They will lose. Trudeau’s shiny, Instagram-able veneer aside, his ruling Liberal Party faces what is shaping up to be horrific national election in October. Collapsed positions vis-à-vis the Americans on trade has gutted Liberal support in Quebec, British Colombia has outflanked Trudeau to the left, Alberta’s Prairie Province neighbors have never been strong Liberal territory, and Ontario is slipping into a decidedly non-leftist populism. Trudeau needs Alberta’s tax dollars to hold Canada together, and any concessions to Alberta would immediately be demanded by other provinces. What Alberta is asking for is quite literally an end of Canada. Even if Trudeau wanted to give ground (and he does not), he absolutely cannot.
Something’s gotta give.
This Alberta Question has two possible outcomes.
The first is an Albertan collapse.
Economically, the province’s strength is resource extraction. Without a significant change in how Canada functions, the Albertans inability to bring their crude to market leaves them staring down an economic depression Greek in depth while alsofacing ever higher financial extractions from Ottawa. It is enough to hollow out Calgary on the scale of Detroit. As a government town, Edmonton wouldn’t do much better.
Politically, Alberta’s United Conservatives face an impending litany of defeats on absolutely every issue that they say matter to them. Barring impossible shifts in Ottawa’s position, a repeat of the sort of infighting which brought the NDP to power in 2015 is all but guaranteed.
All that needs to occur to guarantee the rudderless and hopeless outcomes of this option is that the Albertans continue to do what they’ve done for the past decade: hope things get better and hope what they say matters.
Outcome Two requires a sharp break with convention, as it is nothing less than Albertan secession.
The logic of Alberta leaving Canada is difficult to deny. If the rest of Canada remains hellbent on cramping the Albertans’ style, why not quit the Canada Show? Alberta isn’t dependent on the federal government’s financial handouts like other provinces. It has an energy sector, public infrastructure, educational system and workforce that has drawn plenty of international investment interest on its own. Negotiating export pipelines directly with the United States would be infinitely easier than with other Canadian governments, especially since the U.S. Gulf Coast is home to the onlyconcentration of refineries in the world that can process Albertan heavy crudes. The money the Albertan government would save by not having to underwrite the rest of Canada would be gob-smacking.
But just because secession solves a bunch of problems doesn’t mean the Albertans are chomping at the bit to make it happen. No one in the Albertan public space is using the “S” word just yet. None of the major parties campaigned on separation, either in 2015 or 2019, but that doesn’t mean that the topic isn’t about to dominate provincial political discussions.
The United Conservatives now face a truly weird combination of factors: a complete lack of ability to get anything they want from within the Canadian system, and the utter ability to leave that system. It isn’t that anyone in power in Edmonton is agitating for independence, but it will become obvious very soon that discussions of and processes towards independence are the only thing Albertans are actually in charge of.
We’ll save the implications of at-this-point-still-theoretical Albertan independence for another time. Even if the incoming Albertan government were dead-set on a secession referendum—and they are not—simply going through the motions to achieve that end will take a few months.
But as a teaser consider that Alberta by itself is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, Canada is the tenth-largest economy, and the bilateral American-Canadian bilateral trade relationship has been the world’s largest for the bulk of the past two generations. One way or another, all things Canadian are now firmly on our radar, reaching up to the level of importance of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, the ongoing Japanese and Russian resurgences, and the pending European and Chinese disintegrations.
For Canadians everywhere, that alone should be terrifying.