienation, being constructed like this, is then employed to distract, pretty much, from whatever unpopular things the Kenney government is doing by blaming any and all bad things on Ottawa.

Rory: It may seem contradictory that western alienation is both real and fake, but this dialectical relationship is important to understanding it. While, at its heart, western alienation is oil millionaires trying to make their concerns become everyone’s problem, this shaping of discourse has real political consequences and can’t simply be dismissed. This episode hopes to show how western alienation is an example of manufacturing consent that has been relatively successful in creating a significant level of popular agreement on an issue that is overwhelmingly beneficial to existing economic elites. When I worked in the oil industry, I remember getting all-staff emails from the boss right after the Alberta NDP won in 2015 explaining how we were all going to lose our jobs because of this, because they were going to destroy the oil industry. During the 2015 federal election, there were numerous news stories about industry CEOs telling all their employees they had to vote to Conservative — who also, incidentally, were going to give oil millionaires big tax cut. And like similar movements — Brexit, US federalism — what may start as some sort of political maneuvering by elites for more government handouts may quickly spiral out of their control. A downtrodden and angry population can grasp onto issues like this as the root of all their problems and create big, unexpected changes, like Brexit or Trump. And it should always be understood that class divisions within a region are more important than divisions between regions, so we’re hoping, with this episode, we can kind of imagine a democratic politics of regional development beyond a framework of conservative regionalist grievance.

Kate: And looking at Alberta’s political history really illustrates this real/fake dialectic of western alienation, because the faux-populist manifestations of current western alienation are drawing on a real history of populist movements that exist within this province, and also on the Prairies more generally. We recorded a number of episodes on this history, so we’re not going to retread the material except where western alienation specifically ties in. And this is historic populism basically informs the political style of how these grievances are expressed, but those past populisms were somewhat more diverse, and they were also rooted in specific historical contexts that do not exist in Alberta now and flat-out don’t exist anymore. These populisms past and present, both in their cultural affects and in specific, material contexts, are also completely marinated in the ideology of settler colonialism. And this really cannot be stressed enough because, in my opinion, one of the primary contradictions — and perhaps the primary contradiction — of looking at western alienation as a political form on the prairies is that, despite the very real injuries inflicted by the federal government on Indigenous nations thst live on the Prairies, Indigenous people have not been an important part of western alienation movements. And I think something we will show in this episode is that the way in which they are constituted, and what is the kernel of truth, or what is at the very core of these movements and is driving and animating them, is fundamentally incompatible with the vast majority of projects of Indigenous politics and Indigenous self-determination. So, all of this is so completely wrapped up in settler colonialism on the Prairies, and, really, that cannot be stressed enough.

Rory: Alberta’s historic economic development would shape how these politics of western alienation would play out for much of the 20th century — so, waves of European settlement at the beginning of the 20th century developed an agrarian economy based on the export of wheat and other raw materials to feed central Canadian industry. When Alberta was created as a province in 1905, sub-surface mineral rights were retained by the federal government despite it being provincial jurisdiction elsewhere. It wasn’t until 1930 that Alberta got those rights, which, of course, includes oil and gas. This sort of conflict over who controls resources and development was the foundation of western alienation sentiment, and this sense of alienation was also key to populist movements in the early 20th century. Between 1921 and 1935, the populist United Farmers of Alberta ran the province promising to fight for agrarian interests and local control. And the Great Depression was especially devastating for Alberta’s agrarian economy; and, partly in response to that, in 1935, the populist Bible Bill and Social Credit swept to power on a platform of solving the crisis through radical monetary reform. The Socreds intended to accomplish this by essentially printing money, which was firmly within federal jurisdiction, and they unsurprisingly got nowhere with it — at least a year’s worth of legislation they passed was all struck down as unconstitutional — but they did get to make a lot of hay out of how Ottawa was blocking Alberta’s attempts to help itself.

Tyler: So, in 1947, there was an oil strike at Leduc that would transform the nature of Alberta populism as it transformed the provincial economy. The Socreds, by this point, had completed their turn into a reactionary part of business, and Ernest Manning was a reliable enemy of the post-war welfare state expansion, which he claimed was, in part, federal overreach on the provinces. The 1971 Alberta election can be seen as a confirmation of the changes Alberta had experienced. The Socreds represented a fossilized populism that was defeated by the Lougheed PCs, who had their support in urban areas and the oil business. The oil-led industrial development of Alberta had eroded the relevance of agrarian populism. While the original populst concerns of the past are gone, the populist political container remains, ready to be filled by petroleum instead of wheat. Albertan conservatism has more in common, at least culturally, with right-wing populists in the US than the WASP-y Lower Canada version of conservatism. It is not uncommon to see Confederate flags here in Alberta, and, to me, that is just pure cultural signalling. As far as I’m aware, there weren’t too many Canadians that fought for the Confederacy, but maybe I’m wrong about that. These culture wars are always looking for a place to direct their anger, and Trudeau is a perfect target. Eastern Canadian political dynasty, drama teacher, cultural hypocrisy, blackface, self-dealing, We Charity contract, communist Cuban father, I mean —

Sean: Allegedly.

Tyler: Allegedly, allegedly. Conservative politicians can easily tap into this energy and direct it towards their political and economic goal. They take our takes, give them to Quebec so they can have free daycare when we can’t even afford it ourselves — which, of course, we obviously can.

Sean: So, the 1970s were marked by two major oil crises that spiked oil prices. Political events in the Middle East in 1973 and 1979 caused big output falls, and that sent prices soaring. And, in most industrialized economies that were long dependent on cheap oil imports, this caused immediate economic misery. In fact, the end of the post-war consensus is often dated to 1973. In Alberta, however, the rapid price increases left the province awash in cash while other Canadians had to line up at gas stations. Prices would remain high throughout the 1970s, contributing to severe inflation. In 1980, the Trudeau Sr. government brought in the National Energy Program as a response to the oil price shocks in the 1970s; so, this attempted to secure domestic oil production for domestic consumption using federal government intervention and creating the state-owned Petro-Canada (another gas station you can still find today). This was widely hated in Alberta, who saw this as federal interference in provincial control over a resource. So, yeah, Alberta hated the idea of the federal government helping them get their oil to the rest of Canada. This is because the oil industry was, and still is, predominantly America, and it was way more profitable to just export all that oil to the US rather than take all the trouble of shipping it out to Ontario. Plus, a severe oil recession in the early 1980s was blamed wrongly on the National Energy Program. In 1985, the new Mulroney federal PC government ended the program and later sold Petro-Canada to Suncor. However, now Alberta conservatives are haunted by a spectre of the NDP as they argue for, I don’t know, some sort of program for national energy? Ironically, the sector ended up getting exactly what it wanted, which is the unencumbered free market, at exactly the point that that sector was hit with a huge recession in the mid-1980s. The price of oil slid by 50% in 1986 alone, and — wow! Good thing there weren’t any government-set price guarantees or guaranteed purchasers. That would’ve really been a stick in the mud, wouldn’t it?

Joel: And I just want to chat a little bit about the National Energy Program, because it gets such a strange reputation in Alberta. And, arguably, sure, yes — it’s much less profitable to sell oil to Ontario than it is to sell it to Americans on the free market.

Rory: It was at the time, but that’s different now.

Joel: At the time. But also, the federal government subsidized and front-loaded exploration of the oil sands, for example, for decades to make it viable. A lot of the startup costs or incentives to make oil possible in the first place are subsidies, and, in a sense, it makes sense to subsidize something at the front end, and then, when you hit an energy crisis, say, “Wow, we should probably use that resource to make sure our domestic industry doesn’t collapse.”

Tyler: Yeah. I think a lot of, too, the technology that is still prominent today — Sag-D, I believe, is an example for oil sand extraction — was actually developed in, essentially, provincially-funded laboratories that were basically trying to come up with new, better ways and technology to then give to private companies so they could extract stuff better. So, like Joel said, just so much public investment early on to get this moving. And it is just so funny now — one of the most common arguments you hear is that, “We should be giving our energy to Ontario and Quebec, but instead they’re buying cheap energy from the States! And what kind of country is this?” And, meanwhile, we have this essentially ready-made solution that could be doing exactly that, but obviously was voted down because… communism, I guess?

Sean: Yeah. Well, we did, I guess, get exactly what we wanted, which is decades of conservative governments letting the market decide where pipelines would go. And, of course, they all went south, to a United States that is, increasingly, less of a customer for Canadian oil. A big thing in the 2000s was a continental integration; Google the “security and prosperity partnership” if you want to read more about that. We didn’t build pipelines strategically, with an eye to the future, building all these pipelines — that we personally do not support, but definitely the Alberta provincial government wants now — we didn’t build those before with an eye on the future of that industry. We instead built them where short-term gain was the highest, and now it’s too late anyway.

Rory: This is such an important point to make, is that all of the stuff that Alberta conservatives go on about now — with, like, “We need pipelines to secure all these diverse markets” — the reason they don’t exist is because they opposed them in the 1980s. They let the market decide, and now none of this stuff exists. And because pipelines are now so highly politicized, it’s very difficult to get them built. And there’s also a huge climate horizon bearing down on all of this anyway, so probably a lot of them aren’t going to get built, all of these ones they want — like Energy East, which was touted so much. It’s dead.

Joel: There was a brief interruption in the rule of Trudeau, let’s say, between 1979 and 1980 — there was an eight-month PC government led by Joe Clark. When it fell in early 1980, there was a Quebec referendum on the agenda for May 20th of 1980. And so, to many Albertans, they have this brief glimpse of hope because there’s a conservative in power, and then it’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau back in power again, and there’s a referendum on the horizon with Quebec, and so they sense that Quebec is going to be the priority. To quote Trevor Harrison and his book Of Passionate Intensity, “It seemed, to many Albertans in 1980, that the federal Liberals were prepared to seize the province’s resources in a bid to redistribute Alberta’s newfound wealth to the more populated region of Central Canada. Many Albertans felt that their future prosperity was being robbed to protect the less-efficient industries of the East.” However, up until the 1973 OPEC Crisis, Ontario had subsidized Western oil producers through a guaranteed market. Western crude was historically slightly higher in price than the world price, so Ontario, as this guaranteed market, was paying a slightly higher price to take Alberta’s oil up until that point. And then, once the OPEC crisis hit, it because much more lucrative to sell that oil on the world market. Ontario was not super impressed about subsidizing Alberta oil until it was viable and then getting nothing back once oil became super-profitable due to the crisis.

Rory: One political response to this new Trudeau government — or this new-old Trudeau government — was the formation of the Western Canada Concept Party, which, to be honest, is kind of a cool name for a political party —


Tyler: Very conceptual.

Rory: — yeah, but they mightily suck ass, which we we will get into. And they were formed in part because they believed that the Lougheed government was not standing up to Trudeau Sr. Their leader won in kind of an upset by-election in 1982, and they wanted to create an independent right-wing state. However, in the provincial election later that year, they got 12% of the vote but failed to win any seats. They also had some branches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This party, in its brief existence, was also bedevilled by all kinds of very poor — let’s call it PR disasters. So, for example, in Brandon, Manitoba, the millionaire car dealer and WCC organizer Elmer Knutson attacked federal immigration policies, which he reportedly said favoured — I’m not actually going to read out this racial slur on this episode.

Sean: Yeah, yeah.

Tyler: Italian and Chinese racial slurs, let’s just say.

Rory: Yes. He opposed metrication, the Human Rights Commission, and Francophone power. Basically, they were kind of a flash in the pan. Some of their other policies, which their executive issued in a statement of independence, was to prepare for independence in a peaceful and democratic manner, unilingualism (so, in other words, English only), fixed electoral terms (which are always a perennial favourite of right-wingers), protection of property rights, right of referendum, simplified tax system, rescinding the NDP elimination of marketing boards. Wow; a lot of this has actually been done by conservative already, one way or the other. The party had a lot of internal drama, including accusations that it was being taken over by the Mormons.

Joel: There’s also the West Fed, which was another fringe separatist party that formed around this time. By December 1980, they had a membership of 25,000. In early February, at an Edmonton meeting of 1000 people, there were several verbal confrontations, including one where a Canadian of East Indian descent was told by some in the crowd to, quote, “go back to Pakistan,” end quote.

Tyler: There does seem to be a theme with these parties, doesn’t there?

Rory: Yeah.

Joel: So the Western Canada Concept and West Fed may have fizzled in this time, but it helped set the ground for the much more politically successful Reform Party. The rise of the Reform Party — which ended up becoming the Canadian Alliance and, ultimately, Canada’s current Conservative Party — had a lot to do with the failure of the Progressive Conservative Mulroney government to keep Alberta’s business interests on board while it was in pwoer fro 1984 to 1993. Mulroney had brought in the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, but ultimately he was seen as too much of a Central Canada establishment insider, and his government ended up being immensely unpopular. Mulroney’s mismanagement of the Meech Lake Accord had a lot to do with this, as did bringing in the GST. So, this point of weakness on Mulroney’s part opened up the terrain for the formation of the Reform Party to soak up disenchanted Tory votes and appeal as a kind of new moral authority.

Tyler: It’s kind of interesting because this wheel just keeps rotating, right, where you’ve got a whole bunch of conservative uproar in different parts of the country (or, in this case, the province), you get some of these right-wing parties pop up, have a bit of a flash in the pan and then dissolve and either get taken up into the more standard Conservative Party, and then, once people get sick of that party bceause they think they’re too elite or too corrupt or whatever the reason is, we see this splintering, and history keeps repeating itself. And we saw this within the past five years in Alberta, too.

Kate: There’s a lot to get into when it comes to the Reform Party, including the fringe right wing that would often be associated with it, particularly white supremacist groups. A really interesting angle here that Joel brought up, to me, was the anti-French sentiment.

Joel: Mostly, it was generated as a kind of opposition to Trudeau and opposition to the perceived special status being given to Quebec. It often depicted official French-English bilingualism as a sinister conspiracy to erase white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Kind of related to that is the fact that Canada’s official flag was brought in under Pearson’s Liberal government in 1965 and official bilingualism was brought in under Trudeau’s government in 1969 — nice — under the Official Languages Act. And here you have the origins of using the Reg Ensign, the old pre-1965 Canadian flag, as a symbol of western separatism, and also the beginnings of it being associated with white supremacy. Both have their roots in opposing these changes by the Pearson and Trudeau governments.

Kate: So, basically, the mission of Reform was to make itself a credible contender as quickly as possible and to do so in a way that would avoid the patronage and scandals that had plagued the PC Mulroney government. They were officially formed in 1987, and Preston Manning — the son of Social Credit leader and Alberta Premier Ernest Manning — won the leadership. Manning closed down delegate registration on the Friday evening, although it was supposed to continue to Saturday, to prevent his opponent, Stan Roberts, from registering more delegates. Roberts withdrew from the race, voicing concerns that the new party was becoming, quote, “Increasingly controlled by a regional and provincial clique operating out of Calgary,” end quote, harbouring anti-French sentiment and excessive leaning on free-market solutions. He called Manning supporters fanatical Albertans and small-minded evangelical cranks, the latter of which was almost certainly true.

Sean: I mean, yeah, he wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t wrong.

Kate: What is most interesting here is that many of the policies — drawn up in 1988, for what it’s worth, by a young Stephen Harper — are still go-to policies for the conservative movement, despite the fact that this movement enjoyed almost a decade of power under Harper. These are things like the triple-E Senate, first coined by Ted Byfield (so that’s “elected,” something else that starts with an E, something else that starts with an E; some type of Senate reform that I don’t care about), regional fairness tests, popular ratification of Constitutional changes, the entrenchment of property, the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord (which basically gives Quebec a special status within Confederation), more free votes and less party discipline, fixed election, referendums, less government bureaucracy, free-market solutions, free trade tax reform (meaning flat tax), privatization of government agencies, anti-union legislation in the form of Right To Work, ending government agricultural subsidies, ending social welfare state, rejection of state-run daycare, ending government financing of unemployment insurance, an end to encroaching on provincial jurisdiction (most commonly used when the Canada Health Act, which is the basis of our Medicare system, was implemented), an end to official bilingualism, immigration policies based on economic reasons and disgustingly subject to public opinion, justice systems that place the punishment of crime and the protection of law-abiding citizens and their property ahead of all other objectives, and the reform of the RCMP designed to, quote, “restore the RCMP to its former stature,” end quote. The RCMP, as you may know, does not have a particularly illustrious history, so I can only assume that they are talking about restoring the RCMP to its former stature of doing genocide on the Canadian prairies by enforcing starvation of Indigenous nations.

Joel: So, reading that list of Reform-era policy that a young Stephen Harper came up with in 1988 was really stunning to me because, basically, nothing’s changed. They still advocate for this shit. They were in government for almost a decade — Stephen Harper himself, the dude who wrote these policies down, who drafted this stuff, was literally the prime minister for nine years; he’s now basically still advocating for the same things, even though he had, essentially, the power to do whatever he wanted. To me, it’s mind-blowing that thirty years can go by and you see the conservative movements basically still advocating for the same things.

Tyler: Well, I think honestly, what it comes down to, is: they know that, outside of this province full of very, very conservative — and very, very culturally conservative, differently, in the way a lot of other parts of Canada are not — it’s popular here, so it gets that base riled up, but they know, especially from a federal level, it’s not actually popular across the country, and a lot of people across the country look at these policy ideas and would not consider voting for a prime minister who was running on a platform with these policies in it. So they do this very interesting — it’s canny, I suppose, in a political sense — bait and switch, but the question always becomes: when does someone finally get elected that takes these policies seriously, right? And we’re seeing that a lot — we see it in the States, see it in the UK, see it in countries across Europe and Asia, where right-wing, populist leaders are actually finally having the courage of the convictions of, maybe, their more squishy conservative party members or allies or whatever. Yeah, we’re living in that world now, where some of these policies are actually finally being pushed through, and it sucks.

Sean: So, by the late 1990s, global energy prices started an ascent that would continue until 2008 and remain high until about 2014. Alberta’s economy, because of this, was roaring, but still western alienation drew breath. The failure of the Canadian Alliance to break out of Western Canada in the 2000 federal election convinced some that Alberta needed more provincial autonomy since its interests would never be taken seriously enough at the national level. In 2001, a right-wing lobby group sent Klein a proposal to this effect called “The Alberta Agenda,” better known as the “Firewall Letter.” It’s a very spooky name. It advised that Alberta should create its own police force, pension plan, and revenue collection agency. Hm. That seems familiar, doesn’t it? This would give the province direct control of these institutions and create a “firewall,” quote unquote, between Alberta and the Federal government. A notable signatory of this letter was none other than Stephen Harper. Alberta’s oil wealth meant it contributed much more to federal revenue than it received in federal spending. Because of the equalization program, this meant that some of the federal taxes collected in Alberta would be distributed to poorer provinces like Quebec and The Maritimes. Equalization, as you probably know, has long been a sore spot for Alberta, particularly during downturns; however, this has less to do with it being quote-unquote “unfair” because having giant oil reserves is an accident of nature, not a product of Albertans’ special Albertan spirit, you know. We didn’t generate the oil by being so amazingly rugged and individualistic. Gutting equalization while appealing to Albertans — or, more specifically, the oil companies that rule Alberta — it would also make it much more difficult for other provinces to maintain their welfare states; which, obviously, that’s just two for the price of one as far as conservatives are concerned, helping out Alberta while also making the welfare state harder to actually perpetuate in the other provinces. We’ve covered this before in the episode of Alberta Advantage on equalization, so if you want to know more, we recommend hopping into wherever you access your podcasts and checking that episode out. But between 2006 and 2015, we get the dark times, we get the bad times, because this was when Stephen Harper was prime minster of Canada. He himself was from Calgary, and his government was pretty Alberta-heavy. It was also a government that was very close to the oil industry. So how did western alienation fare during this period? Um, we don’t really know — between all of us, I can’t really remember much western alienation during the Harper years. I mean, we kind of — everyone shut up about it for some reason.

[laughter]

Joel: And, notably, Harper actually did the last major overhaul of the equalization program, which created the equalization regime we have today, more or less. And Jason Kenney, a top Harper minister at the time who was directly responsible, alongside Harper, for that equalization program, is now not a fan of it. This is something we’ll talk about a little bit more later on, but I love the delicious irony of that. This more recent history, of course — particularly in the 1990s — really shows how western alienation and conservatism were married. But, after all this, after Stephen Harper was eventually kicked out, what does this mean for Alberta politics now?

Rory: Alberta is, once again, in a economic crisis — probably one of the worst ones since the 1930s — and with this pandemic lockdown adding to the oil price slump that’s persisted over the past five years, and western alienation has become a big part of the political response. It creates a narrative that blames Alberta’s economic problems on mismanagement from the feds and external threats like foreign-funded environmentalists. An extremely bizarre example of this belief in action happened in February of this year. As you may know, the workers at the Regina Co-op Oil Refinery were locked out, and they were blockading a cardlock — which is just a fuel storage and gas station in Carseland, which is just southeast of Calgary — and, in response, the 2019 United We Roll convoy, those Yellow Vesters and that sort of thing that went to Ottawa, they got the band back together, and they joined management in breaking the picket line with big rigs. They believed that those locked-out oil workers were enemies of Alberta and likely put up to it by Trudeau and foreign environmentalists. And the reason why they were locked out is because they didn’t want the company to steal their pensions. Some of us here at the podcast actually went and walked the line with those workers the next day, and I think it was actually the last time I left the city. [laughs] And I saw that one brother had peeled the “United We Roll” sticker off his truck and replaced it with a “Boycott Co-op” one. And this little example shows, very clearly, how western alienation is not really about oil workers, because these were oil workers in a refinery; it’s about oil capital. United We Roll Wexit people went to go, basically, try and crush a strike by oil workers because that disrupts oil production and oil distribution, and that hurts oil capital.

Tyler: Boo. So, the cruel irony here is that the boom-bust cycle and limited future of oil and gas has been known and understood for a long time by capital, if not by most people in this province and maybe around the world. Lougheed had some sense of this when he raised the resource royalties from 17% to 40% and when his party set up the Heritage Fund. In theory, these mechanisms were supposed to help us share the profit of these resources with the people in the province, improve quality of life, and, obviously, within the case of the Heritage Fund, try and save for a rainy day. Over the decades since the ‘70s, though, these programs have been weakened and chipped away by business-focused ideology that puts low taxes, profitability, private ownership, and low public investment (otherwise known as crowding out) ahead of forward planning. These decisions, which I think is really important, is these decisions were all firmly under our control in Alberta. So, Alberta governments put these plans in action. They increased the royalty rates, they are responsible for setting those royalty rates, they are responsible to run, manage, and fund the Heritage Fund. This is not a case where the federal government said, “Hey, you idiots! You can’t set up the heritage fund and save for your future!” No, we have the power to do that, and we did that and then, since then, have started to destroy all of those programs. So we could have actually built upon and improved these initial frameworks to make Alberta into, potentially, a model of how to transform from a carbon extraction-based economy to any other great socialist futurist nation-province that we could’ve possibly been. But now we’re just stuck flipping the bird to Ottawa when we could have, and maybe even still can, have fixed these issues ourselves. And I want to add one more point to make everyone even more mad about this. So, a lot of people may have heard of the Norwegian Social Wealth Fund, which is actually primarily an oil-funded sovereign wealth fund. They set that up after they had seen the Heritage Fund — the Heritage Fund was the model that Norway used to base their program on. So that fund, now, has over $1,000,000,000,000 USD in assets. And what’s cool about that fund is: they are actually using the amount of power that that fund wields to do some kind of interesting social democratic things, and it’s worth looking up some of the things that they’re doing with that money. And that is compared to the Heritage Fund, which sits at a paltry $16,000,000,000 Canadian dollars. And there is a huge time gap between when Norway really got started with theirs and when the Heritage Fund got started. So there’s absolutely no excuse for us to be that far behind. And the last bit of salt in the wound is that there was no deposits to the Heritage Fund at all from 1987 to 2005, which I didn’t know until researching for this episode. And that made me scream by myself.

Rory: What were oil prices doing in that period, Tyler?

Tyler: I don’t know. I have no idea. I wish we would have covered that sometime earlier in this episode, but unfortunately, we’ll never know.

Kate: So, Jason Kenney’s UCP government has clearly grasped the political utility of western alienation to their conservative project. He campaigned in the provincial election on stopping the Trudeau-Notley alliance, and, in fact, the UCP may also have violated federal election law in their eagerness to campaign against Trudeau in the federal election. While taking the axe to social programs in the winter of 2019-2020, the UCP simultaneously had the Fair Deal Panel tour the province. This was stuffed with the worst people imaginable — Preston Manning, a cast of other minor Tory ghouls — and, unsurprisingly, delivered a report the end of May reiterating that Alberta is not getting a fair shake. Now, before we go too far down this path, I think it’s worth reiterating that Kenney is, of course, smart enough to realize that Alberta independence is a bad idea for the petrocapitalist status quo that we live under in Alberta, but there has emerged a constellation of groups on his right flank that really do want Wexit. One Wexit Facebook page has over 250,000 members. The Alberta Independence Party ran in most ridings during the 2019 provincial election, garnering less than three quarters of a percent of the vote. However, the federal party Wexit Canada scored Jay Hill as an interim leader. This is someone who was a House leader to Harper and a BC member of parliament, both in Reform, Canadian Alliance, and in the Conservative Party, from 1993 to 2010, and UCP MLA and Fair Deal Panel member Drew Barnes even went beyond the report and said Alberta should consider independence if it doesn’t get what it wants. So, while Wexit is fundamentally unrealistic, and also undesirable for Kenney’s political project, western alienation in general does offer the possibility of leveraging popular support in favour of conservative policy goals under the guise of greater regional autonomy or these conservative grievance politics that we’ve talked about.

Rory: In a recent piece for Policy Options titled, “Will Alberta be the buffalo in the federation’s china shop?”, U of C political science professor Lisa Young makes this point pretty explicitly. She argues that, unlike Quebec, Alberta has no obvious claim to distinct language or culture, but instead conservative political ideology is used as the basis for a collective regional identity, that Alberta is fundamentally conservative in our shared culture. And this claim is intentionally cultivated by conservative institutions like the Manning Centre — I mean, actually, now the Canada Strong And Free Network — which has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into conservative social media outreach. This means that, when Canadians don’t vote for a conservative federal government, they’re also attacking Alberta’s core identity; and since the conservative government is so intertwined with the oil industry, any threat to fossil fuel extraction, like action on climate change, is a moral threat to everything Alberta holds dear. They honestly should put this in tourist brochures: “Come enjoy Alberta’s rich cultural heritage of simping for US oil companies! Be sure to visit the historical reenactment village of a corporate Calgary office tower, where trained interpreters demonstrate how much liquor a cowboy hat-wearing desk jockey can drink at Stampede before puking.” That’s Alberta culture, folks.

Tyler: That rocks. We love to see that, and I’d love to go to that exhibit.

Sean: [laughs]

Joel: Keep in mind that, if people think it is hard to get pipelines built now, imagine trying to get it done in Alberta separate from Canada, landlocked with America (even under Trump), constantly rejecting or delaying projects and the rest of Canada’s population now firmly hating the province. Keep in mind there’s no way that BC ever gets on board the Wexit train, so no ocean access for us, either.

Tyler: Yeah, this is probably one of the funniest things about Alberta separatism, is: there’s these two very competing ideas, which is: we want to build these massive infrastructure projects that have to cross tons of land, like pipelines, and we want them to get to the coast, which we are not on a coast, but —

Joel: And we don’t want to share any of the proceeds of it.

Tyler: Yeah, exactly, but we don’t want to actually share any of the money that would be generated from these things. But we also want to separate and make political enemies and become a landlocked country with no access to any major bodies of water for these pipelines to go to. Just brilliant, brilliant, genius stuff happening there.

Joel: Yeah, great strategy.

Tyler: The Fair Deal Panel, which we mentioned before — and this was a report that was commissioned by the Conservative Party here — that kind of had really strange timing. We were hearing about it a lot in 2019, but the report only just got wrapped up and released in February, March of this year. And it’s quite funny because, when you read the introduction to the report, they say that they’ve actually had to adjust some of the things that they say in the report because of COVID and, without saying it explicitly, it seems like what they’ve done is tried to go maybe slightly easier in their rhetoric towards the federal government because we’re all trying to band together and fight this disease; which is quite funny to me, that this, in theory, might be the softened version of the report. Anyway. I’ve got a bunch of quotes here that I’ve pulled that I think are quite interesting, so I’m just going to start, and this is quoting the report now. “A substantial majority of Albertans do not believe that they are receiving a fair deal from the federal government. Many are angry and want to the government of Alberta to re-assert its position in Confederation and minimize Ottawa’s overreach.” Reading that, if you have any information about what federalism sounds like in the US, that reads exactly like it; you could just replace “Ottawa” with “Washington” and that would be perfect. (I guess you’d have to replace Alberta too, but whatever.) Here, quoting again: “There is also a strong element of subjectivity. How do individual Albertans see what is happening to people of this province?” Which, I find this quote funny because it’s very interesting that they call this subjective, but they do not put any weight to the fact that there are very powerful factors, like media and multi-billion-dollar international oil companies, that might have an interest in swaying this subjective opinion. Anyway, very annoying. So, the report has two primary recommendations, and they are, number one: “Press strenuously for the removal of the current constraints on the fiscal stabilization program which prevent Albertans from receiving a $2,400,000,000 equalization rebate.” For context, that amount of money is nothing to sneeze at, but Alberta’s GDP was $334,000,000,000 in 2019, so that’s less than 1% of our GDP. And in the 2020-2023 fiscal plan that the government laid out, it had an expected revenue, in 2020, of $50,000,000,000 — which, that’s obviously going to be incorrect, it’s going to be much lower than that. So, look — $2,400,000,000 is a lot of money, but if all Wexit boils down to is maybe a 5% boost to our revenue, then I don’t exactly see what the point of this whole thing was. But let’s get into point number two: “Proceed with the proposed referendum on equalization asking a clear question along the lines of: ‘Do you want Britain to secede from the European Union?’” I mean, no, that’s not what it says. “‘Do you want to support the removal of Section 36, which deals with the principal of equalization, from the Constitution Act of 1982?’” So, this is where I think we start getting into what this is really all about. And it’s important to note that this actually doesn’t mean anything. So, if Albertans voted 70% yes on this referendum, this doesn’t bind anyone to anything. I mean, in theory, it would mean that the Conservative Party in Alberta would have to use this as a mandate in the way it deals with Ottawa, but, really, is that any different from what they’re doing right now? I’m not so sure. So we talked about this before, but I just want to make the point that I don’t think Jason Kenney and his team really want to move into a fight with Ottawa if they have a 60-70% mandate from a referendum on this vote. That would be a really, really big result that they would be beholden to that I do not think they actually have the heart to follow through on. I do not think that Jason Kenney and his team actually want to separate from Canada; but if you have a referendum on equalization this emphatic, the only way I think that you can make any movement, politically, with that, federally, is to say, “Well, if you don’t do it, we’re going to do another referendum about separating from the country.” So, yeah. The problem with this is, of course, though, that there are going to be other far-right parties, some of which we discussed, that are going to be billing to go there and say, “Yeah, fuck it, we will absolutely separate from Canada if they don’t follow through on our vote here.” So, to me, this feels a lot like how the Brexit vote and the Remain vote went — you had the Conservative Party get into power, and one of their promises upon getting into power, and on their power, was that they were going to allow a Leave/Remain vote referendum. They win, they follow through with that, on the referendum, even though David Cameron, and then Theresa May, were both in favour of Remain. Obviously, we know what happens then; Leave wins, and now we’ve got the people who were fundamentally on the side of leaving — Johnson and Dominic Cummings and the like — that are now running the party.

Sean: And I just want to add — and I mentioned this a bit earlier, but — that further evidence that Kenney is pretty insincere about this is that he was literally part of the government that created the current equalization scheme that set the ceiling that they are now demanding gets removed. And I’m sure Kenney knows this, that, because equalization payments are just one aspect of the payouts that the federal government gives to provinces — there’s also health transfers and social transfers — that the scheme that Kenney and the Harper government actually put into place has actually benefited Alberta more than any other province over the last decade — like, surprise, surprise, I’m sure Kenney and Stephen Harper intended — because the amount of funding per capita Alberta gets from the federal government has actually increased more than any other province has increased over the past decade, by 80%. In comparison, Quebec’s increase has only been about 58%. And actually, because of this current scheme put into place by Kenney and the Harper government, federal payments to equalization-receiving provinces like the Maritimes have actually had lower-than-average increases — with the one exception of, of course, Quebec, making it very easy to paint Quebec as the bad guy in all of this.

Rory: I think it’s also very interesting that the Fair Deal Panel report — the question that they suggest for the referendum is asking that the principle of equalization should be removed from the Canadian Constitution. It’s not an issue of changing the formula in a way that would be more favourable to Alberta or whatever, it’s removing it from the Constitution. This is basically a political non-starter because Alberta could easily vote in favour of saying “Yes, it should be removed from the Constitution,” but there’s so many hurdles to that being changed because the federal government, of course, has to sign on, since it is a federal program. But if the federal government is willing to remove it out of the Constitution, then the issue has to then be approved by the majority of provinces. So, in other words, Constitutional changes in the 80s and early 90s were very fraught affairs in Canada and, basically, one province could essentially hold up the whole province and kill it. So, in the Atlantic region alone, there is four provinces who would almost certainly vote against removing this; Quebec probably would as well, and maybe the other provinces. There’s easily a good five provinces, out of ten, who would oppose —

Sean: Manitoba would, too.

Rory: Manitoba would oppose removing equalization out of the Constitution. So it’s not even that Ottawa would oppose it; most Canadian provinces would, too.

Tyler: Yeah, and especially because — there’s a lot of provinces that have conservative parties running them right now, so you may think, “Well, okay, maybe this is just a conservative political ideal,” and that if all the conservative provinces joined together, they might all be able to push it through, but the facts are that a lot of the provinces that are being run by conservatives benefit hugely from equalization, so there’s absolutely no way that they’re going to vote in favour of removing it. Okay, so those were the two main recommendations that the report had, but it had a huge laundry list of other recommendations, and I think it’s quite interesting to think about this in relation to the firewall report, or discussion, that we had earlier, because I think a lot of these points are really in line with some of the points that were made then. So I’m going to read some of these out, and people, just jump in if you’ve got any points you want to make. “Collaborate with other jurisdictions, Canadian and American, to build pipelines.” So, I don’t know what the fuck they think that we’ve been doing all this time — I don’t know if they realize that conservative and NDP governments successively, back through time, have had their one explicit pipelines. They have one here called “Collaborate on Northern development.” So I can only assume that means more pipelines, but this time, through the Arctic, because no one else wants our pipelines. “Democratic Senate appointments.” So it’s interesting they went this route instead of actually just saying, “Get rid of the Senate.” I’m thinking they probably see this as a tool where they can gain some more power if there was a democratic, elected Senate. And I’m thinking of this more in US Senate terms, where the Senate has a huge amount of power, obviously, but it’s very undemocratic because, regardless of the size of the population of your state, you get two senators — so Wyoming has the same amount of senators as New York State does, for example. So I believe that is what the conservatives in this panel are after.

Rory: That was what the Reform Party meant by the triple-E senate, which is essentially creating that elected, equal Senate so every province got the same number of senators, but also giving the Senate real power, so you have this new body that would basically be able to gum up the legislative process if Alberta didn’t like what was happening. The idea would be that it would give Alberta a veto over the federal government attempting to do something like expand the welfare state or tax oil profits more. That’s the entire intent of it.

Joel: And just to bring this home, it’s remarkably undemocratic —

Tyler: Yeah.

Joel: [laughs] — to allocate power like this. And, also, look at the United States — it’s got a somewhat similar Senate structure. It’s paralyzed. The United States can’t function in a substantial way, or react to the realities of the political moment; it’s remarkably astonishing how paralyzed their political system is. And that’s by design — basically, the only things you can get through are things that won’t upset your most elite classes in the United States.

Tyler: Okay, another point here: “Assert more control over immigration for the economic benefit of Alberta.” So, can someone tell me how this would actually help Canada economically? I think we all know that most of the jobs that people are immigrating into Canada, or being allowed to immigrate into Canada, for are low-paid, they’re treated like shit, they have zero worker protection and are doing jobs that people don’t want to do here because of the nature of the jobs being either very hard, very low-paid, whatever it is. So this, to me, is pretty clearly a point that they just shoehorned some economics in here but is purely a cultural grievance issue. “Collaborate with other provinces and industry to advance market-based approaches to environmental protection, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.” I almost threw myself and my laptop off my balcony while I was reading this. I don’t know what incentives they think the market has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the effect of climate change has been known by the market for a long, long time and, so far, they have done absolutely nothing to prevent this and, in fact, have put all of their power, politically, into making sure that this goes as slow as possible and that they are not impeded in any way, shape, or form. The market does not give a shit if the world is still inhabitable in a hundred years — this is incredibly bad.

Rory: A carbon tax is a market-based approach to —

Tyler: Right.

Rory: — dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the entire point of it. And they’re opposed to this.

Tyler: Yeah, exactly. So, another point here: “Work with other provinces to secure a federal-provincial agreement prohibiting the federal government from spending, taxing, legislating, or treaty-making in areas of provincial or joint jurisdiction without the consent of the affected parties.” States’ rights, baby! Leave us alone, get your taxes out of here. Another point: “Develop a comprehensive plan to create an Alberta pension plan and withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan.” And then the b) part of that point, subsequently: “Provide Albertans the opportunity, via a referendum, to vote for or against withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan and creating the Alberta pension plan.” This point was also really, really grim to me. I’m guessing they’ve kind of got two-fold thinking here. So, number one: Alberta would love to kill off some of those beautiful, beautiful finance jobs that run the CPP and bring that over to an APP; spur some job creation, I suppose. They’re actually not all that interested in how this fund does, given the performance of AIMCo and a lot of retirement funds that AIMCo manages within the province already. We’ve covered that in previous episodes, but they continually are in the news for how horribly they’ve dealt with those funds and, in particular, in this coronavirus environment. And then the second reason is, I guess, so they can just use this fund to direct money into the oil sands. We all know how well this has worked out with some of our other funds that have tried to use their quote-unquote “local knowledge” to be successful investing in Alberta and in the oil sands — not great.

Sean: Yeah, that’s what it seems like to me, at least. Just more money for the big money hole. Just shovel it in.

Tyler: [laughs]

Joel: What’s so astonishing is that, at the same time that they’re advocating for gaining more control over more giant public funds, they’re remarkably awful at managing the funds that they’re already in charge of. Like, AIMCo has vaporized billions, as we’ve covered. Part of this is that there’s a classic association with right-wing parties being better at capitalism, but they’re bad.

Tyler: [laughs] Yeah.

Joel: They have just been blowing money, and yet they want to get more so they can, I don’t know, prop up oil companies.

Tyler: Yeah, I mean, say what you want about CPP — we did an episode about them and the various problems with the way that’s organized and how they run themselves — they’re world-renowned at being one of the best managers of pension funds in the world. AIMCo is certainly not on that standard right now, so I think, if I was an Albertan, I would be very, very heavily throwing my weight behind not moving that money over to us so we can just get rid of it all and destroy everyone’s pensions. Okay, a couple other points here. “Create an Alberta police service to replace the RCMP.” So, yeah, we want to do RCMP 2, but this time we’re going to turn the racism dial up to eleven. Sounds like a bad idea. This is the funniest one to me; this seems like a troll, and I hope it is. Okay. They want to appoint an Alberta chief firearms office, or CFO. In Alberta, when we say CFOs, we mean someone who’s good with guns. Very stupid. I think they’re just trying to make RoboCop.

Rory: It’s welfare for Tory staffers, is essentially what it will amount to be, because the jurisdiction over firearms legislation is primarily federal.

Joel: Yeah. It would also just be an opportunity for the Alberta government to clang away at the gun culture war more, right?

Tyler: Yeah, which is so funny because Canada doesn’t, obviously, have the gun culture that the US has, but we so badly, in Alberta, want to have that gun culture. It’s really funny. Well, it’s not funny, it’s terrifying. “Secure a seat at the table when the federal government negotiates and implements international agreements and treaties affecting Alberta’s interests.” It’s kind of funny because Jason Kenney — what year was that that he went on his little excursion to India and got all sweaty? But I guess they just want Jason Kenney going and getting sweaty in different exotic locations in the world. “Strengthen Alberta’s presence in Ottawa.” That is literally the only thing they say for this bullet point, which is, again, very strange to me, kind of a wasted line. I assume by this they mean to invade Ottawa and activate all the Albertan partisans there. “Opt out of new federal cost-share programs subject to Alberta receiving full compensation.” And — yeah, I don’t think they’re going to be successful with that one.

Rory: That one is a very interesting one because there’s a bit of a history of this in Alberta. So, usually, because some things are provincial jurisdiction and the federal government just can’t make a province do it, ways they can get around is through cost-sharing, which is basically: if the province does something the way the feds want it, the feds will give them X percentage of federal money to pay for it. So, the classic example of this was the creation of Medicare. When the Pearson government decided to implement Medicare and go with the CCF model in Saskatchewan, when they created the Canada Health Act, basically, every province, in order to get cost-sharing from the federal government, would have to follow this principle, these specific guidelines. And Ernest Manning, who was Premier of Alberta at the time, in the late ‘60s, hated it because, if Alberta didn’t go with it, they couldn’t be forced to accept the Canadian Medicare system, but it just meant the feds would simply tax the money and then give none of it back for health spending. So he was just livid about how the federal government did this. So, this idea here is that you can just opt out, and also the feds just give you all your money back anyway for not doing what they want. Becuase, ultimately, federal tax revenue is federal money, and the federal government can spend it the way it wishes because it’s how it’s all set up.

Tyler: Yeah, this one’s another purely cultural one: “Resist federal intrusions into health and social programming.” This is the get-the-bathroom-sickos-out-of-here part of the program. “Continue to diversity Alberta’s economy in the energy sector and beyond.” Again, so funny that they’re like, “Diversify Alberta’s economy in the energy sector;”so, don’t diversify it at all, basically. Not great.

Sean: This one’s also pissing me off because who’s this directed to? You’re the provincial government. You can do this if you want. There’s nothing stopping you from diversifying Alberta’s economy — in fact, it’d be awesome if they did. They’re just sitting here being like, “Man, someone’s gotta diversify Alberta’s economy. Well, but we can’t because —”

Tyler: “Shame no one can do that here.”

Sean: “— because of Trudeau, yeah.”

Tyler: And then the last point that I picked out here was, “Support Quebec in its bid to collect the federal and provincial portions of personal income taxes and, if Quebec is successful, pursue this same strategy if it is advantageous.” Which, I just find this is so funny. There’s no cultural grievance that Albertans have more, I think, than antagonism towards Quebec, and this one is so great because it’s just like, “Hey, Quebec, can you be the trial balloon on this idea and then, if you actually are successful with it, well then, we want to copy that idea, too.” So good. The other report that we want to just draw attention to in a much less detailed fashion, because I think it’s also a much less serious document, was the Buffalo Declaration. So, the Buffalo Declaration is what I would describe as the Fair Deal Panel’s younger brother that was, unfortunately, tragically, kicked in the head by a donkey. So, first, it should be noted that one of the signatories, Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel, has been living in the United States for months now. Very un-Albertan, very bad. We hate to see that. Alberta is — okay, so I’m just going to read a couple choice cuts from this and then we’ll move on. “Alberta is a culturally distinct region, but this has not been recognized.” Again, you cannot separate the cultural side of this issue from the economic. Capital and their compradors are attaching themselves to this cultural energy to try and slide through their program. They want people to believe that their ideology, which has firmly made things worse for working people since, let’s say, the 1800s or somewhere about then, is going to be the thing that saves them. Unfettered capitalism. “Eastern Canada functionally treats…” I’m quoting again, here — “…functionally treats Alberta as a colony rather than an equal partner.” I can’t even pretend to take this shit seriously. And this is the language that I was talking about earlier, where using this language, that they are a colony of Eastern Canada, is just so offensive and obscene, and it’s just, frankly, embarrassing that I think they had four MPs sign this thing.

Joel: They literally were the government in power for almost a decade, and the minute that they’re no longer in power, they revert to thinking themselves as being the victims and being some sort of colony within the country. [laughs] It’s astonishing.

Tyler: Yeah, it’s so disgusting. And then, last thing here: “Confederation must rectify the critical injustices that prevent Alberta’s equal participation in Canada.” I think this is kind of an interesting one because it’s important to describe what they mean when they say “equal participation.” So, I think a lot of people, politically, would mean, “Oh, they mean democratic.” That’s certainly not what they mean, because Alberta itself is democratic (everybody has a vote), it’s democratic at the federal level, we have MPs proportionate to our size. But that’s not what they mean. What they really are trying to get at here is the amount of GDP per capita that we create in Alberta; that’s really what they mean, that we have a whole bunch of big companies that pay people here a lot of money and, because we, per person in this province, make a lot more money than people in whatever — Manitoba, or Quebec — we should have more of a voice in Confederation. Which is, again, just really gross. And one last point that I think is important to make here is that they want us to be able to exert our will on the rest of the country due to this really, really short amount of time in history where our main industry happens to contribute a whopping 5-10% of the national GDP. If you were to ask the average Canadian how much oil and gas contributed to national GDP, what do you think the average guess would be? Like 50-60%, something like that? Anyway.

Rory: Yeah, at least 80%.

Sean: I thought it was 100%, but what do I know.

Tyler: [laughs]

Rory: I think the next thing we have to think about is towards a Left Wexit.

Kate: No.

Rory: [laughs] We’re just kidding, Kate. Unless…

Kate: No. Left Wexit is cringe.

Joel: What I think about what’s interesting from a critical theory point of view about this western alienation stuff is that it channels the disenchantment and dissatisfaction that people generally feel with the status quo, with living under capitalism, and it gives it a reason; it says, “Ah, you know when you pay taxes and you don’t like it, or when you work really hard but only your boss makes money out of it? Well, it turns out that’s because of Quebec and western alienation or whatever.” So it is interesting in that it’s a mechanism that is very useful in deflecting what would normally be a grievance against capitalism and redirecting it to be a grievance about regional disenchantment or alienation.

Kate: One thing, though, I do think is really important here is that, when putting forward a vision of politics that would deal with the alienation that Joel just described, I think we have to be really clear that putting forward a program of Left politics that, in some way, meaningfully addressed a) the real problems in people’s lives, and b) the alienation that we feel from one another, from our lives, and from our work would, I think, by virtue of being that program, peel people away from expressing those very real feelings of alienation through the lens, or the medium, or western alienation. But I want to be clear that there’s no such thing as Left western alienation, which is also why I think there’s no such thing as Left Wexit slash it is cringe. But I think that’s really important, because sometimes when we see populist or rhetorical tricks that are successful on the right, there can be a real impulse to be like, “Oh, we should do a version of this of the left.” And for some things, I think that is really, really fair, like when we’re talking about populism. That is a framework that you can fit a variety of different political projects into. But for something like western alienation, where the core of it is so wrapped up in white supremacy, is so wrapped up in settler colonialism, is so wrapped up in petrocapital, the core of it is so rotten that there is no redeeming feature to it, and we have to draw a really, really firm line between what would be a Left program that dealt with alienation and how western alienation deals with people’s feelings of alienation.

Rory: Yeah. It’s important to consider that people who are particularly into Wexit are not victims of false consciousness, necessarily, because a lot of the demographics of who Wexit appeals to are small business owners in the oil industry. Those are who a lot of those leaders are. The United We Roll convoy, they were driving these giant big rigs that the only reason you would own this is because you’re an oil field services company. And also, a lot of the funding for this comes from the wealthy strata of small and medium domestic oil enterprises. And these are also all the firms that got really fucked by the price downturn while big majors made out alright. These are also the people who are the reactionary core of Alberta conservatism, even if Big Oil calls all the real shots. And they’re ultimately a lost cause for the left. However, there are a lot of people who are essentially soft on the issue of western alienation, who do believe that Alberta is getting a raw deal; and these are the kind of people you can persuade, these are the people that you can try and argue, that this feeling of western alienation is actually an issue of particular resource extraction and capitalism and the continued boom and bust cycles that Alberta experiences of that, because it’s all about extracting as much wealth as possible and abandoning Alberta workers.

Joel: There is a bit of political genius going on with pulling off something like a Fair Deal Panel. Like, going around and asking Albertans, “Hey, do you think life is fair?” Who’s going to say, “Yeah, damn — this shit is awesome and everything’s perfect!” Of course everyone’s going to gripe. But it’s genius in that you can take all those gripes and channel them towards politically useful targets, like everyone except yourself. Imagine if the Alberta NDP did a Fair Deal Panel and said, “Hey, what’s it like working? Is it good? Do you feel like your boss makes too much money? Do you feel exploited?” They could have done something like that, and they could have massaged it so, comms-wise, it was appealing, and all this kind of stuff; and you could have then used that as a basis to expand workers’ rights or expand public ownership or various services. You could’ve done a lot of stuff with that feeling like things are unfair and then used it for a political project.

Sean: To build on what you were saying a little bit, it almost feels like western alienation as deployed by Kenney is this kind of catch-all shield to distract from the catastrophic failures that all of his policies have been. Because I would argue that, if Albertans think they’re not getting a fair deal right now, I think a large part of that has been because of the UCP’s management of the province, and being able to say, “Yeah, damn, you probably feel like things are pretty bad right now; the economy’s falling apart, we seem to have put all of our eggs in one basket, which is oil, which is something that no one wants anymore, we’re cutting the public sector, we’re spending all of your pension money, just throwing it down a giant pit in the ground — this is all because Justin Trudeau is stopping Alberta from spreading its wings and being the province that it can be,” or “The beautiful Albertan utopia is being denied from us by Trudeau;” that, without Ottawa, then all of these policies would actually be working, and correctly. Well, actually, they are, of course, working correctly right now, just that the results of them are not necessarily something that Albertans like living through.

Kate: So, I hope everyone has learned a lot from our episode about western alienation. I am curious — for Team Advantage today, what are you all going to do when Alberta inevitably separates from the rest of Canada? Joel?

Joel: Oh, I’m going to set up at one of the borders, along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, and then I’m going to profit immensely from the commerce that will be going across that new frontier.

Kate: Amazing. Sean, what about you?

Sean: Well, unfortunately, I was born here in Alberta, so I probably won’t be able to get some sort of —

Tyler: That means you have to die here.

Sean: Yeah. Well, I mean, what I’m going to be doing is trying to escape; going across whatever Berlin Wall is erected around the province and getting shot by Matt Wolf in a little guard hat as I’m halfway across the trench. So that’s my plan.


Tyler: [laughs]

Kate: Rory?

Rory: I will be ripping all the copper wiring out of my apartment and then immediately leaving and going to some other, better part of the country. Probably just the Maritimes.

Kate: Excellent. Tyler?

Tyler: I will be a loyal Canadian partisan — I will be blowing up railway tracks and doing all of the great eco-terrorism that always gets dreamed of in this province.

Sean: In the video game, in the video game.

Tyler: In parody, yeah. In the parody, obviously.

Kate: Given Sean’s vision of the future, I suppose I will be trying to sneak Sean out of Alberta so we can move back to Wales, where I was born, and go work in a glue factory.

Sean: That sounds pretty great, actually. Let’s just do that.

Kate: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of The Alberta Advantage. Take care out there, and have a good one. Bye!

All: Bye!

[outro music begins]

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.

[outro music ends]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.