Alberta versus the Federal Leviathan
By Michael Wagner
In 2016, Vancouver lawyer David D. Chesman wrote a master’s thesis in political science at the University of British Columbia entitled “Whither Leviathan: Canadian Federalism and Alberta.” The “Leviathan” in the title refers to the federal government when it becomes oppressive by interfering with Alberta’s legitimate interests and threatening Alberta’s identity. In such a case, Chesman says that the Federal Leviathan generates “secessionist alienation” which means that a segment of Alberta’s population embraces the idea of Alberta seceding from Canada.
In this formulation, secessionist alienation has two components: “secessionist capacity” and “secessionist will.” Secessionist capacity is a specific identifiable territory that could secede from a larger federal union. Alberta has a specific, legally recognized territory, and thus it has secessionist capacity. Secessionist will is an intense fear of the central government that arises when that government acts as a Federal Leviathan (i.e. an oppressive monster) in opposition to Alberta’s interests.
Currently, secessionist will is being generated by the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau as it thwarts the pipeline projects Alberta needs for economic prosperity. The stage is being set for a rejuvenated separatist movement.
Senate Reform is Dead
In the past, some Albertans held out hope that Senate reform would be the solution to Alberta’s problems within confederation. In particular, the Triple E Senate idea (where the representation from each province would be Equal, the senators would be Elected, and the powers of the Senate would make it Effective), was a popular proposal for reform. Separation was not necessary, such people could argue, because Alberta would receive proper representation in the central government through a Triple E Senate.
That argument is now completely defunct. In the Reference Re Senate Reform decision of 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that any substantial reforms to the Senate would require a constitutional amendment. The eastern provinces are not going to agree to a Triple E Senate because the current form of the Senate benefits them, so such a constitutional amendment is not possible.
Chesman cites then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper as saying that Senate reform was “off the table” and that Canada is “stuck with the status quo.” Chesman then reiterates that the “status quo is a Canadian Senate that does not provide or facilitate effective provincial representation within Canada’s central government and the shared rule of Canadian federalism” (p. 28).
In short, Senate reform as an alternative to Alberta separation has proven to be a dead end. Independence is the only option for those who want a way out of Alberta’s current predicament.
Another factor that contributes to the possibility of Alberta separation is the lack of a Canadian national identity. A common identity among the citizens of a country helps to bind the country together. The nature of Canada’s national identity has been discussed for decades.
However, in the opinion of Justin Trudeau, there isn’t much to discuss. As Chesman points out, shortly after being elected prime minister in 2015, Trudeau stated that “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” (p. 29). Even the prime minister cannot offer a sense of Canada as a place with its own traditions and culture.
Without a sense of nationality to identify with, there is little to bind Albertans to Canada on an emotional level.
Lack of Representation
Furthermore, as a result of the concentration of voters in central Canada, Liberal majority governments are commonly elected with little or no representation from Alberta. This situation has harsh effects for Alberta. As Chesman puts it, “the pernicious consequence of Canada’s electoral and party systems is their routine delivery of the political infrastructure compatible with the emergence of the Federal Leviathan: central governments accountable to House of Commons majorities exclusive of effective representation from Alberta” (p. 33).
In fact, this is the situation as it exists today: “the House of Commons majority to which the current federal Liberal government is accountable does not require or depend upon representation from Alberta. The political infrastructure compatible with the emergence of the Federal Leviathan is, therefore, currently in place” (p. 38).
Because the Trudeau government does not require support from Alberta to hold office, it can trample on Alberta without any concerns of losing power.
Open Federalism vs. Nationalizing Federalism
Chesman contrasts two approaches to federalism that the Canadian government has followed in recent decades. Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed an approach called “open federalism” which essentially emphasizes the role and authority of the provincial governments. Basically, it amounts to a decentralization of power to the provinces.
The approach favoured by the Liberal Party, however, is known as “nationalizing federalism” which emphasizes the role and authority of the federal government. According to Chesman, the current Liberal government can use climate change policy as a tool for implementing nationalizing federalism. He notes that the “federal Liberal Party has demonstrated a propensity to unilaterally adopt and act upon climate change initiatives contrary to Alberta’s interests” (p. 39).
National Energy Program
As a result, federal climate change policy could come to resemble Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) of 1980. The NEP was supposedly implemented in “the national interest.” However, that was not true. At that time, Alberta had no MPs in the Liberal caucus and the government acted solely for the benefit of eastern voters at the expense of Alberta. Robbing one part of the country to benefit another part of the country is done for a sectional interest not the national interest.
It could be argued that the NEP was implemented in “the majority interest” because a majority of Canadians would benefit at Alberta’s expense. But it could not be said to be in “the national interest” because an important part of “the nation” (i.e. Alberta) was harmed by the policy.
Chesman makes this point using academic jargon: “As a positive response to a distributional conflict in the majority, central Canadian interest and an adverse response to a categorical identity-based conflict from the Alberta perspective, the NEP could not plausibly be characterized as in the national interest” (p. 44).
Chesman’s thesis is notable for upholding traditional arguments made by Alberta separatists. Most importantly, he points out that the country is structured so that the federal government can take advantage of Alberta’s natural resources while simultaneously undermining Alberta’s best interests. This makes it reasonable to believe that Alberta would be better off as an independent country.
Chesman also notes that the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Secession Reference case of 1998, along with the federal government’s subsequent Clarity Act of 2000, give Alberta a legal pathway to independence.
In short, Chesman concludes as follows: “Alberta possesses secessionist capacity, a separable territory within which its constituents share a territorial identity. Federal legislation created the territorial space that is Alberta and subsequently invested it with the right to secede. In the result Alberta is a separable territory from both a de facto and de jure perspective” (p. 47). In other words, Alberta can separate from both a practical and legal perspective.
Whether it was his intention or not, David Chesman has written a helpful thesis that substantially supports the perspective of Alberta separatists. It provides useful information and perspective for those in favour of Alberta’s independence.