Whether they endorse or oppose the notion of an independent Alberta, Albertans would do well to proceed with caution.
While Quebec went through two referendums in 15 years, it took decades for that province’s sovereignty movement to develop. After the near-victory in 1995, the Bloc Québécois leader spoke about the need for “winning conditions” before trying again.
Albertans who favour independence ought to consider what it takes to win before trying because losing would have dire political consequences.
Do pro-separation Albertans have the winning conditions?
In 1980 and 1995, Quebec sovereigntists controlled the provincial government and enjoyed the leadership of a sitting premier who supported sovereignty.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is undoubtedly a great Albertan but those who know him know he’s a Canadian patriot. Whether Kenney would ever support the independence option for Alberta is a question best posed to him. But it’s clear he doesn’t support it now.
Quebec sovereigntists controlled the legislature and key institutions. That gave them control of the referendum agenda, the legislation needed to enable it, the question to ask and how to ask it, the timing of the vote, the rules for campaigning and campaign finance.
Quebec sovereigntists also possessed a secular myth-making machine. The history of Canada taught in schools was organized as a litany of hardships for Quebec, curated for one to conclude that the creation of a new state for the Quebec nation was the natural, liberating outcome.
Alberta’s curriculum doesn’t even include provincial history.
Quebec sovereigntists captured government by establishing an informal umbrella institution, the Parti Québécois (PQ), mandated to carry political water for the cause of independence.
Albertans interested in the sovereignty option may be numerous, but they are far from coalescing into a single alliance and lack a leader with the requisite ability, gravitas, imagination and organizational skills.
Three prominent organizations merged to form the PQ in 1968 under René Levesque leadership. From there, a rocky road followed. It took them eight years to capture the government and 12 years to hold a referendum on their terms.
Quebec sovereigntists today have a base and steady support among about one-quarter of the voters on any random day. They enjoy strong support among trade unions and the intellectual class.
Right now, about one-third of Albertans apparently support the notion of an independent Alberta but that number has not been sustained and steady. It remains to be seen if it can last and whether it has room to grow. In Alberta, trade unions and the intellectual class favour the federal option, but a good deal of the entrepreneurial class supports independence.
In 1995, Quebec sovereigntists had supporting representatives in Ottawa (the Bloc Quebecois). This isn’t a necessity, but it gave the independence option credibility and visibility, inside and outside Quebec.
Alberta’s federal representatives were elected as federalists. Some might harbour sympathies with the sovereignty movement but they’re not going to voice them openly, and many will naturally oppose it.
Quebec sovereigntists had a less Ottawa-centered media. Radio-Canada workers had favourable biases toward Quebec and less allegiance to the CBC masters in Toronto. The same for TVA and the local radio stations.
Most of the traditional media and some of the alternative media in Alberta are based in Toronto. The recently resurrected Western Standard may be one of the few exceptions.
Among the many disadvantages for Alberta sovereigntists, there are a couple of advantages their Quebec counterparts didn’t enjoy. The federal governments at the time of the Quebec referendums had relatively strong leadership. Similarly, Canadians then possessed an emotional attachment to Quebec that in most parts of Canada doesn’t exist for Alberta today. Their respective ineptitude and indifference may be assets.
A cold analysis shows that Albertan sovereigntists face a significant battle. They don’t have three-quarters of all the favourable elements that Quebec sovereigntists had and still lost. For Alberta to achieve winning referendum conditions, it will take more than angry demonstrations.
Speeding toward a failing referendum on independence next year would almost ensure a loss, which would leave Alberta weaker and less able to protect itself from a predatory anti-oil Ottawa and the destructive eco-nirvana movement.
Even if the independence of Alberta were the right path, rushing to it can do the cause no favours.
Marco Navarro-Génie is president of the Haultain Research Institute and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.