It’s a silly name and a bad idea, but that isn’t stopping the latest version of Alberta’s separatist movement: Wexit.
Apparently inspired by Brexit, Grexit, Albexit, and a long list of other “-exit” suffix terms that have entered our daily conversations over the past few years, Wexit (Western-exit, I assume) has been holding meetings across the province promoting an agenda for an independent Alberta to “Enhance economic, military, and geo-political cooperation with the United States of America” and for a “Head of state to be an elected President of Alberta with an appointed cabinet.”
One of the largest donors to Alberta Fights Back during Alberta’s 2019 election was Sharon Maclise, a former Wildrose Party candidate and interim leader of the Alberta Freedom Alliance, an unregistered political party promoting Alberta’s separation from Canada.
The Wexit group’s main grievances appear to revolve mainly around Justin Trudeau being Prime Minister, the carbon tax, unemployment levels, and the delay in construction of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline expansion (which is now owned by the Government of Canada). But the grievances are broader among some of the group’s supporters, including one guest speaker at a recent Wexit meeting in Red Deer who named American billionaire George Soros and Antifa as enemies of Alberta.
It is not clear how many people have actually attended the Wexit meetings, but it is not difficult to understand why separatists in western Canada feel emboldened these days.
Heated political rhetoric coming from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his cabinet ministers about the threat posed to Alberta by Trudeau, socialists, Quebec, equalization, and nefarious foreign-funded environmental groups adds fuel to the flames of those who feel Alberta has no place in Canada or would actively campaign for separation. Kenney quickly tried to rebuke any criticism that he is anything but a dedicated federalist, but it is clear that he is stoking regional grievances in order to achieve his short-term political goal of defeating Trudeau’s Liberals in October’s federal election.
The Wexit groups also have the support of some of Kenney’s former Ottawa colleagues, including former British Columbia Member of Parliament and former Jim Prentice confidant Jay Hill, who appears to have relaunched his political career as an advocate of Alberta separatism, and former Saskatchewan MP and MLA Allan Kerpan. Hill and Kerpan are the keynote speakers at a pro-separatist event scheduled to be held in Lloydminster on August 24, 2019.
With the exception of a single by-election win for the Western Canada Concept in February 1982, separatist groups like the Independent Alberta Association, West-Fed, Western Canada Party, Western Independence Party, Alberta First Party, Separation Party of Alberta, Alberta Advantage Party, Alberta Independence Party and the Freedom Conservative Party have firmly occupied the right-wing fringes of Alberta politics.
At this point, the total lack of a viable political party, legitimate plan for separation, and any real electoral support from Albertans for the separatist agenda is a big challenge for those who dream of one-day creating a landlocked prairie petro-republic.
Reading the pages of the Postmedia newspapers or the #ableg hashtag on Twitter you might believe that Albertans from roughneck Fort McMurray to trendy Kensington are calling for Independence and rising up in arms against their political overlords in Ottawa.
A flurry of recent opinion-editorials and columns in the pages of Canada’s Postmedia newspapers have been fanning the flames of discontent and frustration in Alberta. The discontent and perennial alienation from Ottawa is mostly a result of the economic slump and a delay in the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, but it is difficult to believe that there is any real appetite for Albertans to leave Canada, and the consequences that would follow.
Three years later, Alberta is not Greece and probably should not be looking to Brexit for inspiration.
The arguments for Alberta’s separation from Canada are so weak and the concept of forming an Alberta Republic is so ridiculous that even the thought of writing this article made me cringe. It is the political equivalent of a toddler’s temper tantrum. But because I am a sucker for punishment, here I go.
Among the many of the disastrous consequences of Alberta leaving Canada would be that it would become virtually impossible to get any new pipelines constructed to the deep water ports that pipeline proponents argue the province’s oil industry needs.
If you believe it has already been acrimonious to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion built in two provinces, just imagine how difficult it would be to negotiate a pipeline project with a suddenly hostile foreign government, whether it be the prime minister of Canada in Ottawa or the president of the Pacific Republic of British Columbia in Victoria. Not to mention the inconvenient fact that the Government of Canada actually owns said pipeline and its expansion project.
Some will argue that the United States of America would open its borders to Alberta or even welcome it as the 51st State, but it seems unlikely that the American government would want to antagonize Ottawa by dealing with a landlocked rogue nation and cause trouble on it’s northern borders.
American corporations already dominate our economy, which saves the US government the messy business of having to govern us. And the likelihood that most Albertans would be inclined to vote for the Democratic Party would also make the statehood route less appealing for many in America’s political establishment.
The Canadian Government saved Trans Mountain by purchasing the pipeline and the expansion project just as Texas-based Kinder Morgan Inc. was preparing to withdraw their application for expansion. The government of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid $4.5 billion for the pipeline and project, and it is expected Ottawa could spend another $7 billion on the project after it meets the necessary conditions set by the Federal Court of Appeal.
The Federal Court of Appeal ordered a stop to the project in August 2018 after the National Energy Board and federal government failed to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment of the increase of marine traffic and failed to properly consult First Nations communities along the route in the final phase of the approval process.
While Trudeau clearly sees the pipeline expansion as a national priority worth spending serious political and real financial capital on, it is unlikely to bring him positive electoral returns in Alberta in 2019. Despite purchasing the pipeline, ensuring it will be built, and announcing $1.6 billion in loans and financial support to the oil and gas industry, support for Trudeau in Alberta has dropped like a lead balloon.
“We didn’t ask for the opportunity to go further into debt as a means of addressing this problem,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said in response to the federal government’s bailout package.
It is unclear what Alberta’s politicians want to be done in the meantime. Many are calling the pipeline the only solution to Alberta’s economic problems. The big problem with that argument, if you believe pipelines are the solution, is that even if the Trans Mountain expansion project meets the conditions set by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2019 it might not actually be finished construction until 2022 or 2023. And even if other failed pipeline projects are resurrected, they might take even longer to complete.
That a Prime Minister named Trudeau is not popular in Alberta is no shock. The ingrained hatred for Trudeau and his father in the minds of many Albertans ensures that no matter what the Liberal government in Ottawa does to support our province, it will be seen as either a failure or a hostile attack.
While separatist sentiments bubble up in Alberta politics every decade or so, the last serious political push happened more than 35 years ago, when Western Canada Concept candidate Gordon Kesler won a February 17, 1982 by-election in the former Social Credit fortress of Olds-Didsbury.
The separatist MLA said at his swearing-in ceremony that he had “a lot of responsibility to those who believe in freedom and free enterprise,” but then spent the next few months in the Assembly railing against the metric system and official bilingualism. He and his party were crushed by Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative juggernaut in the November 1982 general election.
Other separatist parties have come and gone since, but they have all faded in the right-wing fringes of Alberta politics.
Meanwhile, outside of the margins of conservative opinion writers and anonymous twitter accounts, two recent polls show that while Albertans might be a little angrier, support for separation remains consistently low.
A recent poll conducted by the research company Ipsos found that “Albertans are a little angrier at the moment, but across the west there is little interest in separation and most measures of connection to Canada are consistent with prior polls taken conducted as long ago as 1997.”
“The level of support for the idea of an independent Alberta is roughly the same as it was in surveys conducted in 2014 and 2016,” said Mario Canseco, President of Research Co. “Four years ago, with a Progressive Conservative government in Edmonton and a Conservative government in Ottawa, the findings were similar to what is observed in 2018.”
The vast majority of Albertans remain proud Canadians regardless of which party has been elected to run the government in Ottawa. The frustration felt by many Albertans towards Ottawa over pipelines construction delays and the low international price of oil should not be ignored, but let’s not pretend that separating from Canada is a viable solution to our economic problems, because it’s not.
Photo: Alberta political party leaders – Rachel Notley, Jason Kenney, Stephen Mandel, David Khan, and Derek Fildebrandt.
We are now somewhere between seven and ten months away from the next provincial general election in Alberta. For the past seven provincial elections, leaders of the main political parties have participated in televised leaders debates, and while a lot of media and political attention is focused on these events, their impact on the outcome of the election varies.
Which party leaders are invited to participate in the debates, which are typically organized by private news media companies, can sometimes be contentious. Generally, only leaders whose parties have elected MLAs in the previous general election have been invited, but this has not always been the case. Unlike our neighbours to the south, there are no official rules or commission governing who is invited, which has led to inconsistencies since the televised leaders debates began in Alberta in 1993.
Assuming one is held, let’s take a look at who might and might not be invited to participate in a televised leaders debate held in Alberta’s next provincial election, which is expected to be called between March 1 and May 31, 2019.
Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney: Notley and United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney are shoe-ins to participate in the leaders debate. Notley is the current Premier of Alberta and Kenney leads the Official Opposition UCP. Although the UCP did not exist in the last election, the party has won three by-elections since it was formed in 2017.
David Khan: Liberal Party leader David Khan is not a sitting MLA and his party’s sole MLA, former leader David Swann, is not seeking re-election. This is the first election since 1986 that the Liberals will not have an incumbent MLA running for re-election. Khan is running for election in Swann’s Calgary-Mountain View district. While the party has had one elected MLA since 2015, the party’s lack of incumbent MLAs and declining relevance in Alberta politics could lead to the Liberals not being invited to join next year’s debate.
The Derek Fildebrandt Question:Derek Fildebrandt is a sitting MLA and most likely will be leader of the Freedom Conservative Party when the next election is called. He was first elected as the Wildrose Party MLA for Strathmore-Brooks in 2015 and joined the FCP in 2018. His party did not elect any MLAs in 2015, but neither did the UCP, which was formed in 2017 by MLAs who were previously members of the PC and Wildrose parties.
Fildebrandt has said his party will not run candidates in all districts, only focusing on districts where the NDP is not considered to be competitive. This means that most viewers tuning in to the televised debate will not have the option of voting for a Freedom Conservative Party candidate on Election Day, but a lack of a full-slate has not stopped leaders from being invited to the debates in the past.
Fildebrandt is a fiery quote-machine and his participation in the debates would undoubtably create some entertainment value for viewers. While I suspect Notley and Mandel would be supportive of Fildebrandt’s involvement in the debate, I expect that Kenney would not be eager to share a stage with Fildebrandt. As I predicted on a recent episode of the Daveberta Podcast, I suspect Kenney could threaten to withhold his participation in the debate if Fildebrandt is invited to join.
As for the format of a leaders debate, as I have written before, my preference would be to hold in front of a live audience, rather than a sterile and controlled television studio. This would allow the party leaders to demonstrate their debating skills and a live audience would add an atmosphere of unpredictability and would force the leaders to speak to both the voters in the room and those watching their television screens.
A History of Leaders Debates in Alberta Elections
Here is a quick history of leaders debates during general elections in Alberta:
1967 election – Four party leaders participated in this debate: Social Credit leader Ernest Manning, PC Party leader Peter Lougheed, NDP leader Neil Reimer and Liberal leader Michael Maccagno. Lougheed had initially challenged Manning to a televised debate, but a public debate was held instead. The meeting was sponsored by the City Centre Church Council and held in downtown Edmonton. The leaders fielded questions from the audience of the packed church.
The Calgary Herald reported that “…Manning was booed by a small contingent of hecklers while the new leader of the Conservatives reportedly “appeared to score heavily and draw the most applause.”
At the time of the debate, only Manning and Maccagno were MLAs. Reimer was not an MLA but there was one incumbent NDP MLA, Garth Turcott, who had been elected in a 1965 by-election in Pincher Creek-Crowsnest. Lougheed was not an MLA and his party had not elected an MLA since the 1959 election.
1971-1989 elections – No leaders debates were held during the 1971, 1975, 1979, 1982, 1986 and 1989 elections. Lougheed was challenged by opposition leaders, including NDP leader Grant Notley and Western Canada Concept leader Gordon Kesler, to participate in a televised debate but were turned down. Don Getty also refused to debate his opponents on television.
1993 election – Three party leaders participated in two televised debates: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, NDP leader Ray Martin, and Liberal Party leader Laurence Decore. The first debate was held in-front of a live studio audience and was broadcast on CFCN in Calgary and CFRN in Edmonton. The second debate was held without a live studio audience and broadcast on Channel 2&7 in Calgary and ITV in Edmonton.
1997 election – Four party leaders participated in this televised debate organized by the Alberta Chamber of Commerce and broadcast by CBC: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal Party leader Grant Mitchell, NDP leader Pam Barrett, and Social Credit Party leader Randy Thorsteinson.
Barrett and Thorsteinson were invited to participate despite not being MLAs at the time and neither of their parties having elected any MLAs in the previous election. The NDP and Social Credit Party did not nominate a full slate, with only 77 and 70 candidates running in 83 districts.
2001 election – Three leaders participated in this televised debate organized by Calgary Herald and Global News: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth and NDP leader Raj Pannu. The three major parties nominated candidates in all 83 districts.
2004 election – Three leaders participated in this televised debate broadcast by Global Television: PC Party leader Ralph Klein, Liberal leader Kevin Taft and NDP leader Brian Mason.
Despite having been invited to join the televised debate in 1997, Alberta Alliance leader Randy Thorsteinson was not allowed to join in 2004 because he was not an MLA and his new party did not elect any members in the previous election. The party had one MLA, former Edmonton-Norwood PC MLA Gary Masyk, who crossed the floor in the months before the election was called.
The PCs, NDP and the Alberta Alliance nominated candidates in all 83 districts in this election. The Liberals nominated candidates in 82 of 83 districts.
The Wildrose Alliance nominated 61 candidates in 83 districts. Green Party leader George Read was not invited to participate in the debate, despite his party nominating candidates in 79 of 83 districts (the Greens would earn 4.5 percent of the total province-wide vote, only slightly behind the 6.7 percent earned by the Wildrose Alliance in this election).
2012 election – Four leaders participated in this debate broadcast by Global and streamed on the internet: PC Party leader Alison Redford, Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman and NDP leader Brian Mason.
Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor was not invited to join the leaders debate, despite his party having one MLA in the Legislature. Former Liberal MLA Dave Taylor became the Alberta Party’s first MLA in 2011. The Alberta Party nominated 38 candidates in 87 districts.
2015 election – Four leaders participated in this debate broadcast by Global: PC leader Jim Prentice, NDP leader Rachel Notley, Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, and Liberal leader David Swann. Despite only narrowly losing a 2014 by-election in Calgary-Elbow, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark was not invited to join the debate. Clark would go on to be elected in Calgary-Elbow in this election.
The NDP and PCs nominated candidates in all 87 districts, while the Wildrose Party nominated 86 candidate and the Liberals nominated 56. The Alberta Party nominated 36 candidates in 87 districts.
Lefurgey was a candidate for the Separation Party of Alberta in the Airdire-Chestermere district in the 2004 election. He earned 394 votes.
Lefurgey is also the current President of the Freedom Conservative Party association in Strathmore-Brooks, the district currently represented by Fildebrandt. It is the party’s only registered constituency association.
The party’s Facebook page still does not yet reflect the June 2018 name change, though someone is continuing to post new content a few times a week, which includes some internet conspiracy theories that are typically seen on the right-wing political fringes of the internet.
In one Facebook post, which sounds like something that might be inspired by the anti-semitic 1935 Social Credit campaign, Fildebrandt’s new party wants to make sure that Albertans “Don’t find yourself waking up one day to find that the World Bank or George Soros and Aga Khan own your financial institutions. You will then understand what you should have done to stop the UN, the Songbird initiative, the Boreal Initiative, Y to Y and the Leap Manifesto and take your country back from the elites!“
The last notable leader of a separatist party elected to the Legislature was Gordon Kesler, who was elected as a Western Canadian Concept candidate in the Olds-Didsbury by-election of 1982. Much of Kesler’s activities in the Legislature included opposing official bilingualism and protesting the introduction of the metric system.
As party leader, Fildebrandt could petition to join the mainstream media organized televised leaders debates during the next election. This was a status Kesler was denied when Peter Lougheed refused to debate him on TV. Kesler was defeated in the 1982 general election.
Fildebrandt remains popular in his district and is a formidable political campaigner. We should expect him to face off against UCP MLA Leela Aheer in the new Strathmore-Chestermere district in next year’s election. He might have a shot at winning, and he might not be alone.
Fildebrandt told Postmedia’s Don Braid that his party plans to contest UCP safe seats in the next election. His criticism of the UCP for their last-minute disqualification of perceived front-runner S. Todd Beasley in the neighbouring Brooks-Medicine Hat district could be the first step in a candidate recruitment strategy. It could also be an early sign that the Freedom Conservative Party might be a home for disgruntled and disqualified United Conservatives in the Alberta’s provincial election.
Yep, Derek Fildebrandt is still a giant thorn in Jason Kenney’s side.