For residents of ‘Canada’s Texas,’ a sense of ‘western alienation’

Why We Wrote This

Divisions in Canadian society, once primarily about linguistic identity, are starting to resemble those in the U.S. – a geographic split between energy-industry conservatives in the west and eastern environmentalist liberals.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Paul Lemieux sells and rents out industrial and residential equipment in Edson, Alberta. His company lot has been packed lately due to the downturn in Canada’s oil and gas industry.

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Alberta, often called the Texas of Canada, is a frustrated place these days. Albertans are frustrated at Liberal policies under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at other provinces protesting the pipelines they want to build, and more recently at activists who have made the oil sands of Alberta one of the flashpoints of global environmental protest.

This frustration is not particularly new. Alienation is part of the identity of western Canada, says author Mary Janigan, and traces back over a century when the western provinces were created and control of their resources was given to Ottawa. “There’s a lingering resentment about any central interference in resources,” says Ms. Janigan. “Alberta’s hackles remain up.”

Yet today the consequences might be greater, as environmental concerns become more pressing. Paul Lemieux, who worked for 25 years in the oil business, says the rest of Canada can sometimes make Albertans feel like “a bunch of money-grubbing polluters.” 

He says that diminishes the common ground that exists. He calls Canadian standards on resource extraction some of the best in the world. “I’m not saying we couldn’t do things better, for sure,” he says. But they all have children and grandchildren whose futures they want to preserve too. “I don’t think any of us wants to be environmentally unfriendly.”

Paul Lemieux’s back lot is as good a gauge as any with which to assess the vigor of Canada’s oil and gas industry – and the mood in rural Alberta. In good times, the heavy equipment he rents out to the oil patch is mostly gone. These days it’s packed.

Henry Goulet determines his well-being by looking at the state of people’s roofs. He owns a repair business, and when the industry is in good shape, people keep up their homes. Right now, they aren’t.

And for Pat Matvie, the measure is all around her. After 25 years as an oil field consultant, she was laid off over Christmas. On a recent day she packs her things: At age 62 she is taking a job as a grade operator, three hours north of Edson, and is living in her recreational vehicle for the summer.

These Albertans are fed up: at Liberal policies under Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at other provinces protesting the pipelines they want to build to bring their product to market, and more recently at activists at home and abroad who have made the oil sands of Alberta one of the flashpoints of global environmental protest. “Left out, neglected, kind of like the poor second cousin,” is the way Mr. Lemieux puts it.

This frustration is not particularly new. “Western alienation” goes back to the 19th century. But in many ways the feelings of isolation have deepened as they’ve grown beyond a political clash between Canada’s conservative heartland and a Liberal government in Ottawa. They’ve gotten wrapped up in the bigger battle between the resource economy and the environment, putting residents in places like Edson right in the middle.

Indeed, if Canada’s fault lines once ran along English- and French-speaking populations – with Quebec separatism the nadir – today it’s between “east” and “west,” which has put social unity at risk, and raised questions about how to find middle ground.

“The sense of emotional fracture is pretty strong. The level of discontent in Alberta is very high, and it’s also jumped. I think it’s fair to say that it’s never been higher,” says Andrew Parkin, executive director at Environics Institute for Survey Research, which recently polled Canadians on challenges to the confederation. “And this is landing at the moment where people are taking sides for and against a carbon-based economy. Almost every country in the world is trying to find the right balance. ... But the problem in the Canadian context is you’ve regionalized those sides of that discussion.”

Us vs. them

In their survey from April, Albertans emerged as the Canadians most likely to say they don’t get the respect they deserve, at 71% – far higher than historically separatist Quebec, where currently 54% feel disrespected. Alberta’s number is a spike from 49% in 2010, when Albertan politician Stephen Harper was prime minister, giving westerners confidence they had an authentic voice in Ottawa.

For the first time since 1987, when attitudes were first tracked, a majority agrees that “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.” That is a common gripe on the street, where residents will often muse about Alberta separating from Canada, although there’s no real political momentum behind that sentiment as there once was in Quebec. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Henry Goulet, owner of Horsebreaker Roofing, says his business is slow.

Still, western alienation is part of the identity of the west, says Mary Janigan, author of “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark.” It traces back over a century, when the western provinces were carved out to join Canada. Notably, neither Saskatchewan nor Alberta were granted control over their own resources when they joined the confederation in 1905 (nor was Manitoba in 1870), a constitutional inequality that remained in place until 1930.

Tensions flared again in the 1970s and ’80s amid federal price controls. Most recently, delays to the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline that carries product from the Albertan oil sands to British Columbia, a major infrastructure project that sits at the heart of pipeline protests, have resurfaced many of those old feelings.

“There’s a lingering resentment about any central interference in resources, and that has lingered to this day,” says Ms. Janigan. “Alberta’s hackles remain up.”

Yet today the consequences might be greater, as environmental concerns become more pressing – and more mainstream – and Albertans fear their prized industry is at stake.

In April, Albertans overwhelmingly elected Jason Kenney, who ran on an “us versus them” platform, to be premier (analogous to a U.S. governor). “Your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended,” he said in his victory speech to wild cheers.

Alberta, often called the Texas of Canada, is not a monolith; the outgoing premier hailed from the left. But Mr. Kenney is the face of a group of conservative premiers opposing the Liberals in the lead-up to October’s federal election. They have fought the government’s signature climate change policy, a carbon tax. At home Mr. Kenney announced the creation of a “war room,” a $30 million (Canadian, U.S.$22.6 million) initiative intended to debunk misinformation about Alberta’s oil industry, which he says is held to the highest Canadian environmental standards.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pipes that recently arrived on the railroad for the Trans Mountain Pipeline are trucked to a holding area outside Edson, Alberta.

Mr. Kenney rails against a national tax equalization program – in which federal dollars are sent to poorer provinces to help support their public services – finding a sympathetic audience here. But the program is poorly understood. The conception held by many Albertans, and played up by Mr. Kenney, is that the money is coming out of an Albertan provincial cache and being given to other provinces like Quebec, which the west has always perceived as having more power (and, along with British Columbia, happens to be among the loudest critics of the oil industry).

But in reality, the program is funded with money from all Canadian taxpayers, not individual provinces – the revenue being redistributed was never in Alberta’s purse. And while Albertans do pay a higher share than residents of other provinces, that is because, despite the downturn, Albertan per capita incomes are among the highest in Canada.

“This is the first time recently that I’ve actually seen political leaders openly trading on that lack of understanding, because they think it will win them votes,” says Melanee Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “And it does. But there are consequences for social cohesion.”

“We need to stop this bickering”

Mr. Kenney’s constituents don’t seem to care. “I’m glad he’s making a lot of noise,” says Mr. Goulet, the roofer in Edson.

Edson is a friendly town of about 8,500 that sits right on the path of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. A federal court in June approved the mega project – after a yearlong delay – and Edson is humming again. Pipeline parts arrive daily via train and then are trucked to a stockyard at the edge of town. The mood should be brighter, but it’s not.

For starters, many worry the project won’t actually take off, keeping their natural resources landlocked. The expansion had already been approved once last year, before a federal court delayed it for lack of environmental and indigenous consultation. In the meantime, the town deals with economic malaise. The Spanish energy company Repsol just announced layoffs of 30% of its operations, some in Edson. The unemployment rate is already high, 10% in 2016, according to provincial statistics, up from about 5% in 2011.

Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara says Ottawa doesn’t understand the local ramifications. “The federal government doesn’t have a clear understanding of how big of an impact the project has on our communities,” he says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara poses with Eddie the Squirrel, the town mascot.

Jim Eglinski, a Conservative MP who represents this riding, faults the federal government for creating divisions. “We need to stop this bickering between provinces,” he says. “We are one country. We have to stand united. Let’s face it, Canada has always been a country that’s recognized as rich in natural resources.”

It’s not that Albertans want to leave Canada, Mr. Parkin says. When looking closer at the actual issues, including tax equalization or climate policy, most Canadians say they want to find a solution that benefits all. “There’s not a lot of evidence of people wanting to turn their backs on each other and thinking that’s the solution,” he says. 

But climate politics has a way of widening divides here in a new way.

From Alberta’s point of view, the province is sitting on an asset they can’t sell. “And no one else in the country seems to think this is a huge problem,” Mr. Parkin says. “Whereas a number of other Canadians, in Quebec for instance, are saying, ‘What part of the climate emergency memo did you not get?’”

The mention of climate change here raises defenses unlike any other issue. It’s given rise to a patriotic movement plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers that read “I love Alberta’s Oil and Gas.” Callie Hermanson, the coordinator of Edson’s local history museum, wrote her college dissertation on Jane Fonda’s visit to the Alberta oil sands – in a helicopter.

“I’m all for being green and doing your part for the environment,” says Ms. Hermanson. “But you can’t be a hypocrite. You can’t go drive your car and fly your plane across the country.” Or your helicopter.

Meanwhile Mr. Lemieux, who worked for 25 years in the oil business, says the rest of Canada can sometimes make Albertans feel like “a bunch of money-grubbing polluters.” 

He says that’s flawed – and diminishes the common ground that exists. He calls Canadian standards on resource extraction some of the best in the world. “I’m not saying we couldn’t do things better, for sure,” he says. But they all have children and grandchildren whose futures they want to preserve too. “I don’t think any of us wants to be environmentally unfriendly.”

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