Alberta in North America. Map by Google.
Alberta is a landlocked province in the nation of Canada, that begins on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and stretches east to the great plains. It lies between Saskatchewan to the east, British Columbia to the west, Montana (United States) to the south, and the Canadian federal Northwest Territory to the north. It has a somewhat diverse terrain, including plains, swamps, mountains, and forests. If you don’t know much about Canada, Alberta is that province you go to when seeing the Rockies, and access to Banff and Jasper is usually through Alberta’s two major centers: Calgary and Edmonton. Alberta’s economy relies to a large extent on agriculture and non-renewable energy production. Smaller industries include manufacturing, tourism, and being a supply hub and transition point for goods and services destined for Canada’s northern federal territories: Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunuvut.
Rhetoric around separation of the Province of Alberta occasionally arises. Sometimes independence, sometimes joining the United States, is the stated goal. Often, there is none, but just venting about the latest raw deal from Ottawa. It seems to appear whenever the province is not content with its place in Confederation (Canada’s term for the collection of political entities that form it and how they came together.) It’s not a well known idea: when someone says “Free Alberta!” Ottawa wonders if Queen Victoria’s daughter is in jail somewhere, as opposed to when someone says “Vive le Québec libre!” (spoken by someone who was not even Canadian), which Ottawa responds to by firing canons of cash across the Ottawa river and down the St. Lawrence.
Can Alberta separate?
- Generally speaking, perhaps, like Iceland. Iceland’s independence movement was a slow going process. They became wholly a part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1814 (Treaty of Kiel), a nation which did not have much interest in maintaining vassal states. By way of peaceful advocacy, intellectual discourse, and sometimes propaganda, a common national identity asserted itself, resulting in small steps towards independence (independent parliament – the Alþing), more control over otherwise regional matters, culminating with some lucky timing: Germany’s invasion of Denmark in 1940, giving Iceland opportunity to leave (no sovereign government in Denmark and a disinterested occupying Third Reich), along with justification (need to remain neutral in World War II and assert sovereignty), with luck of location (being seen as an necessary to occupy by the UK and later USA to prevent German U-boat supremacy in the North Atlantic).
- Possibly by armed revolution, through violent struggle which involves fighting armed forces from across Canada (who will be related to the very Albertans they are fighting, not to mention the Albertans fighting with the Canadian Armed Forces), somehow keeping the USA out (or, on Alberta’s side), while importing enough modern weaponry overland (by truck or plane: no ocean ports in Alberta.) This option is likely bloody, ill advised, and prone to failure. (See the unpleasantness during the War Between the States as to how even a well-armed, disciplined revolution, with plenty of ocean access, in North America, was strangled.)
- Otherwise, by at least one referendum followed by a not very clear process arising from a not very clear (and overstepping) court decision which was requested by the Canadian government under not clear circumstances: something to do with Québec’s second almost-departure (a province that could likely separate if they wanted to; Alberta, you don’t get that option). All governed, with no hint of irony, by Canada’s Clarity Act. This could culminate in full independence, or might be a way for Alberta to join the United States.
Regardless, you’ll need a concentrated effort of dozens of years of building a narrative that it is just, right, and Alberta’s destiny, to be independent of Canada (in other words, you’ll need to propagandize broadly and hard, something only the NDP seem any good at in Alberta).
So you could…but as you see, the road is murky, and fraught.
None of this would happen overnight. It would mean a huge cultural shift within Alberta, and somewhat of a shift without. And the United States of America would have to be willing partner in such a separation: you need the USA’s assent more that you need Ottawa’s. The United States cannot tolerate instability half a world away when it threatens their interests, so they certainly won’t tolerate it being right next door. And, you see, because of the way Alberta was created, the rest of Canada is likely not letting you out – not without extracting dozens of years of all those transfer payments you keep making right now to pay “your” share of the Canadian federal debt (which should be an amount Ottawa owes you, given the net income flow to them; but you know that’s not how it will go.)
Alberta’s departure will involve making a deal with at least two devils (Ottawa and Washington), or more likely, eleven (add the other provinces).
(This does not include all those First Nations within Alberta. They signed treaties going back hundreds of years with Canada, which require Canada to provide them with certain goods and services in exchange for surrendering their claims over almost all the land that now makes up Canada. How you negotiate in this legal quagmire? Negotiate with First Nations and recognize their claims is the only way I can think of. Offer them a better deal and get them to do a great deal of your agitating for you (which could be as easy as deciding you don’t know better than they do and then not dictating to them how they should live their lives while not offering them only two alternatives: stagnancy or cultural assimilation, and then making sure your indolence does not stick them in a difficult position in between; I digress.) And you’ll need Canada to agree to relinquish title to First Nations lands. Otherwise, you’ll have all kinds of little enclaves within Alberta’s borders whose land is held in a sui generis trust by the very country you separated from: intolerable to all parties involved.)
Should Alberta separate?
Yes. Between 2008 and 2017, the amount of money transferred out of Alberta to other provinces is $5000 per person (over that period). Every single person, regardless of income, age, status, or employment. And that means those of you actually earning income by working or running a business paid much more.
If the British could have counted on this much net income from any of its former colonies, they would still be colonies.
This is balanced out (perhaps) by the good features of being a part of Canadian confederation. Canada negotiates on your behalf against many world powers, that if Alberta were all alone, would ignore you mostly, and play hard with you the rest of the time (USA, EU, Mexico, China, Russia, Japan…and many others are in this list, although if you are separate, Canada will still try to use control of Alberta’s natural resources as a political and economic tool, but they’ll likely be way more honest about it.) You get passports and relatively free international travel, a stable rule-of-law type business environment with courts, while overburdened, that play by consistent rules, and access to foreign markets, stable currency, and lower government lending rates. You’d probably lose some of this (for some time) if you left Canada. Although, the correct response to this is: “all the other provinces get these goodies too…plus our money!”
The real reason you should separate, Alberta, is that you are ruled by a small cabal of politicians and business men, who govern the entire country, a mari usque ad mare, living and playing politics within an extended golden horseshoe (from Québec City, through Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and back around to Niagara-on-the-Lake), and a little in Vancouver for good measure. Don’t believe me, look at every single prairie politician or political movement that ever went to Ottawa with an agenda: they knew out of the gate they’d have to appeal to Ontario and Québec voters in the horseshoe or it was never going to work (see Reform Party history.)
The current ruling federal Liberal government knows this: a political party does not need a single vote between BC and Manitoba to win power and stay in power in Ottawa. And they only need moderate support from urban centers outside of Ontario and Québec, and about 40% of the vote from within central Canada, to rule. It really is, for Alberta, transfer payments granting continuous opposition status (akin to taxation without representation). And unlike the lead up to the US War of Independence, Alberta is actually supposed to have representation (a promise the original 13 colonies were never given in the UK Parliament).
(Now you know why Justin Le Premier forgets your name, and only hangs out with you during Stampede, when you’re giving away free food and booze and just want to get along.)
The Upper/Lower Canada Cabal sees you Alberta at best as a vassal state, but lately, a colony, and not an independent partner in Confederation. Those provinces which initially started Canada (Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick) were very independent for colonies, with their own legal and political establishments. They enjoyed the same independence that the colonies that would eventually form the USA enjoyed, but the true north strong and free were better behaved. They entered confederation as willing partners in a commonwealth intended to provide for their mutual interests (i.e. to protect themselves from the United States, fresh off its Civil War). Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and Newfoundland joined later (being colonies of the UK, running their own affairs with the UK Parliament’s oversight). Alberta and Saskatchewan (Manitoba is a bit of an anomaly) are really of no higher position than the federal territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, or Nunavut.
The only difference is Canada didn’t want to be bothered handling all that boring stuff that other provinces handle on their own, in a large swath of the Northwest Territories, so (and this is the kicker) it created Alberta and Saskatchewan from territory Canada already held. Alberta was not an independent state or a UK colony invited to enter Canada; Alberta was created for the convenience of the federal state of Canada from its own territory.
When it has been favourable to Canada, Alberta has gotten more rights or autonomy, but only when favourable to Canada: see the Constitution Act, 1930, as an example, which gave Alberta the mines and mineral rights underlying the land it was made from, twenty-five years after it was created. Further, Alberta and Saskatchewan were modeled on the laws of Ontario and Québec (e.g. the reason for Catholic school funding protection), so as to insure the part of Canada that mattered (the center!) supported the creation of those provinces. Alberta and Saskatchewan were originally conceived as a single province, but ultimately were created separately so that they could never grow to such a size to compete with Ontario and Québec as the centers of power in Canada.
So Alberta: do you see? Your were designed to be small, and remain small, always subservient to the interests of your central Canadian masters. You are not a partner. You’d be lucky to say you are a vassal state, but you’re not even that: Ottawa interferes far too often in your internal matters, for the sake of Canada of course! (Totally justifying ignoring that annoying division of powers in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867.)
And masters they are. When you are humming along fine, ponying up funds for equalization to everyone else in Canada, and otherwise not being a bother, you get ignored. And what bliss it is. But when you are down on your luck, you get the federal government kicking at you while it can. Almost like an unwanted child, eh? Or a colony? Certainly not a partner.
Will Alberta separate?
Probably not. No one is starving in the street, subject to Gulag style forced labour, persecuted, raped, executed or otherwise trodden upon by some exercise of Canada’s authority to the extent necessary to incite an immediate revolution. There’s no ethnic cleansing or Lebensraum policy being pursued. Sorry, Alberta, but if you want out, you’re going to have to do this like former and current Danish holdings Iceland (see above, independent in 1946), the Faroe Islands and Greenland (still underway), and not Argentine or USA style, and you’d better hope not a lá South Sudan or Timor L’Este.
And going Iceland style means a long-period of independence advocacy (100+ years!) followed by some very lucky breaks. It also means having a sense of nationhood, independence, common-identity, and Alberta, you’ve got some of it, but not enough, and at the end of the day, collectively, you don’t want it. You are way too comfortable right where you are.