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Alberta: Its own nation? - Tuesday, July 13, 2004 at 23:28

PUBLICATION:  Calgary Herald
DATE:  2004.07.10
SECTION:  Comment
PAGE:  A15
COLUMN:  Danielle Smith
BYLINE:  Danielle Smith
SOURCE:  Calgary Herald


Alberta: Its own nation?


In the National Post this week, a little known leader of a little known party issued a rallying cry for Alberta, one that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Bruce Hutton, interim leader of the Separation Party of Alberta, wrote: "For a Canadian nationalist, last week's federal election results will prove devastating. For an Alberta separatist, the results were the best thing that could happen in 40 years." Judging by the flood of commentary in this paper, many Albertans have taken the repudiation of the Conservative party personally.

As if that weren't enough, Conservative leader Stephen Harper emerged from his week of rest to generate the headline: "Harper to Steer Party to Centre." If true, Hutton may have received a boost that could take his movement from fringe to mainstream.

The Progressive Conservatives already tried this tack, and in attempting to become centrist enough to win the East, they only succeeded in alienating the West. Let's face it: Torontonians rejected Harper's Conservatives, but embraced socialist NDP Leader Jack Layton. Albertans aren't the ones who are extreme -- Torontonians are.

Just how does a federal party "moderate" itself enough to bridge the divide between a riding such as Wetaskiwin, where the Tories won 74 per cent of the vote, and Toronto-Danforth (where they won six per cent), or Quebec (where they won no seats at all)? While the big brains in Harper's inner circle attempt to work that one out, Alberta's separatist movement intends to capitalize on the chance to advance its cause.

How worried should the rest of the nation be? Probably more than they are.

On June 9, 2004, the Separation Party of Alberta announced it had achieved official party status and intends to run a full slate of candidates in the provincial election. This will be the first test of the movement's strength. (As Green Party leader Jim Harris showed in the federal election, running candidates in every riding is a fast-track to credibility.)

And as we learned from Quebec's sovereignty drive, these movements can gel and advance extraordinarily quickly, given the right political climate.

Rene Levesque wrote the essay -- For an Independent Quebec -- in the July 1976 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, on the eve of the election that would install his Parti Quebecois in power for the first time.

He described the conditions that led to the rise of his sovereigntist movement, primarily the second-class status of the French in Quebec and Ottawa's stifling control: "More than half of our public revenue and most of the decisions that count were and are in outside hands, in a federal establishment which was basically instituted not by or for us, but by others and, always first and foremost, for their own purposes."

Through the '60s, Quebec had a "dialogue of the deaf" with Ottawa, similar to what Alberta has with the federal Liberals: insistent on greater autonomy but ineffectual in achieving it. For most of its history, Quebec also had the occasional stirring of nationalist sentiment, like Alberta's Western Canada Concept.

Levesque became the catalyst that pulled it all together. He quit the provincial Liberals in 1967 after the party rejected his call to embrace sovereignty. Once political independence appeared, not as a dream, Levesque writes, but as a project, it very quickly become a serious one. "This developed by leaps and bounds from easily ridiculed marginal groups, to semi-organized political factions, and finally to a full-fledged national party in 1967-68."

In the Parti Quebecois' first election of 1970, it won 24 per cent of the popular vote and seven seats; in 1973, it won 30 per cent of the popular vote and six seats; in 1976 it formed a government.

Alberta separatists are still a marginalized and easily ridiculed lot, and no Levesque-style leader has emerged to pull the factions together.

However, Albertans have become the new second-class Canadians, handily demonized by the ruling Ottawa elite whenever it helps to win elections; called on to provide $11 billion more each year to the general revenue kitty than it gets back in federal services; ignored on key issues such as defence, family values, the gun registry, the Kyoto accord, health-care privatization, property rights, parliamentary reform, debt repayment, political pork-barrelling -- and this is not an exhaustive list.

Hutton may not be wrong to be so optimistic.