Ottawa and the West — it’s déjà vu all over again


Just months after a closely fought federal election, the threat of western alienation was again on the minds of Canadians. The Liberals had managed to hold on to power while being reduced to just a handful of seats in the West.

In the media, pundits were talking about an entire region’s deep feelings of frustration, futility and anger.

To be clear, we’re talking about the election in 2000 now, not the one last month — but the parallels are still remarkable. Back then, Jean Chrétien had won a third majority by calling an early election and soundly crushing the Canadian Alliance. But his Liberals ended up with just nine seats west of Manitoba. The Canadian Alliance won only two seats in Ontario, nothing east of there.

It was Canada’s last election without a successfully united right-of-centre party, and the last big majority for the federal Liberals until Justin Trudeau’s sweep in 2015.

It also happens to be when CBC’s The National debuted its popular At Issue panel. For that first panel discussion on Feb. 8, 2001, one of the topics up for debate was western alienation.

Peter Mansbridge was moderator. His guests were Calgary Sun editor Licia Corbella, Calgary political scientist Lisa Young and Western Canadian-born pollster Allan Gregg.

A breaking point

That panel discussion — both the questions asked and the answers offered — matters now less because it tells us how things have changed, and more because it tells us how many things have not changed.

The results of the November 2000 election, the panel suggested, were being viewed by the West as a rejection by Eastern Canada of new ideas for governing the country. Corbella said that, for Alberta — a province that had been pushing for an elected Senate since 1978, a province desperate to see a minority government in Ottawa and to finally wield some real clout in the nation’s capital — the election looked like a breaking point.

A photo of a fake Republic of Western Canada passport is being circulated online by people who feel Canada’s West should separate from the rest of Canada. (Facebook.com/Screenshot)

Gregg weighed in with his assessment of Western Canadians’ political self-image: they don’t see themselves as trouble-makers but they believe they work harder than anyone else and never get their fair share of federal power.

The point is this: nothing in the current debate about western alienation is particularly novel or surprising. We’ve been here before. Only the players have changed.

Liberal weakness in the West is nothing new

The Liberals’ wretched performance in the West last month wasn’t even all that remarkable. The Liberal Party of Canada has never managed to create a hotbed of support west of Manitoba. After 2015, Liberals held just five seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, plus another 17 in B.C.

They fared much worse in 2011, winning just four seats in all of Western Canada, including Manitoba.

But that was still better than Pierre Trudeau’s dismal result in 1980, when the Liberals were shut out of all the western provinces except Manitoba, where they won just two seats.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did better in October than his father did back then. He still won nothing at all in Saskatchewan and Alberta and managed to lose three seats in Manitoba, where the party historically has enjoyed at least some success.

When the threat of western alienation landed on Chrétien’s desk again in 2000, he had been trying already to address it for a few years.

Chrétien’s quest for a response

In 1999, as a response to the Reform Party under Preston Manning forming the Official Opposition, Chrétien struck a caucus task force. It’s job was to visit western communities, listen to residents and assure them that their federal government would pay attention to their policy concerns.

Led by Manitoba Liberal MP John Harvard, the group of MPs and senators visited 28 communities in the region over a period of four months.

The recommendations they came back may be 20 years old now, but they’re shockingly similar to the demands we’ve heard in recent months from parts of the West: better foreign market access for natural resource sectors, more value-added processing for the energy industry and a promise to not introduce a carbon tax.

At least one of those ideas is off the table: the carbon tax is here to stay. The Trudeau Liberals are attempting to address the market access problem by twinning the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Other recommendations in the Harvard report remain viable. Why not encourage cabinet ministers to travel more often to all areas of Western Canada? Why not make a point of holding caucus or committee hearings in parts of the country that feel disconnected from Central Canada?

Clearly, none of these ideas on its own would be enough to address deep feelings of resentment that have been present in the region for many, many decades — feelings that may date back to the Red River Rebellion itself, according to some students of the subject.

Albertans take part in a rally for western separation in Edmonton Nov. 2. (Gabriel Brown/CBC)

No, western rage is not new. Not every idea for addressing it makes sense. But that doesn’t mean anyone in the federal government can afford to ignore it, then or now.

In the end, the problem sorted itself out at the ballot box, at least temporarily. The Liberals were reduced to a minority government under Paul Martin in 2004, for reasons that went well beyond regional alienation (the sponsorship scandal comes to mind). Once Stephen Harper’s Conservatives began their decade in power with the election of a minority government in 2006, western alienation became (for a time) a moot point.

It’s not a myth

Final word goes to Joe Clark. The day before that first At Issue back in 2001, the CBC Radio program This Morning convened its own panel on western alienation.

Host Michael Enright asked the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party if western alienation was a media construct, or a political position, or merely a “myth.”

It’s no myth, Clark replied.

“I think there’s a significant sense of frustration that western Canadians are not able to have the impact upon, or think we’re not able to have the impact upon, the shaping of the nation,” he said.

“Is it a crisis? Not yet … [but] I think it is a very significant opportunity for a national government.”

It was a “significant opportunity” that no one in the federal government seized upon almost 20 years ago. Will that part of the history repeat itself as well?

Watch Rosemary Barton and the At Issue panel — Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Althia Raj — tonight on CBC’s The National, at 10 p.m. on CBC Television and 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

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