With oil economy lagging, Alberta awaits better days

Alberta, once the wealthy western maverick among Canada's provinces, is still cooling its heels in recession. But the province is hopeful about its own future as most of Canada, in particular the industrial heartland in Ontario, enjoys a slow but steady economic comeback.

Much has changed since the early 1980s when Alberta was on top of the economic heap. As billions in oil revenue poured into the province, it fought long, bitter struggles with Ottawa over domestic energy pricing and constitutional reform.

Then the national energy program shifted the ''oil play'' from Alberta to the Canadian Arctic and offshore Newfoundland. Observers say it also ''brought Alberta into line,'' averting a possible redirection of Canada's economic base toward the west.

The province fared much better in the area of constitutional reform. After a stormy confrontation with Ottawa, Alberta's proposal for an amending formula was adopted in Canada's new Constitution, as was a controversial clause allowing any province to pull out of certain provisions in the Charter of Rights.

Western separatism has faded and now is supported only by the so-called ''fringe element.''

Does the end of the shouting mean there is a rapprochement between Alberta and Ottawa? Perhaps.

But it is more likely that there are no longer big stakes to fight over. This could change, however, if oil once again becomes a scarce commodity, sending world prices skyrocketing.

On the constitutional front, Alberta, always the ''tireless warrior'' on regional interests, continues to push for change - but more quietly. It supports the concept of reform in the Senate, now an appointive body, to make it more representative of regional and minority groups.

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