Western Separation Movements In Canadian History

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Since the re-election of the Liberal Party, the topic of western separation has arisen from voters who are unhappy with the election result and the feeling that the west is not represented in Ottawa.
I decided that a good episode would be to look at the history of western separation, and separation in general, which goes back many years.
I won’t focus on Quebec separation movements this episode as that would do better in an episode on its own. While I will talk of various separation movements in Canada, most of the episode will centre on western separation.
Looking back, the urge to leave Canada dates back all the way to the formation of Canada. Nova Scotia was one of the original provinces to join Canada in 1867 but that didn’t mean that people were happy about being part of Canada. Anti-Confederations sentiment was high in the province, to the point that when the 1867 federal election happened, the Anti-Confederation Party was able to pick up 18 seats, all within Nova Scotia. The party was led by Joseph Howe and once Britain refused to allow Nova Scotia to secede from Canada, Howe was appointed to the cabinet of Sir John A. Macdonald. Howe realized Confederation was a fact, and soon after the anti-confederation movement died off. In the same 1867 general election, the Anti-Confederationists picked up five of 15 seats in New Brunswick. 
By 1870, for both provinces, the anti-confederation movement had died down completely. 
While the movement to leave Canada died down in Atlantic Canada, it was beginning to pick up in western Canada. 
From 1867 to 1870, there was the movement to create an independent country in Manitoba. The movement was pushed by Thomas Spence, who had a retail store at Portage la Prairie. He persuaded the council in the community to petition the British government for a legally constituted administration. He was elected as president of the new reorganized council and he set up New Caledonia, which was later known as the Republic of Manitobah, and that is Manitoba with an h at the end. 
At this time, the area was part of Rupert’s Land, which was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and would soon be purchased by Canada to become the Northwest Territories in 1869. 
No reply ever came from the British government, so the new republic was created. The republic never had any formal borders and Hudson’s Bay Company traders refused to pay any taxes in the area. By 1868, the republic was told by the Colonial Office in London that it had no power. The republic soon collapsed but Spence would serve on the council of Louis Riel and help to form the new province of Manitoba. 
There was the 1870 Red River Rebellion, which actually brought a province, Manitoba, into Canada rather than remove one. In 1885, there was the North-West Rebellion, led by the same Louis Riel from the 1870 rebellion. At the time, the Red River area was very independent, Francophone, with its own distinct culture and feeling that it was facing aggressive colonization from Anglophones in Ontario. Both rebellions died down quickly and it would be some time before the thought of leaving Canada would come up. When it did, Canada would have two new provinces by that time, Alberta and Saskatchewan. 
In 1935, the Social Credit Party had won 56 of the 63 seats in the Alberta election. When the federal government deemed implementing a form of social credit unconstitutional, they invoked the power of disallowance under the Constitution Act, which voided the provincial legislation. The followers of William Aberhart called for separation but the premier rejected secession and most people, including the media, ridiculed the separatist movement. 
The idea of separation from Canada, at least in Alberta, began to die off through the 1940s to the end of the 1960s. 
In something that seems very familiar to today, once a Trudeau was in the prime minister’s chair, talk of Alberta leaving Canada soon ramped up. At the time, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was pushing bilingualism and multiculturalism in Canada, as well as the National Energy Program that was implemented from 1980 to 1984, which was very unpopular in the west. Many in Alberta felt that these were attacks on the oil resources of Alberta and that the Liberal Party was anti-Albertan.
In 1974, several Calgary-based citizens formed the Independent Alberta Association. The organization was unhappy with the money the province paid towards Canada, without getting the political representation that provinces in the east did. 
By 1980, with the implementation of the National Energy Program, the separatist movement within Alberta and Western Canada ramped up heavily. 
The program had three principles. 
1.     The security of supply and ultimate independence from the world market. 
2.     The opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry, particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion.
3.     For fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime, which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians.
The goal of the program was to ensure low energy costs for Canadian consumers during the high oil price period. 
The reaction is Alberta was less than happy. At the time, Alberta was going through an economic surplus due to the high oil prices of the time, but the surplus was reduced because of the National Energy Program. By 1981, Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Peter Lougheed would sign a price and revenue sharing agreement to deal with the issues related to the program.
It was in 1980 that the Western Canada Concept Party was created. The goal of the party was to promote the separation of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, along with the Northwest Territories and the Yukon to form a new country. 
Talk of separation was high at this point and a survey done in 1981 found that 49% of those polled felt that Alberta should go it alone as a country. This helped the Western Concept Party grow in popularity. Around that same time, two Edmonton businessmen began to sell State of Alberta passports, to capitalize on the growing sentiment in the province. The novelty document was printed in English and Ukrainian and cost $2.50 each.
The danger of separation, or the growing belief in it, was strong enough that Grant Notley, father of future premier Rachel Notley, actually went on the road through the province in an effort to fight the sentiment. In several stops, he would defend staying in Canada, and state that Alberta was still getting most of the money from the National Energy Program, with 24 per cent going to the other provinces only. 
Each western province had its own provincial chapter of the party. 
In Saskatchewan, the Western Canada Concept Party of Saskatchewan reached its peak in 1982 when it won more votes than the Saskatchewan Liberal Party candidate in 23 of the provinces 64 tidings. In the ridings of Moosomin, Cannington and Shaunavon, the WCC candidates earned 1,000 or more votes. 
In British Columbia, the WCC party still exists. Until 2013, it was led by Doug Christie, a far-right lawyer best known for defending neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. The party had its best result in the 1983 provincial election when 18 candidates picked up 14,000 votes and .86 per cent of the total vote. In the 1986, 1991 and 2005 elections, the party would not take more than .02 per cent of the vote. 
The WCC Party of Manitoba was founded in 1980 but had limited success. In a 1984 by-election in the riding of Fort Garry, the candidate only received 186 votes. In the general election, five candidates combined for a total of 672 votes. By 1987, the party no longer existed. 
In Alberta, the WCC party was able to get Gordon Kesler elected in a by-election in the riding of Olds-Didsbury in 1982. This would draw national attention as it was the first time since 1870 that a member of a separatist party had been elected to a provincial legislature east of Quebec. 
In an interview with CBC, Kesler would state, “Metrification, bilingualism…when they destroyed the flag of the country,” when talking about the issues he had with Trudeau. “There is no end to what he’s done to this country.” Kesler was also against the new Constitution about to be adopted in Canada.
“The Constitution just wiped out your right to own property. Some socialist is going to come to you and say ‘Oh no, that’s not right.”
Kessler then became the leader of the party and in the 1982 general election, the party fielded 78 candidates and took 11.8 per cent of the vote but failed to elect a single one. In losing his seat, Kesler has the second-shortest stint as an MLA in Alberta history. He would be replaced as leader in 1984 by Jack Ramsay, who would later join the Reform Party and become a member of parliament. 
By 1987, the days of the WCC were over as several Alberta members were dissatisfied with the leadership of the party and would leave to establish the Western Independence Party. 
Before we get to that party, let’s look at the Unionest Party that advocated for the joining of the western provinces to the United States. The name was the combination of best union. The party had been formed by Dick Collver, who was the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan. He resigned from the PC caucus to form his party. Soon enough, Dennis Ham, another PC member of the legislature, would leave the PCs to join Collver. The Saskatchewan New Democratic Party then introduced legislation to restrict third party status to a party with at least two sitting members affiliated with a political party that was registered under the Election Act on the day of the last general election. This effectively ended the Unionest Party.
Things quieted down after the 1980s, with Quebec separatism taking over during the 1990s with the rise of the Bloc Québécois and the formation of the Reform Party in 1987.
The Western Independence Party was founded in 1987 by 150 people from across the western provinces after growing dissatisfaction with the Western Canada Concept party and its leader Douglas Christie. The party was unable to get enough signatures, a reoccurring theme as we will see with these parties, to register as a political party in Alberta. The Alberta chapter of the party would be known as the Alberta Independence Party, which we will learn more about later in this episode. 
The Saskatchewan branch of the party nominated candidates in the 2003 and 2007 provincial elections, but none were elected. 
When the Reform Party merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the modern Conservative Party of Canada, a void was created that was soon filled by parties with separatist beliefs. 
In 1999, the Alberta First Party had emerged but it was not firm in the separation movement, more pushing for free votes in the legislature, provincial referendums and privatizing health care. The Separation Party of Alberta would start independently of the Alberta First Party, holding its first founding convention on Oct. 31, 2003. Unable to gain the signatures they needed to register as a party, they took over the leaderless Alberta First Party in early 2004. The party soon renamed itself with Elections Canada and ran 12 candidates in the provincial election. Overall, the candidates for the party gained .5 per cent of the vote. Brian Vasseur and Jay Kolody had the highest vote percentage at 6.1 per cent in their riding. The party soon stagnated and in the 2008 election only nominated one candidate, who received 119 votes total. In the 2012 election, the party took only 68 votes, or .006 per cent of the total vote. 
On May 13, 2013, the party changed its name back to Alberta First, and then changed its name in 2018 to the Western Freedom Party, and then two months later in June changed its name to the Freedom Conservative Party. Derek Fildebrandt had changed his affiliation from being an independent conservative to the party, giving the party an MLA in the legislature. Fildebrandt stated he was not a separatist per se, and in the 2019 election the party gained no seats and Derek Fildebrandt lost his seat. 
With the election of Stephen Harper, a Conservative, to the Prime Minister’s office, the push for Alberta separation quickly faded once again. 
As seems to be the case often in Alberta and the west, when a Conservative is in power, the push for separation dies down. If a Liberal government takes over the House of Commons, then the push for separation once again increases. 
Upon the election of Justin Trudeau on Oct. 19, 2015 and his unpopularity in Alberta served as a rallying cry for the separatists. In a poll done by Angus Reid in February of 2019, it was found 50 per cent of Albertans would support secession from Canada, but that the likelihood was unlikely. 
Currently, the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta is the only registered Alberta political party but there is the Alberta Independence Party that is non-registered in the province. The party had first been founded in 2001 and Canadian Alliance MPs such as Darrel Stinson and Myron Thompson attended as observers. The party was unable to gain the signatures to qualify as an official party, and as a result its 14 candidates ran as independents in the 2001 Alberta general election. None were elected. 
The party soon disbanded but would form again in 2018 and field another 14 candidates in the election. Unfortunately, since the party was unable to get enough signatures to qualify as an official party, its candidates ran as independents. No candidate received over 8.5 per cent of the vote in their riding. 
Western or Alberta separation gets most of the attention but there are also other ideas for independent countries within Canadian borders, but these are more spiritual or hypothetical movements than anything actually approaching a concrete plan. One informal movement would like to see a country called Cascadia created out of British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. 
The Northern Ontario Party looks to create a province out of northern Ontario. It has existed since 1977 but no member has ever been elected to the Ontario Legislature. The party disbanded in 1985 but reformed in 2010. 
Another informal movement looks to create a new province out of Vancouver Island. 
There has been varying levels of support for separation from Canada. In 2005, 18 per cent of those polled in the Yukon supported separation, while only eight per cent did one year later. A total of 42 per cent of Albertans polled supported leaving the country. As for full western separation, 35 per cent in 2005 said exploring a western separation was a good idea. 
I’ve talked a lot about the movements to leave Canada, but just how possible is it? As it turns out, it is extremely unlikely and that is often something these separatists parties seem to ignore. Under the Clarity Act of 2000, which was put in after Quebec nearly left Canada, which has been approved by the Supreme Court, the process to achieve separation is a long and difficult one. First, a province-wide referendum must be held and a majority of the voters must agree with separation. The majority needed is not defined but it is likely to be an overwhelming majority needed, or at least 75 per cent of voters. The House of Commons can then decide if the referendum question was clear or not and it can decide if a clear majority actually expressed itself. This will take into consideration everything from how many people voted, the voter turnout and those who voted in favour. Once this happens, then all provinces and First Nations must negotiate the secession of the province. Even at this point, the House of Commons can override the decision if they feel that it violates the Clarity Act. 
Lastly, I am going to look at an independent Alberta. Usually I focus on history with this podcast, but this is more of a contemplative look into the future and how it would be a bad future for Alberta to separate. 
First, Alberta would be a landlocked country and one of 51 in the world. It would be surrounded on three sides by the country that it had just left, with the United States on its south border. There is also nothing saying that its current borders would be its actual country borders due to what Canada may decide, along with the negotiations with First Nations in the province. With no major ports, it would have to ship all of its exports through those two countries.
Second, importing would be required for most of what Alberta needs, and the tariffs could end up costing Alberta more than it would have received just remaining with in Canada. 
Third, the Canadian military bases would leave Alberta and take with them the thousands of people they employ, and the millions of dollars they put into the Alberta economy.
Fourth, the new country would be heavily dependent on the oil industry, which is already suffering and its economy would be highly volatile. Whatever currency the country chose to use would be up against the Canadian and American dollar and most likely be worth less, which would again raise the costs of goods for Albertans. 
My podcast is about history, not opinions, but it is my opinion that Alberta would suffer badly trying to go on its own instead of staying in Canada. 
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Manitoba Historical Society, Alberta Freedom Alliance, CBC
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