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A nation torn apart

An exclusive Western Standard poll shows more than a third of westerners are thinking of separating from Canada. What's dividing the country--and can anything be done to save it?

Kevin Steel - August 22, 2005

It wasn't just what the bumper sticker said, but where it was placed and what it was stuck on. The white rectangle that read, "One hundred years is long enough," followed by the website address, www.separationalberta.com, was high up in the rear window of a shiny new, high-end SUV driving through supposedly Liberal downtown Edmonton-- not on a dusty old pickup truck in a small prairie town. And at the wheel was a smartly-dressed soccer mom, her two kids seated behind her, though obscured by the tinted side windows. These days, western independence has a new face. A movement that was once restricted to what central Canadians might call the redneck fringe, has managed to spread to westerners who are, in many cases, urbane, white collar and increasingly too young to be nursing any grudges over the National Energy Program. What's more, sympathy for breaking up the country along east-west lines is no longer strictly something you'll find in Alberta. More than ever, support for separation is growing all across the West.

That's the conclusion of a Western Standard poll, which found that a record number of people in all four western provinces say they are willing to look at separating from the East. According to the poll, which was conducted in July, using random selection methods, 35.6 per cent of westerners agreed with the statement: "Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country." How serious is that? In Quebec, measures of separatist sentiment often find about 37 per cent of Quebecers endorsing independence (though, at times, the numbers have risen as high as 55 per cent, as was the case with a poll conducted by the newspaper La Presse in July).

The research, which was conducted by pollster Faron Ellis, a political science professor at the Lethbridge Community College, was commissioned by the Western Standard to determine how well the federal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin has been managing the issue of western alienation--something that Martin promised to reduce as part of his 2004 election campaign. It demonstrates the highest support level for separation ever recorded in any province. Historically, separatist sentiment has been estimated in Alberta to hover in the single digits. In fact, 42 per cent of Albertans now say they are willing to consider the idea of forming a new nation, independent of Ottawa. In Saskatchewan, 31.9 per cent expressed a willingness. Residents of B.C. and Manitoba were the least likely to say they would consider separation, but significant numbers in both provinces nevertheless expressed sympathy with the separatist cause: 30.8 per cent and 27.5 per cent, respectively. The poll was conducted around Canada Day, between June 29 and July 5, 2005, when sentiment for federation should have been running at its peak. It sampled 1,448 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Remarkably, notes pollster Ellis, the greatest support for separation existed among young people, not the stereo-typical embittered Albertan codger. Thirty-seven per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 were open to the notion of breaking away from Canada. "Interestingly enough, in that age group, they haven't had the major constitutional or federal touchstones like previous generations," Ellis says. "Their psyche hasn't been ingrained by major constitutional crises, such as the previous generations." Thirty- and forty-year-olds witnessed the constitutional crises that were the Charlottetown and Meech Lake accords, and older groups will remember the NEP. "But with 10 years of relative constitutional peace, to have high numbers in that [youngest] generation . . . those youth numbers are surprising," he adds.

Meanwhile, the baby boom generation (those between the ages of 45 and 64) expressed the lowest support for separation of all the age groups, at 33.7 per cent--likely because they worry that political instability could disrupt the comfortable lives many have established, speculates Ellis. "The Gen X and late boomer crowd is more entrepreneurial and less materialistic [than baby boomers] in a lot of ways," he says. But Andrew Sullivan, vice-president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates, which regularly polls Quebec for separatist sentiment, also notes that younger voters are typically the least likely to get mobilized. "That age group [18?29] may sound enthusiastic, but they are also the least likely to show up to the polls. In other words, they don't walk the talk," he says.

Darrel Stinson, Conservative MP for North Okanagan?Shuswap, says he's not surprised by what appears to be an increasing trend toward pro-separatist politics in the West. Elected in the 1993 election as part of the first major wave of Reform Party politicians sent to Ottawa, Stinson says westerners are increasingly pessimistic that their voices are being heard federally. "When Reform first started, it was more of a movement than politics. When all that took place, there was a feeling that we were finally going to have a say in Ottawa, but we got shut out in a number of areas," he says. A catalogue of recent outrages in Ottawa--the sponsorship scandal, the billion-dollar gun registry, Martin's ability to cheat the non-confidence vote, including the implementation of a tax-and-spend budget to appease the NDP--has frustrated westerners further, especially since Liberal support continues to remain high elsewhere in Canada, according to public opinion polls. In the Western Standard survey, 38 per cent of respondents said that the details uncovered in the sponsorship scandal have contributed to their willingness to consider separation (27.2 per cent said it decreased it, and 34.8 per cent said it had no impact). Thirty-eight per cent said "the manner in which the Liberals won the budget confidence vote" (the question specifically mentioned Martin's "securing [former Tory MP] Belinda Stronach's defection to the Liberals and a budget deal with the NDP") had the same inflammatory effect. A total of 25.9 per cent said the vote diminished their independent streak, and 36.6 per cent said it had no effect. "When you talk to people out here, they figure the East is going to keep putting in the crooks just to keep the West out," says Stinson, who is battling cancer and has announced he will not run again in the next election. "And that just builds animosity. If the Liberals form another government, I think you'll see it [separatist sentiment] come to the forefront. It will erupt." When asked how a Liberal victory in the next federal election would impact their sympathies toward separation, 40.4 per cent of all westerners said it would make them more likely to support independence (24 per cent said it would make them less likely to consider it, with the remainder saying it would have no impact).

"There is a deep and troubling realization that all of the effort of the Reform Party--?the West wants in,' democratic reform, fiscal and social responsibility--all of that effort of the last 20 years appears to have achieved virtually nothing," says Ted Morton, MLA for Calgary Foothills?Rockyview, on leave from his position as a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. "On fiscal responsibility they [the federal Liberals] just spent $28 billion in 28 days after the budget. On social responsibility they just enacted homosexual marriage against demonstrable opposition from the Canadian people. On democratic reform they just appointed three nobodies to the Senate despite the fact that we [Albertans] just elected three new senators," Morton notes. Add to that the prospect that despite the revelations of corruption from Gomery and the kickbacks and lies, Morton says that voters in Ontario are prepared to re-elect them, and it's no wonder people are asking, "What's the point of sticking around?"

Though a majority of westerners--56.8 per cent--say the prime minister has done a "poor job" of fixing the democratic deficit (another of his main election campaign planks) and a whopping 64 per cent say he has done a "poor job" at ending western alienation, Ellis believes that the increasing attractiveness of the separation option is the result of a combination of factors. In addition to a disaffection with Martin in particular, westerners are coming to believe that other methods of effecting political change have been tried repeatedly with no success. "From Western leaders of federal parties like Joe Clark and the Conservatives, compromising on the leadership with Mulroney, that didn't change anything," says Ellis. "Having powerful ministers in the cabinet didn't change anything. Having Lougheed--and then Klein, to a lesser extent--stand up for the province, that didn't fix any fundamental injustices. Starting a Western party--well, you can't succeed if you are regional. We've been through that. All conceivable options for many westerners that can be tried have been tried and seem to have failed. So you are left with no options," Ellis says.

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