Future observers will regard 1980 as pivotal in the history of Canada. It is the year that saw the demise of Quebec separatism, at least for this generation, and is currently witnessing the birth of Western separatism.
Nine months ago any suggestion of Western separatism as a serious threat to Canadian unity was not taken seriously. Today that has changed. A recent poll (although using a small sample) by two newspapers in the Western province of Alberta shows that 23 percent favor the idea of an independent Western Canada. In 20 years of polling in Quebec, only one or two polls ever registered support for outright independence of Quebec from Canada as high as 23 percent.
A recent flurry of separatist meetings in Calgary and Edmonton attended by Alberta businessmen and professionals lends further credibility to the idea that the movement is no longer crackpot.
A feeling of economic alienation in Western Canada from the rest of the country has its roots in hisotry, but its most startling political manifestation occurred last Feb. 18. That election day saw the return to power in Ottawa, after a brief nine-month hiatus, of the Liberal Party, led by Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Aside from their traditional base of support in French-speaking Quebec, the Liberals won because they promised that Canadians could continue to enjoy a price for oil and gas well below the world level; in fact, half the current world price, the cheapest energy anywhere in the industrialized world.
All of Canada's natural gas needs and 75 percent of its oil needs (25 percent being imported) are supplied by Canada's three westernmost provinces: Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. In the February election, the Liberals did not obtain one seat in these three provinces. Imagine a US Democratic president with a Democratic majority in Congress, yet without a Democratic congressman from anywhere west of a line drawn due south from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The Liberals followed through with their promise Oct. 28 when they introduced a budget in Parliament setting oil and gas prices at levels over the next three years that would raise them only slightly from their current discount on world price, assuming the latter increases at a rate equal to inflation. They also upped the federal government's take of the oil and gas pie.
Peter Lougheed, the premier of Alberta, which produces 85 percent of Canada's oil, announced two days later that Alberta would cut oil production 15 percent over a nine-month period unless changes to Ottawa's oil package could be negotiated. He says that because of rapidly dwindling conventional oil reserves , Alberta cannot afford to forgo the additional revenues that a price closer to the world level would obtain. He is also fearful that Ottawa is attempting to control Alberta's natural resources, a provincial prerogative under Canada's constitution.
The federal government, which has a deficit of $14 billion, one of the largest per capita in the Western world, argues that it needs a share of oil and gas revenues closer to those received by federal governments in other federal states such as the US and Australia. Alberta, with 10 percent of Canada's population, even now has budgetary surpluses so large that one-third of its nonrenewable resource revenues are placed in an investment fund. This fund currently has assets of $6 billion, and these could increase severalfold in a few years.
In short, the battle between Ottawa and the West is over economic power, a power fueled by petrodollars. It is this petrodollar power that makes Western separatism a different breed from Quebec separatism.
During the Quebec referendum debate last May, the case was made that Quebec was better off economically as part of Canada. The Parti Quebecois, which was asking for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association, confirmed this by including maintenance of the Canadian economic union as part of its proposal. It is more difficult to make that argument about Western Canada. With their enormous natural resource wealth (wheat, potash, timber, and coal, as well as oil and gas) and small populatio nbase, Western Canadians could convince themselves that they woudl be better off economically if they formed an independent country.
The Parti Quebecois was essentially seeking a political arrangement that would guarantee the survival of Quebec's French language and culture. Historians probably will argue that the Parti Quebecois was able to accomplish this goal under the present constitutional arrangement with its 1977 language legislation, a US-style positive action bill. It effectively supports the French language, and it is even transferring economic power within the province from English Canadians to French Canadians.
However, the legislation does discriminate against those who do not speak French, that is, against other Canadians. The essential political compromise was that the rest of Canada did not challenge Quebec on this point. It allowed Quebec to become more French in return for staying in Canada.
A similar political compromise will have to be worked out if Western separatism is to be nipped in the bud. Eastern Canada will have to agree to a solution that legitimately recognizes the real shift in economic power from East to West that is occurring in Canada.
Western Canada, in turn, will have to concede that a viable Canada needs a central government that can pay its own way.