Alberta’s American heritage and the threat to Canadian national unity

lethbridge-flag

The official municipal flag of the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, a version of the flag American whiskey traders flew over Fort Whoop-up before 1874

Winter has come relatively early here at Hope Ness, as elsewhere in this part of Canada, from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. It came much earlier on the Canadian prairies, just as farmers were taking in the harvest; and even on Canada’s Pacific coast, normally still quite balmy in mid-autumn.

Meanwhile, another big chill has gripped Canada: a serious threat to national unity in the wake of the apparently divisive results of the recent federal election.

In the opening paragraph above I deliberately avoided language that draws questionable attention to Canada’s geographically regional character. Yes, that is a reality. As a high school history teacher told our Grade 12 class 50 years ago, the geography of North America largely flows north-south; but national boundaries of Canada and the U.S. and the way the two countries have developed is east-west. His conclusion was that Canada needed to have a “strong central government in order to survive.”

I have thought about Mr. Greason’s rather political ‘lesson’ often over the years, but never so much as since the results of the Oct. 21 election, with the sight of those misleading maps on news coverage showing Canada divided into blocs of political party colors.

Such maps indirectly beg us all to remember, now more than ever, that there are people of many political colors in every one of the 338 federal, parliamentary ridings in this free, democratic and diverse country. Still, I will concede they do serve the purpose of drawing attention to the worrisome fact Canada is badly divided culturally and politically, rural and urban, anti-immigrant and not.

I for one am deeply worried about the future of this good country; and I bet I’m not alone in that regard.

Bad enough the Bloc Quebecois is back in strength in Quebec, raising the possibility some time in the future of yet another separatist referendum if that trend continues. Following the near triumph of the “yes” side in the last Quebec sovereignty referendum, Quebec has gradually achieved increased autonomy, over immigration, for example, while remaining part of Canada.  But an unintended byproduct of that is the extent to which it has set a precedent, even a legal one, for other discontented province to follow the same path. And in the aftermath of the recent election results, Alberta and Saskatchewan are doing just that.

As some commentators have observed, the Federal government’s Clarity Act (Bill C-20), adopted after the 1995 Quebec referendum, established a legal basis for secession from Confederation, including a clear and unbiased referendum question. Although, it was prompted by the possibility of another Quebec referendum, it could technically apply to other provinces.

That’s clearly the feeling in Alberta and Saskatchewan where underlying western alienation and separatist sentiment took off as soon as the election results were known: A re-elected Liberal government, albeit a minority, and with no Liberals elected in either province.

Despite losing the popular vote nationwide by 1.3 percent over the federal Conservative Party, the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, ended up with with 157 seats, to the Conservative’s 121, led by Andrew Scheer. Conservatives won 33 of the 34 seats in Alberta with 69.2 percent share of the popular vote in the province. They won all 14 seats in Saskatchewan, including Scheer’s home riding.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe were quick to draw attention to the growing separatist discontent and the risk that it could lead to outright secession if the Trudeau government failed to meet their demands. Those demands included cancellation or suspension of the federal climate-change-fighting carbon tax, the construction of more oil pipelines, including beyond the stalled Trans-Mountain pipeline, and changes to federal equalization payments. There has also been talk about replacing the current RCMP policing in favor of provincial police services, provincial pension plans to replace the Canada Pension Plan, the right to collect income taxes, and a role in controlling immigration. All these demands are designed to give the two provinces more “autonomy” along the lines already enjoyed by Quebec.

Scott-Moe-Letter

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s letter sent to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the Oct. 21 election. Note the absence of a “Dear Prime Minister Trudeau” salutation

In my view, you don’t have to be a political, let alone a rocket, scientist to see where those demands could lead. I can’t help but wonder if the secession outcome is being engineered. Several of the demands are loaded to fail, demands the Liberal government is certain to refuse, including cancelling of the carbon tax in the midst of the worsening, world-wide, climate-change crisis, and the building of more pipelines in addition to Trans Mountain. (The previous Liberal governments decision to buy and commitment to complete construction of Trans Mountain appears to have meant little to many Conservative voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan.)

I do not usually subscribe to a narrow, nationalist ideology. But when it comes to my own country, I make an exception. In a world going down a slippery slope of dangerous nationalism based on racial, cultural and religious divisiveness, I see Canada’s diversity and welcoming immigration policy as a great example and wonderful lesson in these times. I’ve often said in this space Canada is not perfect, that it is a work in progress, but it works, and it’s heading in the right direction.

I daresay there are people in Alberta and perhaps even in Saskatchewan who would just as soon see their provinces secede from Canada, become independent states, and then more than likely states within the U.S. Such a course of events would lead to the collapse of confederation and the end of Canada. A beacon of light in a troubled world would be extinguished, with dire consequences for the future.

The United States of America was once that beacon. It was the place where the poor, downtrodden, and persecuted people of the world dreamed of going to find relief from their suffering, and hope to build a new life for themselves and their children in a free country where everyone was equal under the law.

But, especially in the last few years, the U.S. has lost its way: it has betrayed that dream, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. It has failed in its obligation to keep that spirit alive in its democracy as it pursued material wealth; as if that was after all, the thing that mattered way more than anything else. The U.S. economy is still the largest in the world, with China close behind. But America’s wealth is increasingly in the hands of a small percentage of its people: by 2016 the wealthiest one percent of Americans held close to 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and that was trending upward. Everyone else’s share was on the decline, with only 23 percent of wealth distributed among the “bottom” 90 percent of the American population, and trending downward. That’s according to a March 21, 2019 issue brief published by The Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Of course, there was a deep well of increasingly desperate discontent in the greater mass of the American people; of course, someone was bound to come along who would tap into and unscrupulously exploit that discontent. The pre-2016 American political establishment – who the alt-right extremists would call, “the deep state” – must bear responsibility for not taking action to prevent and/or counter that glaring inequity. Now, as a result, the world’s once-greatest democracy, is in an existential crisis of its own.

American cultural and populist political attitudes are deeply rooted in Alberta, especially in the southern part of the province, going back to the days of Fort Whoop-up where American whiskey traders who crossed the largely unguarded Canada-U.S. border illegally, flew their own version of the American flag. (Fort Whoop-up was in the vicinity of the present-day Alberta city of Lethbridge where a restoration of the fort remains a popular tourist attraction. I find it shocking that the official municipal flag of Lethbridge is a version of the Fort Whoop-up flag.) In fairness, I should say they traded more than whiskey for fortunes in buffalo robes. The situation at Fort Whoop-up was instrumental in the formation of the North-West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) to assert Canadian sovereignty over the then territory in 1874. The NWMP set up a detachment at the fort, and flew the Canadian ensign.

Alberta became a Province of Canada in 1905 in the midst of a population boom as many thousands of immigrants arrived from the British Isles, other European countries, and other parts of Canada. Americans were among the largest number of immigrants, settling mostly in southern Alberta where they became ranchers or farmers.

“Alberta’s Americans hailed largely from the rural Midwest and Great Plains states and they settled overwhelmingly in southern rural Alberta. This region, over-represented in the legislature, drove provincial politics,” says an interesting and revealing ‘issue brief’ I found on-line as I researched this article. Titled, The American Imprint on Alberta Politics, and written by Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto, it was prepared for the 2010 annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association.

“By the end of the First World War, southern Alberta’s largely rural, populist, and American-influenced political culture infused and overpowered other regions of the province,” The brief says. “An example of a quintessentially rural American institution that penetrated Calgary was the rodeo. Its symbol, the cowboy, was an American invention, the product of a western frontier experience quite different from the Canadian experience associated with the law-enforcing Mountie. Calgary became ‘cowtown,’ home of the Stampede, the worlds most extravagant celebration of the cowboy.”

The brief notes the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), a rural cooperative that still exists, rose to power and prominence in southern Alberta. It got involved in provincial politics and formed Alberta’s government after the 1921 provincial election. Wiseman’s brief says, “Even before the UFA’s election to office in 1921, the Calgary Herald described them as ‘the bosses’ of provincial politics. The organization’s composition reflected the American sway: eight of its 19 executive members were American-born, outnumbering the British- or Canadian-born members. Henry Wise Wood, the UFA leader from 1916 to 1931, chair of the Alberta Wheat Pool from 1923 to 1937, and president of the Canadian Council of Agriculture, had arrived in Alberta as a 45 year-old veteran Missouri populist who had participated in the formation of both the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party in the U.S. Dubbed the ‘uncrowned king of Alberta’ by his biographer, no American has been as prominent or influential in the politics of any other province and no proposed reform in UFA-governed Alberta gained adoption without his sanction.”

His brief was “controversial,” Wiseman noted at the time.

“Americans played a foundational role in casting Alberta’s ideological die as the provincial political culture congealed, he concludes. “Ideological affinities of Alberta and America’s Great Plains politics abounded. Radical populist, liberal-individualist ideas originating in the U.S. gained wide currency in Alberta’s last decade as a territory and first two decades as a province. Albertans, among English Canadians, have been the most receptive, in both their province’s formative and later years to embracing American outlooks.”

I leave it to my millions of readers here to judge how relevant Alberta’s American heritage is to the rise of the separatist sentiment in Alberta now, possibly leading to secession. But I will say this: The extent to which Albertans still sympathize with certain American political attitudes should be a consideration in the ongoing discussion about the future of Alberta, in Canada, or without.

pallister

Brian Pallister, Premier of Manitoba.

Meanwhile Alberta Premier Jason Kenny, and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe should stop playing the separatist card, implied or actual, and follow the example of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister who recently made a point of saying publicly he wanted to do whatever he could to help the cause of Canadian unity.

“I came in peace,” Pallister said after a recent 45-minute meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his Parliament Hill office. “I’m a friendly Manitoban looking to help in any way I can to restore a sense of faith in the future of our country.”

To that I say, thank you, Brian, from one proud Canadian to another.

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