Ted Clugston remembers the first time he saw his father cry. Decades later, the mayor of Medicine Hat, Alberta, still nurses a grudge for the man he holds responsible: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then Canada’s prime minister.
It was the 1980s and Canada was in a recession. Clugston’s father, Keith, was in distress as he watched friends in the oil-rich province struggling with economic adversity. He blamed the malaise on a federal policy that gave Ottawa control over the energy sector.
So when Trudeau’s son Justin won reelection as prime minister last month, Clugston was irate.
“It was aggravating and disappointing,” he said. “The sense of frustration is boiling over here.”
Trudeau’s Liberals lost the popular vote to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, and they were completely shut out of the oil- and gas-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. But they still managed to command a strong plurality of seats in Parliament – a result that has worsened feelings of existential angst and alienation in the two prairie provinces, and presents a major headache for Trudeau as he begins a second mandate.
At the heart of the frustration are the Liberal government’s environmental policies – including a nationwide levy on carbon and a new law that revamps the approval process for projects such as pipelines – that many in those western provinces believe will hasten the demise of the oil and gas industry.
Not long ago, the energy sector was booming, and producing high-paying jobs that attracted workers from across Canada to cities such as Medicine Hat. Then global oil prices crashed in 2014, plunging Alberta into a recession from which recovery has been slow.
Since then, the industry has struggled. Thousands of workers have lost jobs that don’t appear to be coming back. A lack of new pipeline infrastructure has weighed on the price of crude oil in Alberta and prevented the product from getting to new markets.
Medicine Hat is known as the “Gas City” for its massive natural gas fields. “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement,” a visiting Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1907, “and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.” But it’s suffering from the glut of cheap gas in the United States; officials announced in September that they would be permanently shutting down 2,000 wells.
Marcus Campbell, co-owner of the renewable-energy company Terralta, speaks of the growing number of vacant buildings in the city. Medicine Hat has fared better than others, attracting a bitcoin mining facility and a cannabis company. But many of the jobs that were lost have not returned.
Many in Alberta and Saskatchewan say they’ve been taken advantage of by a country that has benefited from their industry while thumbing its nose at them – treating them, as Clugston said, like a “forgotten stepchild.”
During the election campaign, the federal parties paid little attention to Alberta, a conservative stronghold, choosing instead to focus their attention on the battleground districts in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
“That is typical politics,” said Lisa Kowalchuk, the executive director of the Medicine Hat & District Chamber of Commerce. “But I don’t believe that is the right approach.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen as a rising star in Conservative politics, said this month that the Trudeau government has been “actively hostile” to his province’s energy industry. He has worn his support for the sector on his sleeve, showing up at Sunday’s Canadian Football League championship game in a sweatshirt and cap emblazoned with a heart, maple leaf and the phrase “I love Canadian oil and gas.” In 2018, Canada’s energy sector represented 11.1 percent of the country’s nominal gross domestic product.
“Government and politicians in many parts of the country [are] benefiting from the resources that belong to Albertans, while trying to impair us from developing those same resources,” Kenney said.
Kenney announced the creation of a “fair deal” panel that would consult with Albertans on measures that would grant the province more autonomy, such as establishing a provincial police force and withdrawing from Canada’s national pension plan – ideas that a similar panel studied in 2004 and determined were not in Alberta’s interests.
Calls for Alberta and Saskatchewan to separate from Canada – a “Wexit” – have grown since last month’s election, but remain on the fringes.
Kenney, who was a federal cabinet minister under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has said that “giving up on Canada forever” is not the answer.
Trevor Tombe, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, said the measures that Kenney has asked the “fair deal” panel to study are unlikely to boost the economy. He views them instead as “an elegant mechanism” for the government to “diffuse” some of the separatist pressures.
In a bid to contain the alienation, Trudeau last week moved Chrystia Freeland – a native Albertan who played a critical role in negotiating the proposed update to the North American Free Trade Agreement – from the Foreign Ministry to Intergovernmental Affairs, where she will aim to broker peace in the prairies.
It won’t be easy. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he was “disappointed” after meeting with Trudeau this month. He asked the federal government for a “one-year pause” on its federal carbon tax. Most Canadians voted for parties that support levies on carbon.
Freeland traveled to Western Canada this week for initial meetings with Kenney and Moe. Both said that they appreciated her willingness to listen; Moe told reporters that separating from Canada is not in Saskatchewan’s best interests.
Trudeau expended a significant amount of political capital in 2018 to take over the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, opposed by some indigenous groups and environmentalists – not that he gets much credit for it from the energy industry. Campbell wondered whether it was just “a media ploy.” Clugston posited, without evidence, that Trudeau bought the pipeline “to stall it.” (Construction on the project resumed in August.)
Another bone of contention is equalization, a program in which the federal government transfers funds to poorer provinces to ensure that all Canadians receive comparable public services. Albertans are outraged that the province does not receive equalization payments – but that’s because, despite the downturn, the province’s economy still outperforms most others, and its per capita income is the highest in the country.
“Not paying equalization to Alberta is as unfair as not providing social-assistance checks to Bill Gates,” Tombe said.
In his rhetoric, Kenney often suggests that Alberta sends equalization funds directly to provinces such as Quebec, which oppose pipelines. In fact, the program is funded by all Canadian taxpayers when they contribute to the federal government’s general revenue.
Kenney, who was a federal cabinet minister when the equalization formula was last amended, has threatened to call a referendum on removing equalization from the constitution if the country does not make major progress on expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline by 2021.
Margot Young, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said Kenney’s rhetoric around equalization risks inflaming separatist sentiment.
“The import of a referendum would not be legal,” she said. “It would be purely political.”
In a country as massive and diverse as Canada, squabbles among the provinces and the federal government are common. Perhaps the best known example is the separatist sentiment in French-speaking Quebec. But western alienation – the sense that the rest of Canada has stacked the deck against the country’s west – is as old as the country itself.
When Canada was founded in 1867, its four original provinces – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – retained complete control over their own resources. But that was not the case when Alberta and Saskatchewan joined in 1905 – an inequity that would not be addressed until 1930.
A cartoon in the 1915 “Grain Growers Guide” shows industrious farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba shoveling grain into the mouth of a giant cow, while men in top hats from eastern Canada milk it.
The apex of alienation came in 1980 with the National Energy Program – the policy that brought Clugston’s father to tears. Many Albertans – even those who were babies at the time – shudder at its mere mention. “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” was a popular bumper sticker in Alberta at the time.
The difference today, according to University of Saskatchewan political scientist Loleen Berdahl, is climate change, and the conflict between the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists.
The premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, she said, seem “pretty dug in.”
Not all western leaders are stoking perennial grievances. Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart last week had some advice for the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“Get over yourselves,” he said.
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