Instead of a panel to talk to, Albertans need a provincial government that will engage them about changing employment in the oil patch
In the early 1980s, to satisfy my curiosity, I attended a Western Canada Concept Party – the parent of WEXIT – meeting that was supposed to be a rally but was downgraded when only a dozen souls showed up. The white-haired fellow who spoke used many of the same cranky, conspiracy-flavoured talking points favoured by modern separatists. WCC fizzled out a few years later, just as WEXIT no doubt will.
Then as now, the Alberta and Saskatchewan economies were suffering, businesses were failing, unemployment was rising, and people were frustrated and angry. Coincidentally, a Trudeau was prime minister and Pierre was no more popular than Justin out West.
There was, however, a big difference between then and now: mainstream politicians didn’t shamelessly exploit separatist sentiment for political gains, like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe are doing. The two conservative leaders don’t actually mention the words “separation” or “secession,” of course, but they are demanding a “fair deal” for their provinces within Confederation. The threat may be implicit, but it’s also obvious.
Moe’s Tuesday letter was full of bluster. After some eye-roll inducing blather about how Trudeau has “divided our nation” and his minority government has “no clear mandate,” he declared, “It’s time for a new deal with Canada.”
His demands? Cancel the federal carbon tax, negotiate a new equalization formula, and build pipelines. Yes, you read that correctly.
Saskatchewan’s new deal will consist of cancelling a policy that returns 100 per cent of revenue to taxpayers, gutting a program that paid Saskatchewan almost every year from 1957 until 2007 when oil and gas revenue made it a “have” province, and ignoring the $4.5 billion Ottawa paid for Kinder Morgan Canada and the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline to tidewater, which should be completed by 2022. Also, no mention of the fact that the Trudeau government let stand approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which will pick up Saskatchewan Bakken shale oil on its way to the Gulf Coast.
Frankly, the new deal looks a lot like the old deal.
But the award for most gratuitous dog whistle politics goes to Kenney, who will soon dispatch Alberta worthies into the countryside to listen to the people about what they think should be a “fair deal” for Alberta.
“I announced earlier [Wednesday] that our government will be launching a panel made up of eminent Albertans to consult more broadly on other ideas of how to get a fair deal,” Kenney told reporters during a media conference. “We are going to force our fight for a fair deal onto the national agenda come hell or high water.”
He stops short of endorsing the various separatist groups that have popped up in the province over the past few years, but Kenney doesn’t mind flirting with them, either.
“If the frustration and alienation in Alberta continue to mount, it will pose a very serious challenge to national unity,” he said at the Tuesday press conference following the election. “That was a very diverse spectrum of Albertans who sent a powerful message last night, many of them are saying they don’t feel at home in their own country, which I think is tragic.”
Enter the WEXIT crowd from stage right. Way right. Conspiracy theory territory, way right.
Consider these unusual platform planks from the WEXIT Alberta – yes, an actual registered political party – website:
Outlawing groups whose primary objective or effect is racial agitation, or social chaos.
Withdraw from United Nations agreements that erode Alberta Sovereignty, including but not limited to the UN Compact on Migration, the Paris Climate Accord, and Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
And forget about social media platforms, where a plethora of WEXIT pages and accounts cater to some pretty extreme anti-Eastern Canada and Trudeau ranting by Albertans that is better left to the imagination.
Albertans are really angry. That sentiment came through loud and clear in the provincial election and carried into the federal one.
They have much to be angry about because the oil and gas recovery that began in 2017 came to a crashing halt with the November, 2017 Keystone pipeline leak that drove down Western Canada Select prices for months, setting the stage for the mid-2019 price crash caused by oil sands supply overwhelming available pipeline capacity.
Alberta oil sector employment peaked in September 2014 at 170,268 and five years later sits at 137,664, according to the latest data from PetroLMI. That’s roughly 10,000 jobs lost in the services sector, many of them based in northern or rural Alberta, and another 25,000 in oil and gas extraction, of which a higher number than usual were whitecollar professionals like engineers and geoscientists.
An increasing number of jobs are lost in the big companies who are earning billions each quarter but replacing both blue-collar and white-collar workers with new digital technologies like artificial intelligence and automation. If WEXIT social media comments make anything clear, it is that workers don’t understand what is happening to their industry and why they are unemployed – and perhaps have been for years.
These Albertans don’t need to be listened to, they need to be engaged about the huge structural changes affecting their industry and their employment. What are the jobs of the future? Do workers have the right technical skills? Where are the jobs? Should they be provided with assistance to move?
By framing the conversation about national unity and the failings of Justin Trudeau instead of having a frank conversation about what the future holds for the oil patch, what workers must do, and how the provincial government can help, the Premier is inflaming Albertans’ rage to serve his political populism.
WEXIT is nothing but political cover for the UCP. Don’t take the bait, Albertans.