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WAGNER: Don’t make the tent too big – the independence movement must be conservative

Michael Wagner writes that there is little point in pursuing Western independence if the new country looks like the old.

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In recent years some people have argued that the Western independence movement should encompass people from the entire political spectrum. Support for independence, they argue, is not a specifically conservative or right-wing phenomenon. To generate enough political support to achieve Alberta’s independence, people of all sorts of ideological positions will be needed.

For example, early in 2018, one well-meaning independence activist posted a message on Facebook stating, “We all need to remember that you don’t have to be a conservative to be a separatist. We will need people from all sides in this.”

Similarly, in a conversation at a meeting, one person seriously suggested to me that independence supporters could bring Millennials on board by telling them that the money Alberta saved from cancelling transfer payments to Canada would be used to offer free university tuition and free dental care for all Albertans. This is essentially the Bernie Sanders appeal – support Alberta independence so that you will get “free” stuff from the government. 

If that’s the direction the independence movement were to take, it would become empty and meaningless. Proposing an even greater role for government – that is, even more socialism – as the antidote to Eastern Canadian “progressive” liberalism, entirely defeats the purpose of a free West. If socialistic policies are acceptable, then Canada is already suitable and getting better every year. An Alberta version of Bernie Sanders is not an improvement on Justin Trudeau. In attempting to widen their appeal to the left, support for independence would likely shed far more fertile and dedicated support on the right.

Instead of offering socialistic goodies or opting for flimsy policies in an appeal to people from across the political spectrum, the independence movement should be clearly grounded in small-c conservative thinking that values free enterprise, private property, the family, respect for first peoples, and the historic virtues of Western civilization. That is, after all, Alberta’s heritage.

An independent Western Canada must protect property rights, and the protection of property rights will not appeal broadly to the left. An independent Western Canada must allow for the genuine freedoms that modern “progressives” too often to despise. Progressives often view conservative viewpoints and traditional Christian perspectives as “hate” that should be banned. An independent West that embraced such progressivism would be no better than the existing Canadian federation, and might even become worse.

When the Alberta independence movement first appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no doubt that it was a right-of-centre phenomenon. In the early 1980s, the Western Canada Concept Party of Alberta – the Alberta WCC – produced a four-page document entitled, “Our Statement of Principles.” It contained 24 points. The first point was, “We believe in responsibility and self-reliance.” The second was, “We believe in private enterprise.” Thirdly, it declared, “We believe in smaller government.” 

The fifth point stated, “We believe in the right to own property.” The explanatory paragraph for this point was as follows: “The power of the state to occupy, seize or expropriate private property is a violation of personal freedom. Any limitation of the freedom of the individual to own what he or she acquires, reduces the freedom and prosperity of the whole society.”

Many of the initial points in the statement focus on individual freedom and entrepreneurship, whereas the subsequent points tend to focus more on the specific role of government.

The twelfth point is noteworthy: “The strength of the family is the strength of the nation.” The explanatory paragraph for this point states: “Healthy, close-nit, nurturing families assure the future of a society by molding responsible, self-reliant, hard-working citizens. Healthy families transmit healthy values – which strengthen the community and the nation.”

The Alberta WCC Statement of Principles cannot be understood as anything other than a small-c conservative document, and it provides a shining example of the kinds of principles any future independence organization or party should embrace. The pioneers of the Western independence movement had this right.

The goals of the independence movement are self-determination and greater freedom for the West, and these goals only make sense from a conservative or libertarian perspective. Therefore, watering down principles in order to appeal for wider support from the political centre or left would ultimately defeat the purpose of the independence movement. Achieving an independent West that favoured political preferences resembling Toronto and Montreal would be an empty victory not worth the fight.

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.’

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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: The battle for Canada’s big blue tent

“The sacking of Sloan was a reversal for O’Toole and a betrayal of the social conservative wing. The battle for the heart and soul of the big blue tent has begun.”

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In my last column I explained why centre and centre-right conservative leadership candidates court the support of social conservatives, only to throw them under the bus once they have won the leadership. Social conservatives are tiring of this habit and are demanding greater influence within the Conservative Party (CPC) and their provincial counterparts.

A conflict between social conservatives and other camps at the March convention seems certain as the former are growing in number and influence. A shift in the political landscape has altered the balance of power within the CPC; but what caused this shift?

British historian Dr. Stephen Davies argues that political realignments happen every 30 to 40 years. As the alignment of most voters shifts, so too do political alliances. This results in power struggles within big tent parties that end in schism, new political parties forming, or a shift in ideology. An example is how the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln were the northern party of black liberation while his opposition Democrats were (largely) the party of southern slave owners.

Davies points out that throughout history, politics has normally been a binary option around one primary defining issue. A two-dimensional political spectrum is created by adding the most important secondary issue as the vertical axis.

For most of recent history, the primary horizontal axis was economic: economic control (socialism) to the left, and economic freedom (free enterprise) to the right. The secondary issue – vertical axis – placed authoritarianism at one end, and social freedom (libertarian) at the other.

A diagonal line between the two dominant quadrants becomes the political left vs. right spectrum we know: with upper-left “social democratic” parties and bottom-right “free enterprise conservative” parties.

Most voters will fall into one of these two dominant quadrants with the minority of voters (normally swing voters) finding themselves in one of the two quadrants devoid of major political parties. The unionized blue-collar workers who voted for Trump, for example, can often be found in the empty economic-left and social-authoritarian quadrant.

Davies argues the new 21st-century primary axis is about issues of identity: nationalism vs. globalism; stability and order vs. dynamic innovation; rural areas and industrial regions vs. global metropolitan cities.

Davies’ new dominant quadrants – representing the primary coalitions – are the “globalist liberals & free market libertarians” and the “national collectivists & cultural conservatives.”

Traditional leftist parties made up of coalitions between environmentalists, socialists, liberals, and moderates will be difficult to maintain as the liberals and moderates will want to follow the majority of voters as they shift to more globalist and libertarian social positions.

While difficult, it is possible to build a big-tent coalition of the old left and the new globalist left under first past the post systems. However, traditional centre-right parties – like the Conservative Party of Canada – are in trouble and Davies argues they will almost certainly splinter as competing policy objectives pull the moderates and social conservatives in opposite directions. The growth of social conservative influence within the CPC results from this influx of economic-left cultural conservatives and a simultaneous departure of progressives and libertarians.

Examples of the realignment include the 2017 French elections where the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties were both shut-out of the Presidential run-off between the new globalist LaREM party of Emmanuel Macron and the National Front party of the cultural conservative Marie Le Pen. The LaREM-led coalition also won a substantial majority in the National Assembly, while the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties suffered significant losses.

Trump represented a dramatic shift in Republican policy towards national collectivism, and many of the newly elected Republican senators and members of congress share Trump’s nationalism and collectivist instincts. Hillary Clinton – who most readers would agree is a globalist liberal – tried to shift her party towards globalism but faced a backlash from the old socialist wing represented by Bernie Sanders and the new radical-environmentalist wing represented by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In Canada, the shift can be seen in Quebec’s provincial elections. The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is a prime example of a national collectivist and cultural conservative party. Federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister turned Liberal Premier of Quebec Jean Charest set the Quebec Liberal party down the path to become a Macron-style coalition of globalist liberals and free market libertarians.

Derek Sloan and Dr. Leslyn Lewis both clearly campaigned on national collectivist and cultural conservative policies. Up until Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, O’Toole seemed content to slowly shift the CPC in the direction of national collectivism. The sacking of Sloan was a reversal for O’Toole and a betrayal of the social conservative wing. The battle for the heart and soul of the big blue tent has begun.

Alex McColl is the National Defence Columnist with the Western Standard

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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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