Western Canada gets its first separatist leader

Oil-rich Alberta has been delivered the political shock of its life with the election of a separatist.

It is the first time a separatist has ever been elected in Western Canada.

The surprise election of a Western separatist, Gordon Kesler, to the Alberta legislature is certain to make Ottawa sit up and take notice.

Western Canada Concept, Alberta's new political party which formed nine months ago, had its first test at the polls Feb. 17 in a provincial by-election (special election) just north of Calgary. And the decisive separatist win stunned many pundits and politicians.

The Upset victory is seen by some as not so much a pro-separatist vote but rather as an anti-government vote - whether it be provincial or federal. To put it differently, the result can more or less be linked to the feelings in the movie Network. As the movie would have it, Albertan voters had ''enough'' of government and weren't ''going to take it anymore.''

As the victorious Kesler put it, ''It's time that we got the government back into the hands of the people.''

Western Canadian separatism - quite unlike and quite independent of Quebec separatism - is by no means running rampant, but this small and persistent ''grass-roots'' element now has an electoral toehold in Alberta's foothills.

In ahdition to charging Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed's conservatives with ''completely losing touch with Albertans'' Kesler, an oil scout, sees Canada's parliamentary system working against Western Canada. The system is based on representation by population and the federal House of Commons, the country's supreme governing body (Canada's upper house in the federal Parliament, the Senate, has little real power).

Comparatively few people live in Canada's resource-rich west - where fields, forests, and mountains produce raw material for central Canada's manufacturing base.

In terms of representation in the House of Commons the interest of Canada's four west provinces might be easily set aside should they conflict with those of the more densely populated provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Voters in this central region of Canada elect 170 of the 282 members to the House of Commons, while Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia elect only 77 members - a ratio of more than 2 to 1.

To Kesler that means Ontario and Quebec have vastly more political clout than the four western provinces in Canada's federal government.

In a country where a majority government in Ottawa can often be determined before the vote is even counted westward of the Ontario-Manitoba border, western Canadians have often felt alienated from the rest of Canada. This point was sharply brought home in the last general election in Canada when most of the country knew the election was over 2 1/2 hours before the polls closed in British Columbia. The majority Liberal government of 145 seats, supposed to represent all of Canada's 10 provinces, and two territories, had only two elected members from the west (both from the province of Manitoba).

Western separatism is a separatism based on economics and an underlying feeling that the west doesn't have any meaningful say in Canada's federal system. This is much different from Quebec's separatism which is based more on matters of the heart, such as preservation of French and Quebec culture.

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