Distinct characteristics separate Alberta separatists, autonomists and federalists: survey
As Premier Jason Kenney marked his final Stampede as UCP leader by making Alberta Day permanent, a new survey suggests 82 per cent of Albertans feel a strong or very strong attachment to Canada.
The Viewpoint Alberta survey dove into Alberta’s attitudes toward Confederation, which categorized respondents into three distinct categories: federalists (who still often believe Alberta is treated unfairly in the Confederation), autonomists and separatists — all of which have different ideas about how to solve grievances with Ottawa.
“Albertans seem to be more in a bridge building mood than they are in a firewall building mood,” said Common Ground initiative director Jared Wesley, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta.
Co-author Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political science professor, said the researchers began examining the subject in 2019 when “Wexit” was a topic of conversation. Now that at least two UCP leadership candidates are talking about “sovereignty” or “autonomy,” it was a good time to re-examine public opinion.
“There’s lots of discontent in the province about how Alberta is perceived to be treated within Confederation, but not everybody agrees on what should then be done,” Young said.
Separatists are those who believe Alberta should become its own country, while autonomists are those in favour of “firewall letter” measures such as taking over control of policing or removing equalization payments while remaining in Canada, with federalists not looking to make substantial changes to the agreement with Ottawa.
Wesley said it was notable to see that the groups are distinct. It is not easy to convert autonomous Albertans into separatists, for example.
“A general conception is that you can array Albertans on the spectrum from separatists on one end to federalists on the other end and somewhere in the middle are autonomists and that people will move freely between those groups, when this research suggests that these folks are rooted in very different communities,” Wesley said.
A majority of respondents fall into the federalist category, while fewer than one-in-five support separatism — with just half of those believing it’s even possible.
Wesley said an increasing number of politicians, including some in the UCP leadership race, are expressing rhetoric that suggests separatist sentiment is a means to extract concessions from Ottawa.
For example, Brian Jean’s campaign slogan is “autonomy for Albertans” while Danielle Smith is running a campaign under the banner “Alberta First.”
But the survey shows even among those who want to see Alberta become an independent country, 62 per cent have a strong attachment to Canada. He pointed to upside down Canada flags at recent convoy protests to demonstrate that even opponents of the status quo have a strong attachment to the concept of Canada, despite disagreeing what the country should look like.
Separatism linked to right-wing grievances
Those who call themselves separatists are driven by economic concerns, with 88 per cent saying Alberta should exit equalization, 82 per cent saying Alberta should be able to set tax policy, and 74 per cent saying the province should get to set its own economic policy.
Unlike Quebec separatists, who see issues of culture and linguistics as driving forces for separatism, cultural, social and environmental policy was further down the list for Alberta separatists.
“It’s not coincidence then that you see people who are further to the right, who believe in smaller government [and] lower taxes are much more likely to take these separatist views because they see paying Canadian federal taxes and paying into equalization individually, as being something that takes away from their their well-being economically,” Young said.
Wesley said the authors of the original firewall letter in 2001 included not-so-veiled references to “multicultural and pluralistic values” coming out of Ottawa, calling for a provincial police force in response to the debate about whether Sikhs should be allowed to wear turbans while in RCMP uniform.
While cultural questions still linger, particularly on the far right, those who feel Alberta has a unique culture have dissipated, Wesley said.
Demographics separate the three groups, with separatists most likely to be lifelong Albertans, who are older, rural and white and the least likely to have completed university or be employed full-time.
Autonomists are younger, more likely to be newcomers, have the highest rates of full-time employment and are most likely to have completed trade school or some university.
Federalists are most likely to have completed university education, live in urban or suburban areas, have full-time employment and are in the middle of the age and ethnicity spread.
Emotions also separate autonomists from both federalists and separatists.
“It’s really interesting to see that the autonomists are driven by a sense of optimism and the possibilities of Alberta, as opposed to the separatists who are really driven, I think, in many ways, by a sense of anger about the status quo of Canadian Confederation,” Young said.
Wesley said when provincial governments are in trouble, either fiscally or politically, they tend to lash out and blame Ottawa.
“When things are going poorly at home, that’s when Alberta leaders historically and currently try to position themselves as guardians of the province against some maligning federal government force,” Wesley said.
Day to honour Alberta joining Confederation
Premier Kenney’s declaration yesterday that September 1 will be “Alberta Day” in perpetuity — to commemorate when the Alberta Act came into effect on September 1, 1905 — comes as a symbolic measure aimed at bolstering the Alberta identity, the researchers say.
“Creating a new annual tradition of Alberta Day — the day we entered Confederation — will be one way of showing our pride in this amazing province,” Kenney said.
The government plans to hold commemorative events in Edmonton and Calgary, and to support other municipalities hosting their own celebrations. This year, the day may also coincide with Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.
However, it will not be a stat holiday, as there is already one in August for Heritage Day, and another right around the corner in Labour Day.
Kenney has previously declared September 1 to be Alberta Day on an annual basis. Legislation passed in the spring enables special days to be recognized in perpetuity instead of requiring a separate declaration each year.
Young said the premier probably needed something to announce at the Stampede, without having a lot of policy room to maneuver.
“This was low-cost and symbolic,” Young said. “I don’t know that it moves anybody’s views on what Alberta should do within Canada.”
Wesley agreed that it will do little to sway people’s views, but said Alberta Day is about solidifying traditional symbolism from a government that has used rural symbols to reinforce the “wild west” concept of what it means to be Albertan.
Wesley said Kenney in particular studies symbols and is known to use a strategic Red Ensign flag or Calgary Stampede banner as a backdrop when speaking.
“We’ll see what kind of festivities that they trot out, but I’m pretty sure you’ll see traditional symbols there on parade — quite literally,” Wesley said, adding that Kenney’s conceptualization of Alberta as a province is 20 to 30 years out of date.