Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/11/2019 (551 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The day after our most recent federal election, a journalist called to ask whether I was available to discuss "Wexit." My response: "Sorry, what?"
Wexit, it turns out, is an unfortunately titled group that is advocating western separation following the results of the election. The group exploded on social media, especially Facebook, garnering thousands of clicks and follows. Saskatchewan MP Randy Hoback confirmed the movement was real: "People are mad. I’ve never seen anything like this." And journalists paid attention: the group’s founder was interviewed by national media and western politicians were asked for their views.
Wexit was viewed as a curious manifestation of western Canadian anger at the results of the election. In fact, the overall shift in votes between the 2015 and 2019 elections does not indicate a highly regionalized vote. But the electoral system produced some dramatic regionalized visuals when the seats were allocated: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party was re-elected, but lost in every single riding in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Liberals suffered losses but were not wiped out in Manitoba and British Columbia. The sense immediately following the election was that westerners would be left out of decision-making at the federal level and their concerns, particularly related to pipelines, would be ignored.
Western separation is far from a novel idea. In the 1980s, the Western Canada Concept (WCC) party advocated separation of all provinces and territories west of the Manitoba-Ontario border. The party had minimal success, electing only a single MLA in a 1982 Alberta byelection, and suffered from substantial internal strife.
In 1982, the party ejected Doug Christie, a lawyer who represented prominent far-right clients, from its Alberta chapter. Christie went on to found the B.C. chapter of the WCC, and in 2005 the separatist Western Block party. These are in addition to several smaller separatist parties that never gained traction, including the Alberta Independence party, the Separation Party of Alberta and the Western Independence party.
So recent history teaches us that western separation parties, like other small parties, are unlikely to experience much electoral success under Canada’s existing system. But that doesn’t mean they can’t attract attention and influence ideas. The rise of the Reform party in the 1980s attracted activists from the West’s separatist parties; indeed, former WCC leader Jack Ramsay was elected as a Reform party MP in the 1990s.
Those activists brought their ideas and concerns with them, including both their continued alienation from Central Canada and their commitment to decentralizing powers to the provinces.
In the same way, western separatists are unlikely to be a powerful electoral force, but they may influence ideas and force their concerns on other parties, especially the western-oriented Conservative party. Saskatchewan political scientist Tom McIntosh argued that the internet, and especially social media, might provide new opportunities for western separatist groups such as Wexit to organize, discuss and refine their ideas within the depths of their online echo chambers, and then exercise broader influence.
It’s a compelling argument with parallels to the recent activities of the American "alt-right," which has links to white nationalist and anti-immigration groups. The alt-right exists almost entirely online and its adherents are much younger than American conservatives in general. The alt-right’s actual electoral influence has been non-existent, but its influence on the culture of American conservatism has been substantial.
The alt-right has forced its concerns on the Republican party and shifted the horizons of acceptable political discourse on the American right.
Similarly, western separatists, aided by new online forms of organization and communication, may come together to influence conservative ideas and discourse in Canada, infusing conservative thought with their own ideas and concerns. This might mean the sort of hostility to Central Canada and especially Quebec we’ve seen in the past might again take root in a segment of the Conservative party. So, too, might opposition to official bilingualism and other federal policies meant to accommodate Quebec within Canada.
Similarly, western separatists might lead the Conservatives to renew their love affair with decentralization of powers from the federal government to the provinces. If it is not possible for the West to separate, the next best thing for those concerned about protecting its interests is to build a provincial "firewall" around the region.
The challenge for the Conservative party is to continue to benefit from the support of these rambunctious activists while not allowing them to poison the party’s appeal in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
The party also has a responsibility to moderate the worst impulses of its members. Premiers Jason Kenney and Scott Moe seemed to try to strike a balance in their responses to Wexit, acknowledging that feelings of alienation and anger were legitimate while also rejecting the possibility of separation. In contrast, Premier Brian Pallister’s curt, harsh rejection of western separation likely did more to inflame than temper those sentiments.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.