Longstanding concerns about Ontario and Quebec remaining the economic and political centres of Canada have meant that there has long been dissatisfaction with the federal government and a sense of exclusion among Western provinces. Feelings of frustration amongst the West in regards to a “fair deal in the federation” have grown into feelings of Western alienation.
The parameters of “the West” vary depending on who is describing the nature of the alienation and in what context, but it may include some variation of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, although Alberta is nearly always part.
The topic of western alienation and separatism regained popularity leading up to, and following, the 2019 Canadian federal election. The Liberal Party, which won the election, won no seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which meant that there would be no representation of these provinces within the party caucus, or within the Cabinet (unless Senators or others from Alberta or Saskatchewan took up Cabinet positions). This has contributed to political frustration, and the rise of a new protest party and movement called ‘Wexit’ (after the separatist “Brexit” movement) that, as of January 2020, has eligibility to participate as a federal party in the next federal election.
Western alienation is most often traced to three interrelated factors (addressed below):
- A lack of political power in the West relative to the rest of Canada
- Attempts to shift wealth from natural resources in the West to the rest of Canada
- The federal focus on the distinct nature of Quebec (without recognition of the West)
Political power. Much of the concern over Western alienation is traced back to the lack of political power held by the West relative to its central and Eastern Canadian counterparts. When Alberta and Saskatchewan joined Canada in 1905, there was interest in establishing one large Western province. This was not pursued as Sir Wilfrid Laurier—the Prime Minister at the time—was concerned that a larger Western province might shift political and economic power away from central Canada, and instead opted for two smaller provinces. Further, because of the smaller populations of these Western provinces, relative to provinces like Ontario and Quebec, they have fewer representatives in the House of Commons and the Senate.
This underrepresentation has informed the rise of a number of protest parties that have had an important influence on Canadian politics. As the Conservative Party of Canada has long been associated with Western Canada and represents some of the values seen to be embodied by the West, the election of the Liberal Party has often corresponded with the rise of Western protest parties. This includes protest parties such as the Western Canada Concept Party (federal), Wexit Canada (federal, discussed below), the Alberta Independence Party (provincial), and the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta (provincial), as well as the better known Reform Party of Canada.
In 1997, the Reform Party of Canada became the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. At the time, an Environics poll (as cited by Shawn Henry) found that “over 50% of the respondents from the four western provinces strongly agreed with the statement ‘the West usually gets ignored in national politics because the political parties depend mostly upon the voters in Quebec and Ontario.’” After the Reform Party became the Canadian Alliance Party in 2000, it gained some seats and was once again the Official Opposition to the governing Liberals.
In 2004, a poll indicated that 55.8% of western Canadians felt that the federal government’s treatment of their province was worse than that of other provinces. Across the whole nation, only 36.5% of respondents felt the same way. Yet, when the same survey was conducted in 2008 (and after the election of a Conservative federal government), only 34.7% of western Canadians continued to feel the same level of discontent compared to the 31.6% national average) (For more on this research, see Loleen Berdahl’s Wither Western Alienation: Shifting Patterns of Western Canadian Discontent with the Federal Government).
Shifting Wealth from Natural Resources. There are also historic concerns about the centralization of wealth from the West’s natural resources, primarily focused on oil in Alberta, but also including potash and agricultural goods in Saskatchewan, and lumber in British Columbia.
Perhaps the most important economic concern relevant to Western alienation was the rise and fall of the National Energy Program in the 1980s, which was to give the federal government more control over oil revenues, shifting the wealth derived from oil in Alberta to the rest of the country. The announcement of the program followed an election in which the Liberal Party of Pierre Elliot Trudeau won no seats west of Manitoba, and the program’s creation in the absence of elected representatives from the West, and its substance (shifting money away from Western provinces) was not well-received. There was significant opposition—outrage and resistance—from the Alberta government and citizens of the province, inciting a separatist movement in the province.
Although the National Energy Program did not last long, the resistance to federal attempts to acquire resource wealth from the West would remain. (There have also been discussions about how fair Canada’s equalization payment system has been to the West).
A Focus on Quebec. Western alienation may also stem from a sense that Quebec has received undue attention and favour from the federal government. In the 1980s, following the repatriation of the Constitution, and at the time when there was outrage about the National Energy Program, the federal government under Pierre Elliot Trudeau was working to address the threat of separatism in Quebec. A range of federal interventions, the implementation of national bilingualism, and political accords to bring Quebec back into the Constitution were seen by some as federal favoritism and yet another way that central Canada continued to be concerned with the interests of central Canada to the exclusion of the West.
- Global News video on Western Alienation
- CBC (The National) video on “Wexit”
- CBC article on the potential selection of a Western Senator for Cabinet following the 2019 election
Contributors: Sammi Choi, Steven Liao, Alyssa Ramsammy, and Olivia Yeung,