Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who is a staunch federalist, wants the rest of Canada to know that he may not be able to stop the Alberta independence movement if the federal government doesn’t dance to his tune. His tune is in the key of more tanker traffic through Pacific Ocean ports and easier approval of oil pipeline projects.
It’s not that Mr. Kenney supports Alberta separatism. Far from it. It’s just that everywhere he goes in Alberta, stoking grievances against the governing Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he hears people complaining about the federal equalization program and talking about Alberta independence.
Mr. Kenney’s solution is to throw himself into the federal election campaign in support of Andrew Scheer’s Conservative party and promise an Alberta referendum on equalization along with Alberta’s municipal elections in October 2021. By seeking to make himself a national figure, Mr. Kenney may win influence over an Andrew Scheer government — or stake a claim to be the next national Conservative leader.
Canadians should listen to Mr. Kenney’s demands as they would listen to claims from any provincial premier. They should not, however, worry about Alberta separatism and they should not give in to Mr. Kenney merely for fear of losing a province out of the country.
Alberta independence is a non-starter. Alberta will not gain a single seaport nor a single pipeline route by exiting from Canada. It will not gain an iota of stability for its boom-and-bust resource economy by cutting itself off. It will run up against the same separatist threat that used to arise in Quebec: if Alberta can leave Canada, then what’s to stop Edmonton from leaving Alberta?
Separatist talk from Albertans should be set alongside grumbling from teenagers who have decided to run away from home because their parents won’t let them stay out late with their friends. It’s rude to laugh at them, but the threat is empty.
Once the separatist threat is set aside, where does Mr. Kenney’s plan lead? It could perhaps lead to an Alberta referendum on equalization two years hence, as Mr. Kenney is gearing up for his next provincial election campaign. That could allow a lot of grand posturing by Mr. Kenney as a fierce champion of Alberta.
Referendums have their uses, but a referendum used as a weapon in political warfare can blow up in the face of the user.
The promised referendum could not, however, produce any change in the equalization program. Equalization is a program of the federal government, guaranteed in the Constitution. It is financed entirely out of the revenues of the federal government, which are drawn from taxpayers in all provinces and territories.
Equalization payments account for around one-tenth of Manitoba’s provincial revenue. If Alberta or another province wants to abolish it, they can propose an amendment to the Constitution. If they want to adjust the rules, they can join in the negotiation among governments that heats up each time the program is renewed. The next renewal is due in 2024.
Referendums have their uses, but a referendum used as a weapon in political warfare can blow up in the face of the user. Referendum defeats destroyed the separatist movement in Quebec. The 2016 Brexit referendum in the U.K. ended the careers of two successive prime ministers and left the country in a hopeless muddle, which is still far from being resolved. Mr. Kenney may be wise to brandish his referendum threat for a while and then find a pretext for dropping it.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.