Milch Cow

Milch Cow (source: Glen Musem)

Westerners have probably always felt like second-class Canadians to one degree or another. There have been complaints against the East going back to the earliest years of settlement.

Indeed, Louis Riel led rebellions against the federal government twice, in 1869-70 and 1885. Later, farmers would create political organizations to represent their views to Ottawa. The Progressive Party of Canada was very popular in the West and elected a number of MPs from the region during the 1920s. Subsequent iterations of Western political dissent, such as Social Credit and the Reform Party of Canada are well-known.

Despite the seeming consistency of Western dissatisfaction for over a century, something important did change in the West’s perception of Canada. Westerners’ understanding of the cause of their plight has evolved over time. In the period before the Second World War, they believed the source of their problems lay in sinister organizations or in the economic system itself. Complaints against the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Eastern bankers are legendary. The Social Credit Party wanted to reform the monetary system, whereas the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) saw capitalism itself as the problem.

However, as former University of Alberta historian Doug Owram explains in his 1981 article ‘Reluctant Hinterland,’ Westerners subsequently began to realize that their problems were rooted in the structure of confederation itself, not in particular organizations or the economic system.

As Owram puts it, “Until the 1930s, western political protest tended to focus on either political structures or, more often, on ‘special interests.’ These special interests, whether banks, railway companies, or whatever, were perceived as using their power and their influence to affect national policy in their favour and against the interests of the West. The political response, therefore, tended to be framed in terms of reform. Programs to nationalize the CPR, reform the monetary system, smash the bankers, control the Grain Exchange, or whatever, all concentrated on attacks on systems thwarting the functioning of democracy. Reform of the system was the answer to western grievance because once the reforms were instituted, the grievances would disappear.”

After the Second World War, however, Westerners began to perceive that the problem was much more fundamental than they originally understood. The problem was the structure of confederation itself.

“Regional self-interests do differ and that fact leads to different expectations not just among elites but among the average voter as well. The real threat to the West, this chain of argument goes, comes from the consumer and worker in central Canada. The essential problem is not the money system or capitalism but the nature of democracy itself and especially the age-old problem of what has been termed the ‘tyranny of the majority.’”

In other words, because Ontario and Quebec contain well over 50 per cent of Canada’s population, Central Canada controls the federal government. That means the federal government will always enact policies in the best interest of Central Canada, not the West. This is a feature of the system, not a bug. As Westerners see things, Owram notes, Canadian politics are “designed to keep the region in a subordinate position relative to Ontario and Quebec. The West has never felt in control of its own destiny.”

Besides gaining a more accurate perception of the cause of the problem, there is one other way that things have changed for the West. Unlike the first half of the twentieth century, the West is now economically prosperous and would be able to survive on its own. As Owram writes, “The West was, in its early days, too much a frontier region to consider going it alone and then, through the 1930s and for a time after, too poor to make such an option worth considering. The new wealth of the region has changed this and many Westerners, especially in Alberta, believe that being part of Canada imposes a financial obstacle to the West’s further prosperity.”

In other words, while being a part of Canada was economically beneficial for the West during its first few decades, this is no longer the case. The kinds of policies now being imposed upon the West (think Bill C-69 and Bill C-48) mean that an independent West would clearly be more prosperous. The economic case for remaining in Canada has collapsed.

Why does this matter? Because the two changes described here help to highlight the case for Western independence. First of all, early Western political activists had not fully recognized that the structure of confederation was itself the root of the West’s problems, and therefore thought that certain reforms would be enough to solve their problems. Their proposed reforms were insufficient. Later generations, however, saw more clearly that Central Canadian dominance was systemic. This realization means that the West’s problems cannot be solved within Canada.

Secondly, the early West wasn’t strong enough economically to go it alone. Now it is more than strong enough to survive on its own.

Westerners increasingly realize that the West will always be subordinate to Central Canada. This situation provides a clear political reason to pursue independence. Westerners also know that economic prosperity would be the likely result of independence. This knowledge provides added incentive to embrace independence as a goal.

Michael Wagner is a columnist for the Western Standard

Senior Columnist (Alberta)

Michael Wagner is the Senior Alberta Columnist for the Western Standard and Alberta Report based in Edmonton, Alberta. He has a PhD in political science from the U of A and has authored several books on Alberta politics and the independence movement.

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