Stephen Harper and Canada, a love story (IV)

Eleven years before he declared himself and his side to be “Canadians first and only,” Stephen Harper declared his allegiance to an Alberta quite apart from Canada.

The following op-ed was published by the National Post on December 8, 2000, shortly after that year’s federal election. Sorting out how he got from writing what appears here to saying what he says now probably goes as far as any question towards sorting out Stephen Harper.

Separation, Alberta-style: It is time to seek a new relationship with Canada
National Post
Fri Dec 8 2000
Stephen Harper

The latest dribblings from the mouth of Canada’s Prime Minister suggest Alberta’s wealth can be attributed to the federal government. While there is clearly no merit to the claim, we must not ignore the implied threat: If Ottawa giveth, then Ottawa can taketh away.

This is just one more reason why Westerners, but Albertans in particular, need to think hard about their future in this country. After sober reflection, Albertans should decide that it is time to seek a new relationship with Canada.

Obviously, I come to this conclusion after long watching the Reform movement and witnessing its most recent rejection by the very electorate that, in creating the Canadian Alliance, it had twisted itself into a pretzel to please.

I use the term “rejection” rather than “failure” to describe the Canadian Alliance’s fate. Many will want to attribute the Alliance’s poor showing in Eastern Canada to a badly run campaign. They are not without evidence. The CA did indeed run a weak campaign by any measure. It lacked any clear strategy, policy focus, or co-ordinated rebuttal to predictable attacks.

In the end, however, this had little if anything to do with the election result. The Alliance was devastated by a shrewd and sinister Liberal attack plan. The strategy — sometimes subtle, but sometimes blatant — was to pull up every prejudice about the West and every myth about Alberta that could be dredged.

That such an approach could even be contemplated, let alone successfully executed, shows it has an enormous market in this country. There is no reason to believe the same strategy could not be repeated at any time under any circumstances against any political movement perceived to have a Western, but especially an Alberta, identity.

For many of us, this federal election has stripped away any veneer of openness to reforming Canada. Those who conceived the Reform party, and helped nurture it through its transformation to the Alliance, have not discovered a path to power; they have hit a wall.

This is perhaps not surprising. Alberta and much of the rest of Canada have embarked on divergent and potentially hostile paths to defining their country.

Alberta has opted for the best of Canada’s heritage — a combination of American enterprise and individualism with the British traditions of order and co-operation. We have created an open, dynamic and prosperous society in spite of a continuously hostile federal government.

Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status, led by a second-world strongman appropriately suited for the task.

Albertans would be fatally ill-advised to view this situation as amusing or benign. Any country with Canada’s insecure smugness and resentment can be dangerous. It can revel in calling its American neighbours names because they are too big and powerful to care. But the attitudes toward Alberta so successfully exploited in this election will have inevitable consequences the next time Canada enters a recession or needs an internal enemy.

Having hit a wall, the next logical step is not to bang our heads against it. It is to take the bricks and begin building another home — a stronger and much more autonomous Alberta. It is time to look at Quebec and to learn. What Albertans should take from this example is to become “maitres chez nous.”

In one policy area after another, the province of Quebec, with much less financial independence than Alberta, has taken initiatives to ensure it is controlled by its own culture and its own majority. Such a strategy across a range of policy areas will quickly put Alberta on the cutting edge of a world where the region, the continent and the globe are becoming more important than the nation-state.

It is true that any achievement by Alberta will only generate more hostility from other quarters of Canada in the short term, but it will just as certainly put them under considerable pressure to evolve and progress.

On the other hand, we should not mimic Quebec by lunging from rejection into the arms of an argument about separation. As that province has shown, separation will simply divide our population in a symbolic debate while, still part of the country, it isolates us from any allies.

Separation will become a real issue the day the federal government decides to make it one.

Neither should Albertans shun federal politics, but we must carefully guard our interests. Much about the Canadian Alliance is worthy of support, and a large number of Canadians do support it. But the CA will be under considerable pressure to rid itself of any tinge of a Western agenda or Alberta control. This we must fight. If the Alliance is ever to become a party that could be lead by a Paul Martin or a Joe Clark, it must do so without us. We don’t need a second Liberal party.

Westerners, but especially Albertans, founded the Reform/Alliance to get “in” to Canada. The rest of the country has responded by telling us in no uncertain terms that we do not share their “Canadian values.” Fine. Let us build a society on Alberta values.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.