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WAGNER: Alberta Alone – Independence in fiction

Michael Wagner reviews the 1976 novel on an Alberta uprising against Ottawa.

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A movement for Alberta independence is too interesting to escape the notice of fiction writers. So far, there are at least two novels with the Alberta independence movement as core themes, one written in the 1970s – Alberta Alone by John Ballem – and the other published earlier this year – True Patriots by Russell Fralich. Unfortunately, in both cases the Alberta patriots are the bad guys.

They’re not just your run-of-the-mill bad guys either—in both cases the independence supporters are – literally – terrorists. Spoiler alert: both novels have dramatic endings where the terrorist plots are foiled and Canada is saved (although not without a bit of violent death and destruction to keep things interesting).

The first novel about the Alberta independence movement was originally titled The Judas Conspiracy and it was written by John Ballem in 1976. Ballem was a long-time oil industry lawyer in Calgary and a noteworthy fiction writer. He knew the business environment and political climate of Calgary well, and it shows in this book. However, it’s also clear that he did not sympathize with the idea of an independent Alberta.

After the surge in support for independence that resulted from Pierre Trudeau’s 1980 re-election and the subsequent – infamous – National Energy Program, Ballem’s book was re-issued under the title Alberta Alone. According to the July 31, 1981, issue of Alberta Report magazine, about 15,000 copies of The Judas Conspiracy were sold, and close to 40,000 copies of its re-release as Alberta Alone had sold as of mid-1981. Those are very respectable figures in the Canadian book market.

The central character of Alberta Alone is Peter Groves, who is just arriving in Calgary for the Stampede at the beginning of the book. He meets and befriends Valerie Thompson, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent oilman and rancher, Charles Thompson. Charles Thompson is the leading voice of the Alberta independence movement. Publicly, he is a respectable and articulate spokesman for independence. Secretly, however, he is also plotting a terrorist attack on Ottawa.

Canada’s prime minister is a Liberal, Donald Lambert. After Alberta cuts off shipments of natural gas to Central Canada, Lambert declares that the federal government must take control of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, stating: “I have decided, with the full support of my colleagues in the cabinet, to reconvene Parliament in order to declare under the British North America Act that all oil and gas wells, field facilities and oil sands plants are works for the general advantage of Canada. Once such a declaration is passed all these facilities will come under the exclusive jurisdiction and control of your federal government and we shall operate them for the good of the entire country, as they should be.”

Lambert knew this would incense Albertans, but he continued, “I know that the Canadians who live in Alberta will feel resentment at what may appear to be yet another invasion of their rights and their resources. But I know, too, that they will come to realize that these resources must be used for the benefit of the entire country. It would be unthinkable for parts of this country to suffer privation and even danger to life itself because one province hoards an essential resource. Canada is not just a collection of provinces. It is, and will remain, one strong and united country.”

Charles Thompson is, of course, outraged by this move. He sees it as clearly justifying Alberta becoming independent. As he responds, “We don’t have to remain a colony, shipping our raw materials to feed the insatiable industry of eastern Canada. We have a choice. This great country—Alberta—that Ottawa is determined to bring to her knees, can go it alone!”

Thompson then goes on to explain that, “when the federal government unilaterally takes over our oil industry, the cornerstone of our future, keeps our ranchers perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy and arrogantly tells us that we are to remain a colony of the East, loyally supplying our raw materials to fuel its industries, then the time has come for us to seek our own destiny.”

An attempt by the federal government to take control of Alberta’s oil industry, followed by an explosive movement for Alberta independence, is a very realistic plot. Indeed, this story was originally written in 1976, and it’s almost spooky how its portrayal of a Liberal seizure of Alberta’s oil resources foreshadows the National Energy Program just a few years later. Ballem appears somewhat prophetic. Unfortunately, he painted independence supporters with a very sinister hue.

It seems that the Alberta independence movement could use some help from aspiring fiction writers. A novel portraying Alberta patriots as the good guys would be a nice change from what has been produced so far. John Ballem was a fine writer, but someone of his calibre is needed to provide a different perspective on the dream and possibility of Alberta independence.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

Michael Wagner is a columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include 'Alberta: Separatism Then and Now' and 'True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.'

Opinion

McCOLL: As Scheer did unto Trost, O’Toole did unto Sloan

“O’Toole – potentially shocked into action by the events in Washington – has fired the first shot and triggered a battle for control of the big blue tent.”

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I wanted to use the phrase, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me;” but for Ontario social conservatives, this is the third time.  Erin O’Toole is now the third conservative politician from Ontario who recently courted the support of social conservatives only to throw their champion out of the party a few months after winning a leadership election.  Why does this keep happening?

Conservatives say they elect leaders in accordance with a “one member, one vote” principle; but most centre-right parties in Canada do not. The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party use a ranked ballot and an electoral college style point system. With each constituency entitled to the same number of points, this system allows a dozen dairy farmers with one-year memberships in Quebec to be worth the same number of points as hundreds of life-long social conservatives in a rural Ontario constituency or the thousands of members in Calgary Centre.

Politicians are people, and people respond to incentives. The path to victory for a challenger in a conservative leadership vote lies in securing the runner-up position early by being an undefined “True Blue Conservative” and then vigorously courting social conservatives for down ballot support.

With 13 candidates in the 2017 leadership race, Scheer positioned himself as everyone’s second choice; but it was the social conservatives who voted for the hard-right social conservative Brad Trost and the more moderate social conservative Pierre Lemieux that gave him his narrow 51 to 49 per cent win over Max Bernier. Unfortunately, the hard-right support that is key to winning the CPC leadership can also be a “stinking albatross” in competitive swing ridings during a general election. This encourages CPC leaders to dispose of political liabilities. Less than a year after the leadership vote, Brad Trost lost his CPC nomination in what his supporters have described as a Scheer ordered hit job.

In the 2018 Ontario PC Leadership, Doug Ford courted the down ballot support of social conservative Tanya Allen. Doug Ford narrowly won the most points – while losing the popular vote – thanks to the down ballot support of rural social conservatives.

Allen ran for the leadership in opposition to Liberal changes to the public-school curriculum, and Ford signaled his support arguing that the “sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology.” Within two months of the leadership vote, Ford revoked Allen’s elected nomination because of her social conservative views on sex education.

During the 2020 leadership race, Sloan implied that being gay was a choice. Many Conservative MPs were outraged and demanded that Sloan be expelled from caucus. O’Toole defended Sloan in caucus, and made it known to Sloan supporters that they were welcome in O’Toole’s “True Blue” tent. Less than a year later, Sloan has been kicked to the curb.

Trost, Allen, and Sloan all had the support of the Campaign Life Coalition, a social conservative group that campaigns against abortion and what they see as liberal ideology in sex education curriculums. As reported in the Western Standard, the president of Campaign Life has demanded O’Toole’s resignation and confirmed reports that Campaign Life has organized  delegates to attend the CPC’s virtual March convention. As only delegates can vote for National Council leadership positions, it was reported that O’Toole dumped Sloan as part of a plan to stop Campaign Life from taking control of National Council and passing anti-abortion policies.

In the 2017 Conservative leadership race, the social conservatives were the king makers, but they did not have the numbers to elect one of their own.  Social conservatives also represented a minority of delegates at the 2018 party convention in Halifax. In the 2020 leadership race, social conservatives won the popular vote in the second round. After Sloan’s down ballot support was redistributed, moderate social conservative Dr. Leslyn Lewis had 35 per cent of – and was winning – the popular vote but she placed third in the points and was eliminated because her support was concentrated in the West.

Social conservatives are demanding greater influence over the CPC.  A conflict between the two camps at the March convention seems certain. O’Toole – potentially shocked into action by the events in Washington – has fired the first shot and triggered a battle for control of the big blue tent.

Alex McColl is the National Defence Columnist with the Western Standard and a Canadian military analyst

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Opinion

WAGNER: The Toronto book that predicted the rise of Western independence, 50 years ago

“It is remarkable that this book – The Prairie Provinces: Alienation and Anger – written by a team from a Toronto newspaper and published in Toronto in 1969, got so much right.”

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In 1969, The Toronto Telegram newspaper undertook the ‘Canada 70’ study, which involved surveying the attitudes of citizens across the country. One of the products of this study was a book entitled, The Prairie Provinces: Alienation and Anger which was written by The Telegram’s Ottawa Bureau chief, Peter Thompson, and published by McClelland and Stewart. The striking thing about this book is that it shows how little has changed in the West’s relationship with Central Canada in over 50 years.

Much of the book is a sympathetic discussion of Western alienation and the reasons for it. Thompson sought out the views of many Westerners and seems to have obtained an authentic sense of their frustrations with Central Canada. This provides a basis for him to accurately explain a genuine Western perspective to his Toronto audience.

Early in the book, Thompson writes: “Many Western Canadians are getting mad. They have been disenchanted for generations with the East over economic inequities because the best interest of the Western primary producer is fundamentally opposed to that of the Eastern manufacturer. They have been disturbed by their apparent inability to influence the political and financial decisions of the nation.” In other words, “The real basis of Western discontent as Canada enters the 1970s is the fact that too many decisions guiding the Prairie destiny are made in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.”

Of course, in 1969 Canada had a rookie prime minister named Pierre Trudeau. The Canada 70 study was able to get a comment from Trudeau about discontent in Western Canada. He began by saying, “Perhaps, to be quite candid with you when you talk of growing disenchantment, I must begin by saying that some of my reading of the West is that it is always disenchanted.” In other words, his basic assumption was that Westerners are a bunch of chronic whiners. Not a good place to start.

In one part of the study, Westerners were asked about their sense of attachment to the country in relation to their sense of attachment to the West. A somewhat concerned Thompson writes: “perhaps many Canadians will be disturbed to know that thirty-four percent of Westerners think of their province or region ahead of the nation. Even more disturbing could be the fact that young people are more inclined to identify with their region or province than their parents are.”

Not surprisingly, then, Thompson sensed the budding of secessionist sentiment in the West. Indeed, the concluding chapter of his book is entitled, “Seeds of Separation.”

As he explains, the prairie West had been relatively poor from the early part of the twentieth century until the 1960s. During that decade, however, its economic situation began to improve, leading to new political thinking: “Not until the mid-1960s did the West halt to take stock, of both its riches and its position within confederation. It found the riches to be vast in dollar value but apparently limited in power to change the industrial and social structures of Canada.”

The result was that many Westerners became determined to get a better deal from Canada. As Thompson points out, “The suggestion implicit in the West’s confident tone is that if this game is rigged,” then “the West is getting out. The West is in a position to set some of the rules because it has more than its share of wealth in the game.”

He quickly adds that there were only “tiny seeds of separatist thought” in the West. However, he then points out that if the federal government does not deal fairly with the West, it “could force those tiny seeds of Western separatism into a growing movement within a decade.”

Thompson’s words were prophetic. The first serious secessionist organizations began to form in Alberta during the 1970s, and really took off in 1980 after Pierre Trudeau introduced his execrable National Energy Program (NEP).

Thompson was able to interview Premier Harry Strom – the last Social Credit premier of Alberta – and asked him about Western sentiment. Strom’s view was that “it would take a man of national stature to stir up the scattered separatist feeling in the West.” Although he did not think such a leader was then on the horizon, he said “such men have been known to emerge almost overnight.”

Premier Strom’s view that the lack of a prominent, credible leader was the missing piece in the independence movement is worth pondering. This same point would also be made by others in the ensuing decades. Clearly, there is something to it.

It is remarkable that this book – The Prairie Provinces: Alienation and Anger – written by a team from a Toronto newspaper and published in Toronto in 1969, got so much right. Over fifty years ago, an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of Western concerns and grievances was presented to Central Canada, along with a warning about budding secessionist sentiment. But in Central Canada, nobody listens to the West. In fact, federal policies are probably worse for the Prairie West today than they were in 1969.

Alberta’s – and even Saskatchewan’s – independence movement have begun to emerge from their infancy with organized and increasingly credible political parties behind them.

All the movement needs to catch fire is Strom’s man of “national stature”.

Michael Wagner is a columnist for the Western Standard

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Energy

MORGAN: Trans Mountain may be the next victim of Ottawa’s indifference

Cory Morgan writes that there are dangerous signs of delay that could lead to Trudeau washing his hands of the entire project.

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While the death of the Keystone XL pipeline at the hand of President Biden has dominated the news, the state of the embattled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) has been sliding under the radar. Despite the federal government ownership of the project, bureaucracy and regulations are keeping the construction of the line at a snail’s pace. Due to what appears to be an interminable safety stand-down imposed after a construction fatality last year, the TMX hasn’t moved an inch in over a month and the date for construction resumption keeps getting kicked down the road.

The construction season for modern pipelines is short. Ground must be frozen in order to access many areas and many other zones have seasonal access restrictions due to wildlife migration. This makes every week during the winter critical for construction, and the weeks are ticking away quickly. Road bans are imposed at the end of February in many zones and construction won’t be able to resume until next winter. Meanwhile, costs continue to explode, going from an estimated $7.4 billion to $12.6 billion.

Mismanagement appears to be rampant as contractors have been fired and new schedules are being drafted daily. This is a common fate of any project once government assumes management of it.

On top of these setbacks, BC has been imposing COVID-19 restrictions on the construction sites which has crippled if not shut down work altogether in some sections. Pipeline construction is not like a restaurant where you can simply reduce patron capacities and the associated staff. For many phases of construction you can either work with a full crew, or no crew at all.

Due to these delays, many of the hundreds of permits acquired for the construction of the TMX will begin expiring. That means the application process will have to be repeated at great expense along with more lost construction time.

Activists have taken a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic but we can rest assured that they will be coming out in force and working their very hardest to delay the pipeline construction by any means possible. Only through strong and uncompromising law enforcement will we see continued construction in zones with protesters and the government has shown little appetite to go that route.

The only way the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is going to be completed is if the federal government makes it a top priority and forces the project through the ever-growing mire of delays, opposition, and red tape. Can we be confident that Justin Trudeau will do this?

Canada is likely headed for a federal election this spring and if the Liberals remain in power, Alberta’s last remaining pipeline project may well be dead. Trudeau will claim that it simply is costing too much and that we no longer need more fossil fuel capacity.

Working within the confines of confederation will then have failed Albertans on every front. At that point, Albertans will have little choice but to look elsewhere. There truly will be nothing to lose anymore.

Cory Morgan is the Podcast Editor and a columnist for the Western Standard

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