By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Canada is a close ally of the U.S. and one of our top trading partners. Because Canada shares a land border with only one nation, its foreign policy revolves around its southern neighbor, the United States.
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Canadians, of course, would certainly quibble with that observation, but the bulk of Canadian commerce and security goes hand in glove with Washington. So much so in fact, that it is easy to take Canada’s presence for granted and not discuss the security relevance of our northern neighbor. With that in mind, a long-simmering issue in its western provinces has gained some notoriety beyond Canada’s borders, and it now has a catchy name, Wexit Alberta.
The idea of Wexit is not new. The western province of Alberta, where the movement began, has had a long-simmering dispute with Ottawa. Indeed, independence-minded Albertans have run for office since the 1930s.
Ottawa is familiar with provincial disputes and the threat to secede. After all, the government dealt with Quebecois independence for decades before coming to terms with the francophone province. However, while the Quebec issue is cultural, what is at stake with Alberta can be construed as existential.
Landlocked Alberta Must Export Its Products through Neighboring Provinces or the US
Alberta is an oil-producing and agricultural province. But because it is landlocked, it must export its products through neighboring provinces or through the U.S. The logistical complication makes Albertan grain more expensive than its American counterpart, but the real issue at the heart of Alberta’s burgeoning secessionist movement is oil.
The world turns on energy and whatever one’s thoughts are on the continued use of fossil fuels, it is difficult to deny the current economic utility of oil. Canadian oil companies are rather skilled at their chosen profession, but they must react to market changes as they occur.
Recently, the CBC ran a story on the decreasing number of oil drilling rigs in western Canada as a result of market changes and, just as important, the political changes that hit the local oil economy hard. In 2014, western Canada had about 900 drilling rigs. But with a crash in prices and no way to move much of the oil that could be extracted, Canadian energy companies went through the expense of moving their rigs to Texas to keep themselves afloat.
Currently, only about 550 rigs remain in Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan. Alberta still has plenty of oil; it just cannot get it to market.
Canada Has a Huge Land Mass but a Relatively Small Population
To better understand the issues in Alberta, it helps to explore the geography to get to the root of some of these divisions. Canada is the second largest nation globally in land area with some 3.85 million square miles, but it has a relatively small population of approximately 37 million. The bulk of Canadian territory is not suited for human settlement, although some hardy indigenous First Nations people live in the northern reaches.
Demography Plays a Unique Role in Canadian Identity
This demography plays a unique role in Canadian identity, however. The majority of Canada’s population, around 80%, is urbanized with half the population living in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor bordering the U.S. across the St. Lawrence River. Indeed, that 80% of the population lives within 100 miles of the U.S.-Canadian border owing to the proximity of and access to the large U.S. economy.
The area also includes the best terrain that Canada has to offer for economic exploitation. Another 30% of Canadians live in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, which is so far from its eastern counterpart that it may as well be on a different continent.
Three of Canada’s geographic features play an outsized role in the divisions within Canada: its numerous rivers and lakes, the Canadian Rockies, and the Canadian Shield. From the Labrador coast on the east, the shield covers most of Quebec and extends into Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Arctic archipelago.
Traversing them is prohibitively expensive in some areas. Canada built the Trans-Canada Highway in 1962 to connect all the provinces. The highway runs for 4,860 miles, showing just how large and spread out Canada really is.
Not surprisingly, the road runs parallel to the U.S. border. This geographic expanse affects relations among the Canadian people to such an extent that in many ways the provinces operate independently of the federal government.
Indeed, Canada is a confederacy owing to the practicality of such geographic diversity. To put a finer point on this, Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, but only signed a free trade agreement among its provinces in 2017. These divisions within Canada’s geographic expanse make for unique politics in each province. This is a reality that is driving the Alberta issue.
Whatever Its Industries, Alberta Suffers from Its Location
Alberta has maintained a dynamic economy over the past few years punctuated by the typical rise and fall of commodity prices. Those times of decline were painful and the most recent recovery is still ongoing. The province is skilled in several types of mineral extraction beyond oil. But whatever the industry, Alberta suffers from the same setback — the province is just in the wrong place.
Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only two landlocked provinces in Canada, making the export of their products a daunting task. Furthermore, land-based transportation routes are expensive compared to their waterborne counterparts, meaning Albertans have to expend significant capital to move their products beyond their borders. A key issue in much of the current dispute revolves around moving oil via a pipeline to Alberta’s international market.
In 2018, the Trudeau government purchased the Trans-Mountain Pipeline project because disputes between the provinces prevented the project from going forward. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took this action in stark contrast to his pledge to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
Alberta’s oil currently contributes 11 percent of Canada’s overall emissions, meaning that all oil production must cease — along with a significant portion of Alberta’s economy — if Canada is to meet the 2050 carbon emissions deadline. Trudeau hoped the move would assuage Alberta’s concerns in the short term; instead, it made the issue more divisive.
What’s worse, the province of British Columbia can still block the pipeline through any number of political or legal means. Thus, it would seem that Alberta is destined to push its Wexit movement to secede if it cannot break the political deadlock.
Another issue that crops up in discussions of Alberta is finances. Alberta sends billions of dollars to Ottawa each year, but has not received an equalization payment since 1962, even during Alberta’s economic downturn a few years ago.
Majority of Albertans Agree They Get Few Benefits from Ottawa
According to an Environics Institute survey, 58% of Albertans agree that “Western Canada gets so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.” This is a 28% increase from a similar survey in 2010 and something Ottawa cannot ignore.
The Alberta Independence Party, however, got only 1% of the vote during the last round of elections. Given the discontent with Ottawa and the Trudeau government, the Wexit independence movement could grow to be a real force if these contentious issues are not tackled at the federal level.
It’s Uncertain that Trudeau Can Make Good on His Promise to Build the Necessary Pipelines
Canada has existed with these divisions since its founding in 1867 and has managed them admirably. Many of the issues involving Alberta, its neighbors, and Ottawa are political, suggesting that they could be resolved. But with a minority government in Parliament, it is uncertain that Trudeau can make good on his promise that the federal government will build the necessary pipelines.
Furthermore, independence parties often overlook the problems associated with going it alone. For instance, Alberta would still be landlocked. If it were independent, it would lose the legal ability and political leverage it needs to move products through the neighboring provinces. The former province would almost certainly have to rely on the United States for its logistics chain. In fact, much of that chain through the U.S. already exists, so it would come down to navigating U.S. politics and expanding the chain where it can.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Alberta would have to negotiate with the U.S. as an outsider, without the full heft of the Canadian government. So whatever Alberta decides to do, it will not be without significant risk.