Polite society – the political class, media, and big business – have been comfortable casually dismissing the Western independence movement as a fringe group of cranks that will never get off the ground.
To be fair, they have even been right more often than not. But the stars are lining up quickly that is seeing the movement evolve from a divided activist rabble, into a credible political party.
Until recently, the Alberta movement has been divided among a constellation of political parties, fighting with one another to emerge as the clear voice. On June 29th, members of the Freedom Conservative Party and Wexit Alberta will vote on a merger to form the Wildrose Independence Party. At the provincial level in Alberta, this will make it the movement’s clear political vehicle.
In Saskatchewan, the Wexit movement is voting on rebranding as the ‘Buffalo Party’, a move likely intended to distinguish itself as a party from the earlier activist organization that gave birth to it.
UCP MLA Drew Barnes has stirred a hornets nest of controversy by breaking ranks with his leader and premier in calling for a much harder “fair deal” push, backed by the prospect of an independence referendum if it fails. Most indications point to rural and UCP voters backing his position, and not his party’s. Despite the pushback from Premier Jason Kenney, Barnes thus far remains firmly tucked away in the UCP benches.
While the movement has built its core voter support as an issue, it has only recently begun to try and fashion itself into a viable political party that can be taken seriously. The single largest obstacle in this evolution has been the lack of a credible leader.
That missing ingredient was added to the stew Tuesday afternoon. The fledgling Wexit Canada Party announced that effective immediately, Jay Hill was stepping up as its interim leader. Hill isn’t a nobody. He was first elected as a Reform MP in BC in 1993, and served under the successor Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party banners. He served as a cabinet minister, chief government whip, and house leader under Stephen Harper. It’s a resume that would make him a serious contender for the federal Tory leadership, if he wanted it.
Last summer, Hill spoke at a Wexit rally in Calgary.
“I believe the polls that about 25 per cent of Albertans are supportive of separating as of the moment, but I also agree that it could double easily that number if Justin Trudeau was re-elected on October 21.”
As history goes, Trudeau was re-elected. In less than 48 hours, Wexit’s Facebook page soared to a half-million followers.
A poll conducted for the Western Standard in late May found that 45 per cent of Albertans would vote ‘yes’ to independence. Forty-eight per cent of Albertans would vote ‘yes’ to the more moderate proposition of an independence vote, after the rejection of a fair deal proposal by Ottawa. Other polls have shown considerable support, but less than 45-48 per cent, likely due to the question being phrased as “separation”, rather than “independence”.
In either case, it is the single largest political constituency in Alberta without representation by any party in the legislature, or parliament.
Hill’s re-entry into the political arena has quickly turned the heads of the punditocracy that have dismissed the largely leaderless movement. While Hill won’t be running for the permanent job of leader, he adds gravitas in spades.
Wexit Canada founder, Peter Downing says that stepping aside for Hill was an easy decision to make. Downing no doubt had fashioned a significant political movement spanning four provinces in a very short period of time, but saw that his ability to take it to the next level had its limits.
For the federal Wexit Canada Party and the Wildrose Independence Party (and possibly the Saskatchewan Buffalo Party), the big challenges are still ahead. They need to make it through their founding policy conventions without descending into the factional chaos that can all too often mark new parties. They need to attract serious and credible leadership candidates, and get through the race without tearing themselves apart.
All of that remains to be seen, but it is getting increasingly difficult for the media and political classes to dismiss any longer.
Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and President of Wildrose Media Corp. email@example.com