Western separatism has been cooling despite Trudeau's re-election: poll

A newly released survey suggests more Albertans looked favourably on the rest of Canada than a year earlier—and that was before COVID struck

Last year, a major survey of provincial attitudes found disaffection in the oil-producing West at levels not seen since at least the 1980s. More than half of Albertans and Saskatchewanians believed that benefits of being in Canada were so few that western provinces may as well break off.

And that was before Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a second term in last October’s election. Which yielded zero Liberal seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan for the first time since 1988. Which helped the “Wexit” movement gain national attention. Which prompted Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to strike a panel exploring options to get a “fair deal,” such as pulling his province out of the RCMP, the Canadian Pension Plan and other federal programs.

The surveyors asked those questions again in 2020, during the brief window before COVID-19 arrived in Canada and began spreading across the country. Despite all the prairie dust kicked up after Trudeau’s re-election, the angry boil was, surprisingly, easing to more of a simmer.

Forty-three per cent of Albertans believe the West is so mistreated by Canada it may as well leave, compared to 56 per cent last year, according to a survey conducted weeks before the coronavirus pandemic by the Environics Institute and four Canadian think tanks. The number of Saskatchewanians in the poll feeling the same way declined to 41 per cent, down from 53 a year earlier.

(Environics, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

(Environics, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

After so much anti-Ottawa tension sentiment swirled around the 2019 federal election, residents may have more soberly considered their options, says Colleen Collins, vice-president of Canada West Foundation, a survey co-sponsor. “We’re still frustrated, but some people have pulled back from the actual ‘leave’ option and say maybe we can make this work,” she says.  

Western alienation is still high by historical standards; those inclined to go it alone numbered only 28 per cent in either province in 2010, in the middle of Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister. But the surveyors, who have asked the same question since 1987, have picked up this survey’s levels of frustration in western provinces before: in 1990, as the Meech Lake Accord was crumbling and Reform Party rose; and in 2003, after three straight Liberal majority victories.

“It’s not suddenly all better,” says Andrew Parkin of Environics Institute.“The fact is that alienation in that part of the Prairies is not as bad as it’s ever been, but almost as bad as it’s ever been. It’s important not to misplace the emphasis on that.”

Suffice to say, though, that his survey raises the possibility that the alienation has peaked: it didn’t, after all, keep rising after the voters in other provinces returned Trudeau to the Prime Minister’s Office for a minority term. The election result was more of a consequence of western anger than a trigger for it, Parkin says.  

Putting aside the Liberals’ narrow victory, the passage of time and events of the past year might have cooled the anger of people in hard-hit petroleum economies. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project—acquired by the Liberal government in 2017—has survived its latest legal challenges by First Nations and environmental groups; federal environmental bills hotly opposed by the oil lobby and its supportive premiers passed into law last June, but by now are more-than-two-year-old news. The survey was conducted before unprecedented billions of dollars in federal support during the pandemic was showered upon all regions, and the Trudeau government offered relief funds to clean up abandoned gas wells and bridge loans to struggling energy companies. 

But none of this precludes a quick resurgence in the desire for western independence. “I think if you don’t see some kind of recognition of the extraordinary impact on provincial revenues in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, then that will just light a flame,” Collins says.

On several questions, the 2020 version of the survey project, titledConfederation of Tomorrow,” suggests the mood in western oil-producing provinces is less intensely disillusioned with confederation than it was a year earlier. While 63 per cent of Albertans feel their province is not treated with the respect it deserves, that’s an eight-point decline from last year. Albertans are also more likely to see more advantages to federalism than disadvantages than they were in 2019—42 per cent say so in this year’s survey, up nine points from 2019’s. That sentiment also rose slightly in Saskatchewan.

(Environics, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

(Environics Institute, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

The Environics Institute survey of 5,152 Canadians was conducted online in the provinces and by phone in Canada’s northern territories between Jan. 13 and Feb. 20, before the spread of coronavirus forced much of Canada into shutdown mode. It was done in partnership with Canada West Foundation, Institute for Research on Public Policy, Centre D’analyse Politique at Université du Québec à Montréal and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

Despite the apparent softening of sentiment in the West, the survey found dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Canada highest in Alberta (59 per cent) and Saskatchewan (54)—nearly double the level in Québec (30) and above the national average (41). In nearly every province, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, dissatisfaction was slightly below where it sat in the 2019 survey—though things without doubt would have changed with the pandemic and this spring’s shattering decline in Canadian petroleum prices.

(Environics, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

(Environics Institute, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

On climate change, the survey found that 52 per cent of Canadians agree that protecting the environment is more important than protecting jobs, while 38 per cent disagree. Protecting the environment is a higher priority in every province but Alberta, the survey suggests. But even there, where Premier Jason Kenney has held tightly to a pro-jobs posture, the public appears split on the question (47 per cent disagree; 45 agree).

Since the election victories last year of Kenney provincially and Trudeau federally, more Albertans appear to be warming to Ottawa’s management of climate change. Twenty-nine per cent of survey respondents in the province said they trust the feds most to manage the issue—a 10-point increase, and close to the Canadian average. Only 14 per cent said the province is most trusted to address climate change, while the rest put trust in both equally or neither. On energy resources, though, Albertan respondents still widely preferred their own government.

(Environics, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

(Environics Institute, Confederation of Tomorrow partnership)

Survey organizers were surprised, meanwhile, to see a decline outside the oil-producing West in the proportion of Canadians who feel federalism has more advantages than disadvantages—44 per cent, a two-decade low. More have shifted into the “cannot say,” which is larger than the group that sees more disadvantages. Parkin suggests that three decades after constitutional reform talks, and a quarter-century after the last referendum on Quebec sovereignty, Canadians have stopped thinking much about federalism, good or bad. In the coronavirus crisis, Ottawa and the provinces had to work together in highly public fashion on health care and economic bailouts. In our system, governments must work together in times of real crisis to get stuff done. Next year’s instalment of the survey could show a country vastly changed on many scores.

“Did we all learn something about federalism so that when we come out of this, we’ll have a greater appreciation?” he asks. “I’m trying not to guess that answer, but I’m really curious.”

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