In Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart film, his chief lieutenant Hamish – face covered in blue warpaint – turns to his friend and says, “well, we didn’t get dressed up for nothin” as William Wallace rides off to pick a fight with the commander of the superior, professional English army.
If Albertans were expecting their government to do battle with Ottawa, well, they got dressed up for nothing.
The much anticipated – and serially delayed – ‘Fair Deal for Alberta’ report was released today. It wasn’t the prelude to battle that many had hoped for. Rather, the army showed up, exchanged words with the enemy, and rode home.
Premier Jason Kenney commissioned the panel weeks after Justin Trudeau was re-elected in October 2019, and life was suddenly breathed into the nascent independence movement. Knowing well that support for independence ran straight through his party’s support base, he had to strike quickly to throw a wet blanket on it. If Albertans turning toward independence could be shown that the premier could fight back strongly enough to win a fair deal for the West, then perhaps he could prevent them from causing trouble within his own party, or from decamping to another.
At the time, former PC Finance Minister Ted Morton said, “If he [Kenney] goes too fast, he losses moderates. But if he goes too slow, he risks Wexit and other groups rising up.”
Seven months later, and it appears the “moderates” have won out. The Fair Deal Panel’s report, is decidedly lukewarm.
Alberta – with twice the population of all four Atlantic provinces combined – has just about half the seats of tiny New Brunswick. To change this will require opening the constitution. The Fair Deal Panel is seemingly content with this second-class status, proposing only to talk with others about electing the paltry few senators that we have.
Hemmed in by a hostile federal government, BC, and Quebec, Alberta faces endless roadblocks to move its goods across provincial boundaries. The panel recommends, again, talking to other provinces and the feds to find harmony. This has been the strategy for addressing Canada’s laughable internal trade issue for a century or more, with predictable outcomes. Any remedy to this will surely be constitutional, which is not on the table.
The equalization bugbear gets a soft pass as well. They recommend that there still be a constitutional reference referendum on the issue, but whenever the premier thinks the timing best. Kenney told reporters it will be in the fall of 2021. No rush.
They do get it right on a few fronts to be fair. Albertans will vote in a referendum on pulling out of the RCMP and Canada Pension Plan to create an Alberta Provincial Police and Alberta Pension plan respectively. Those moves will surely anger Ottawa and provide Alberta with increased autonomy. But these are both measures that Alberta can take unilaterally.
Any ideas concerning constitutional reform of the federation – the senate, free trade, market access – is given a thumbs down in favour of more talk and “collaboration”. Even if Alberta got every single item enumerated in the report, it would still be treated as a second class province.
And it’s highly unlikely that Alberta will achieve much in the way of its ‘soft-asks’ in any case.
What threat might fair-deal-seeking Albertans hold over Ottawa and hostile provinces to exact said deal? The report makes clear: none.
“Some Albertans believe that the only way to get Ottawa and other provinces to pay attention to unfairness and misunderstandings is to use the threat of separation, implying that if Alberta does not get a fairer place within the federation, the province will pursue secession from Canada. Listening to Albertans, the panel understands their anger and frustration and sympathizes with their harsh personal experiences. But we do not believe the threat of secession is a constructive negotiating strategy.”
What does a “constructive negotiating strategy” consist of, when Alberta has no other chips to negotiate with? Money won’t do. Ottawa already takes whatever it likes with impunity. Elections won’t do. Albertans elect almost uniform slates of Conservatives, allowing them to take it for granted, and the Liberals to write it off.
This leaves us with complaining as the sole negotiating strategy. If we simply pass enough resolutions, and kick up enough dust in the media, maybe Ottawa will throw us some pity money; that we sent them.
UCP and former Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes stuck out his neck in February as the only provincial representative to back the Buffalo Declaration. Soon after the report’s publication, he stuck it out a bit further, releasing a letter to Premier Kenney dissenting from the majority opinion of the panel.
His tone was diplomatic, praising the premier and his panel colleagues for their work, but clearly wanting to go further – much further – than they were prepared to.
While Kenney says that the Equalization referendum will be in the fall of 2021, Barnes wants it to be held within six months.
Where the panel mostly rejects Alberta collecting its own taxes, Barnes says we should collect our own, and for the feds.
Where the panel rejects the creation of an Alberta constitution, Barnes calls for the election of a constitutional convention to begin writing one now.
Where the panel won’t speak a word about fair representation in the Senate, Barnes calls for a referendum on a constitutional amendment.
Where the panel talks in platitudes about talking with others about free trade and market access, Barnes says that it should be entrenched in the constitution. For good measure, he includes in this the right of provinces to opt out of “supply management”, which legally requires Alberta to import dairy from Quebec.
Most stunning of all though, is where Barnes parts with the majority panel report on the independence question. While they throw cold water on even uttering the word – even for leverage – he puts it squarely on the table.
“We should be clear with Ottawa and the other provinces that if the people of Alberta vote for a fair deal of constitutional equality within confederation, but if these proposals are rejected, that Albertans will be given the opportunity to vote on their independence. While I appreciate that my colleagues on the panel do not believe that Alberta can raise the prospect of independence under any circumstance, I must respectfully disagree. A free people must be willing to at some point of injustice without rectification, to draw a line and make a stand.”
This puts Barnes squarely offside with the official line of both parties in the legislature, but onside with the 45-48 per cent of Albertans that want out. In fact, his position might be a bit moderate for many of them.
When Kenney announced the Fair Deal Panel seven months ago, he did so with zeal, and anger in his voice. Today’s report – if it reflects the views of the government – is weak by comparison. Did Albertans get dressed up for nothing?
Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and President of Wildrose Media Corp. email@example.com
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