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The Alberta Question: Sink Or Swim

The Alberta Question: Sink Or Swim
Rossdale Power Plant with the skyline of Edmonton, Alberta in the background
Image by
Darren Kirby

The “Great White North” and the United States enjoy the longest undefended border in the world, one of the reasons why Canada is our second largest trading partner. Nevertheless, besides noting that the eyebrows of Canadian President Justin Trudeau sometimes come unglued, most Americans pay scant attention to Canada’s national politics and even less to their local elections. But after the stunning results in the province of Alberta on April 16th, that may change dramatically.

Alberta is a microcosm of the United States and, like Texas, its vibrant economy is mostly based on cattle and energy production. The province is the world’s third largest source of natural gas, has the third largest energy reserves, and it is the leading exporter of crude to the United States. So it follows that Alberta politics were center-right until their coalition of conservative parties broke up in 2015 and the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) won control of the provincial government. Two years later the Wildrose Party joined the Progressive Conservatives to become the United Conservative Party (UCP) that trounced the NDP last month, winning 63 seats in the 87 seat Alberta parliament. 

Who cares? Obviously the Alberta voters care, and they now expect fundamental improvements to the province’s deteriorating economy. Their expectations are founded on the campaign promises of Jason Kenney, the new provincial premier, to defend Alberta against a liberal federal government that is hobbling the province’s energy industry by opposing a desperately needed pipeline and by imposing an anti-fossil fuel carbon tax. 

How does Kenney plan to deliver on his promises? First, he will go to court and sue for expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline across British Columbia to the Pacific coast in order to find new international markets for Alberta’s crude. Kenney even threatened to stop shipping oil and gas to British Columbia if it does not permit construction of that pipeline. But even if he wins in court, the anti-fossil fuel government of British Columbia will collude with the equally green and left-leaning Trudeau government and find endless ways to frustrate the pipeline project. Kenney cannot prevail over that combination.

Second, Kenney also intends to fight imposition of a provincial carbon tax in court. Again, he will not succeed because a province does not have the legal standing to challenge the federal government — especially its powers of enforcement. In early April Trudeau demonstrated those enforcement powers by imposing a carbon tax on four provinces that did not have their own plans regarding global warming, and then made it clear he would do the same to Alberta if need be.

Third, Kenney intends to demand a serious measure of financial autonomy from the central government, including a substantial reduction in the amount of money Alberta contributes for distribution to less fortunate provinces in the remarkably named “Equalization Program.” Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party will never consider reducing the amount Alberta contributes because of the national elections slated for October. Their worries about losing that election include a serious loss of support in Quebec because of the costly collapse of trade negotiations with the United States, growing centrist and conservative opposition in other provinces like Ontario, and the fact that any financial relief for Alberta would also be demanded by every other province. Simply put, Alberta’s money in the glue that Trudeau’s Liberal Party needs to hold federated Canada together. 

The disagreements between Alberta and the central government can have only one of two outcomes: either more of the same, or a very dramatic rupture. Alberta is a province whose prospects for prosperity depend on growing its energy industry by reaching global markets and by being allowed to keep enough of their earnings to fund that expansion. If they continue to merely petition the central government in hope of concessions, their downward economic slide is guaranteed to deepen. “More of the same” dooms Alberta to a disastrous recession.

Alberta; sink or swim
West bound train at Brûlé Lake, Alberta
Image by
BadenK

A ‘very dramatic rupture’ was an option not unknown to colonial Americans and Texans. Neither of those chapters in North American history are perfect parallels to today’s Canada, but Americans living in Mexico in the 1830s had complaints much like those of today’s Albertans: they were citizens subject to onerous and unequal treatment by the central government. Texans chose the very dramatic rupture option, seceded from Mexico in 1836, and became an independent republic. Their legations in London and Paris functioned for nine years, only closing when Texas joined the United States.

It is more than a little difficult to argue against the common sense that supports the option of Alberta seceding from the Canadian federation. Why not leave if staying means that the government and the other provinces are determined to beggar you? Albertans know that their energy rich province would get a huge financial windfall if they were no longer forced to support the poor provinces of Canada. Plus, Alberta is in no way dependent on government aid and is already better integrated into the international finance and investment world than the rest of the country. And because American Gulf coast refineries are designed to process the heavy crude that Alberta and Venezuela produce, agreeing on a pipeline with Washington will be much easier than fighting with Trudeau’s Liberal Party and British Columbia.

Nevertheless, even though secession would resolve all of Alberta’s problems with the central government, no one has yet mentioned it in Alberta, Ottawa, the Yukon Territory or inside a Louisiana refinery. Perhaps a mere whisper of the word during the run up to October elections will resolve Alberta’s dire problems, but Canadian politics and current history make such magic more than unlikely.

The world’s fifth largest oil producer is nestled on our border. Congressional staff members, State Department desk officers and think tanks are watching and wondering if Alberta will solve its desperate condition with secession. Some must wonder if a 51ststar will ultimately join the others on the Stars and Stripes. 

Chet Nagle was the Canada desk officer in the Pentagon’s ISA/ILN division.

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