April 9, 2019 / 7:07 PM / 6 months ago

Political parties stoke separatist sentiment ahead of Alberta vote

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Talk of Alberta separating from the rest of Canada is gaining ground ahead of April 16 elections, as a number of political parties in the country’s energy heartland seek to capitalise on voter anger with federal policies.

The idea that Alberta could separate has been a fringe idea in the province for years but last month the Alberta Independence Party, which was revived in 2018 after a 17-year hiatus, was awarded official status after registering 63 candidates to fight in the election.

Adding fuel to the separatist fire, is a promise by the United Conservative Party, which is leading in polls, to hold a referendum on equalization payments - a federal payout system to smooth out disparities among provinces - unless new oil export pipelines are built.

“(The UCP) is suggesting if we don’t get what we want, there are plenty of people here that view separatism seriously,” said Jared Wesley, political science professor at the University of Alberta. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a mainstream political leader in Alberta take as dramatic a step with the potential to jeopardise national unity.”

Alberta, home to Canada’s vast oil sands, receives nothing under a federal system of equalization payments because of oil and gas wealth.

However, the province has been struggling with persistent budget deficits since the global oil price crash in 2014-15 and Canadian heavy crude hit a record discount versus U.S. oil prices last year partly due to a lack of export pipelines.

Many Albertans are outraged the province has not had top-ups from Ottawa and are under the mistaken impression that equalization involves Alberta handing out cheques to other provinces like Quebec, which opposed the building of TransCanada Corp’s now-shelved Energy East pipeline.

“I will make clear to (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau that if we do not get a fair deal in the federation, if we do not get a coastal pipeline, I am prepared to hold a referendum on removing the principle of equalization from the constitution of Canada,” UCP leader Jason Kenney said in a televised leaders’ debate.

Rhetoric around equalization and separatism tends to spike when Alberta goes through an economic downturn, political scientists said, but mainstream conservatives in Alberta have traditionally been pro-federation.

Ironically Kenney, a former federal minister, was part of the Conservative government that agreed on the current equalization formula in 2007.

While Alberta’s separatist movement is not expected to gain anywhere near the support that Quebec separatism did in the 1990s, it could fan populist sentiment.

“There are people angry about federal policies on pipelines, Bill C-69 and equalization,” said Lori Williams, political science professor at Mount Royal University, referring to a bill proposing to change how major energy projects are assessed.

“That’s been a lightning rod for separatist anger and parties are trying to capitalise on that.”

The Freedom Conservative Party is also demanding an end to equalization payments and major fiscal transfers out of Alberta, while the Alberta Advantage Party is campaigning for greater autonomy for the province.

The Alberta Independence Party would hold an immediate referendum on separation if it came to power and interim leader Dave Bjorkman said there is a lot of support among people dissatisfied with Ottawa.

“Right now these people do not vote because they are so sick of the system,” he said. “The more our GDP growth, the more we have to pay out.”

Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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