Jen thought it would be a breezy five-hour drive from Montana back to Alberta last Saturday.
She could not have been more wrong. Instead, it was what she called “one gong show after another.” Her name has been changed and the name of her hometown and small manufacturing business withheld.
After what she went through, she wants no cause for further hassle at the border. What she experienced, and shared in an interview with the Western Standard, is not something she wants to happen again.
SIX MINUTES BECAME TWO DAYS
When Jen pulled up to the border crossing at Sweet Grass, Montana just days ago, she didn’t expect any problems. She had taken the border crossing, 100 km southwest of Lethbridge, a few times before without incident.
“I’m a trucker and I can bring my product back across the border. An import number and licence gives me the ability to do that as often as I need without having to have the testing done and the quarantine,” Jen said.
The process normally takes six minutes, but not this time. When the border guard found out the Canadian woman had been in Montana for ten days, she decided that was too long, and declared her a non-essential traveller.
“I asked her what the time limit is so I know for next time, and she said, ‘Well there really isn’t one.’ …That was at her discretion.”
The border agent sent her to the nurse. Jen had not done a COVID-19 test within the previous 72 hours because essential travellers do not need to do so. Having been arbitrarily denied that status, she now had three choices.
“One option was to go back to the United States and get a COVID test and wait and then re-enter. My second option was to do the quarantine hotel. And my third option was to claim non-compliance, in which case they would come to my home and give me a $5,000 to $10,000 fine. So I chose the hotel.”
Jen recalled how the nurse laughed and said: “’This is so ridiculous. I can’t believe I have to make you do this, but I do.’
So she gave me a little square of paper and it said, ‘Go directly to the airport.’ The address was on it for the airport in Calgary, drive to Gate 17…Do not exit your vehicle. Phone this number, someone will come. They’re waiting for you. And they will escort you to the quarantine hotel.”
Because the drive was three and-a-half hours, Jen was given four hours to get there. Any later than that, and she would have faced penalties for non-compliance. She made it in time, but five attempts at the phone number gave the same message: ‘This number is not in service.’ Was it because she had an American phone?
At some risk of defying the rules, she walked out of the car and into the airport where she found 10 police officers assembled. She explained her problem and they phoned on her behalf. The number worked for them, and it was the Red Cross. They told her to return to her vehicle and someone would pick her up.
Fifteen minutes later, a man in a large black van rolled up and asked for her name.
“Then he said, ‘Follow me.’ You know, my mama taught me not to follow strangers in a van, but whatever. So I followed this gentleman. We pull up at a hotel. Now this is very odd. There was no markings on this hotel whatsoever.
“This is now 11:30 at night in a rainstorm. There’s three men dressed in full PPE. They had a mask, they had goggles, they had a shield, they had rubber gloves, they had booties on their shoes, and they had a white gown. And I get out of my car, and they say, ‘Get whatever you need out of your car put on this cart because you will not be allowed out of your room after this point.’”
The hotel looked like a work in progress.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a project that is they’re going to be sanding or something and so they mask everything off and there’s plastic everywhere. And that’s what the hotel was like. You go in a back door escorted by two men, and it’s a very sci-fi movie – sneaky, everything’s sneaky, sneaky … I couldn’t have found my way out of that hotel if I would have tried because it’s like a haunted house. Everything masked off and broken.”
A Red Cross employee got an item from the front desk, took her to her room and put the item on the metal doorframe of the door. When she asked what it was, he claimed it was a colour-coded item that clarified the age category in each room.
“I said, ‘That one’s green. What category is green?’
“‘Oh, middle aged.’
“I said, ‘How old am I?’
“‘Well, I don’t know that.’
“That doesn’t make any sense. Like what’s that? Clearly your b.s.’ing me to death.”
She took a picture of it and sent it to her son who is a sheriff.
“He says, ‘Oh, that’s a sensor so that when you open the door, it’s sending somebody a signal that you’ve opened your door.’”
She made a phone call of her own for a COVID-19 test. The company would only serve her if she named the hotel she was at. “You got to choose your meals for the next day on the menu and really tiny print is the name of the hotel.” Having told them, a COVID-19 test was scheduled for 4 p.m. the following day.
Door sensor or not, Jen said she got calls every 45 minutes to confirm that she was still in her room.
“They don’t even put like latches on windows. The windows don’t open. No getting out of there.”
Although staff got close enough to take her temperature, they wouldn’t come in the room.
“When they bring you your food, it’s in a brown paper bag and they just set it on a plastic bucket outside this green tape square and bang on your door. And then they leave and then you can come out and get your food.”
Jen had bad experiences with nasal swabs in the past, saying she “sounded like I had snorted fiberglass.” When someone arrived to do her test on Sunday, she chose the throat swab instead. During the interview on Tuesday, her throat was still sore.
“My throat is, it’s like cut. And I’m gargling with salt water. I don’t know what are on those swabs, but there’s something horrible on them.”
COVID NEGATIVE AND STILL CAPTIVE
Sunday night turned to Monday morning.
“I have all my test results back the next morning at 7 a.m. Now you’d think you would be able to go, right? My tests are negative? No, you can’t go. So when you get your tests, you phone this Red Cross number. So I phone the Red Cross number I start phoning at eight o’clock. No answer. Leave messages. But all circuits are busy. I must have phoned 15 to 20 times.”
Jen had had enough.
I thought I’m going to cause a nuisance until they let me out of here. So I just went out in the hallway. The guard stood up and he came at me and he said, ‘Get in here. Return to your room immediately.’
“I said ‘No, I will not actually. My test results come back and I need to leave now.’”
The guard tried to phone the Red Cross.
“So this went on three times. I had to go out in the hallway three times and upset the guard. Finally someone from the Red Cross phoned me. She said, ‘Listen, the quarantine officer who has to sign off to let you out is at the airport. And she’s busy because three airplanes full of people have just come in internationally and she needs to deal with all of them. So it could be up to 48 hours before she can get here.’”
The idea of a detention until Wednesday for a Saturday trip did not sit well with her.
“I got a little upset and caused some grief and this made a nuisance of myself because I thought that’s how I’m gonna get out of here. And so I’m about four hours after that someone knocks on my door and I don’t know who it is. They say we’re so and so with the Red Cross. The quarantine officer can’t leave the airport. So she sent us to just get a picture of your results to text to her.”
After two hours pass, Jen created another hassle and called again. Someone knocked on her door with signed discharge papers and orders to self-isolate for 14 days.
“Doesn’t say anything about taking any more tests. And it says, ‘To remain from getting bored, we suggest getting your neighbor or friend to bring you sidewalk chalk so that you can doodle on your sidewalk inside of your property or make an obstacle course in your backyard.’”
Monday night at home gave way to Tuesday morning.
“I get a phone call this morning at 7:30, which I don’t answer because it comes up on my phone as spam. And the message says, ‘This is the Alberta Health District whatever, blah, blah, blah. You are required to answer our phone calls and you are required to take a test on day eight.’
“Well you didn’t give me a test. You gave me a discharge paper with nothing in it except making an obstacle course in my backyard!”
AMERICA, LAND OF THE FREE
Back in Canada, home sweet home is not so sweet now. America has spoiled her.
“I’m Canadian, I’m but I had just come from Montana. And I spent six months there in the winter time, and it’s just so free and open and their numbers are almost nothing. So to come from that back to this. There’s just such a, like it’s opposite. Night and day. People’s attitudes are different. I mean, just five days ago, I was sitting at a ballgame in a ballpark with 90 other people watching a ballgame, not one mask. I was in a band concert with 500 other people, no masks and then you come here and you can’t get out of your car without fully masking outside.
“I know the truth. And it’s good. It’s sweet. You can talk to people in the grocery store because they don’t have their masks on. Yeah, and you never hear of a vaccine. Nobody talks about it, nobody. I don’t know anybody that’s gotten it there. I know lots of people here but I don’t know one person there who’s got it.”
The contrast between Canada and the U.S. is something she still struggles to get over.
“There’s no COVID rules there. It’s as if COVID didn’t exist, there’s no masks. There’s no rule. There’s nothing. It’s 100% open, has been for about four months now. And the COVID numbers drop about 10 to 15% a day, and they have almost zero cases now. So you go there and you’re free to live your life, morally, right up until that border. And then two feet past that, you’ve got to mask up, gown, up. COVID is everywhere. It’s gonna kill you. You’ve got to go in these quarantine hotels.”
Getting to the land of the free may not be smooth. Jen has advice for those crossing the 49th parallel.
“Be prepared for anything because it all depends on who you get at the border. There are no rules that go steadfast.
“If it wasn’t for that one woman who initially stamped my paper [that] I’m non-essential, it would have been a breeze and a wonderful experience. And I would be on my merry way and doing my job now.”
Harding is a Western Standard reporter based in Saskatchewan
Live music reemerging in Western Canada, but not without setbacks
“Everybody’s just pretending like nothing ever happened, it’s very weird.”
With COVID-19 restrictions lifting, live music is finally coming back, but those in the scene have been feeling the consequences.
Music and live performance industries have been financially hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. For emerging artists especially, performing live can be the make-or-break to finally get one’s foot in the door.
The Calgary Stampede was one of the first mass public events since the pandemic began. It hosted a variety of live music acts, and has so far been deemed successful with no major outbreaks known to have resulted from it.
With restrictions in place for a little over a year (March 2020 to July 2021) to varying degrees around the world, musicians and performers are trying to figure out what a post-COVID-19 world will look like for their industry – and grappling to put the pieces of what’s left back together.
Jarod, a.k.a. DVille, is an up and coming electronic music artist quickly taking Western Canada by storm. Based in Calgary, DVille has been releasing music and playing live shows since early 2017, and works closely with local promotion company Boodang.
Already taking advantage of pandemic restrictions dropping across western Canada, DVille has at least two live performances under the belt already in 2021.
“Two nights ago I got to play Palace (Theatre Calgary) again. Last two weeks have been fast-paced!”
DVille said he and other artists found more setbacks than benefits from the pandemic, but gained solace through controlling what he could.
“I think the only real benefit was being able to take a step back from the actual performance aspect of live entertainment and really put a lot more energy and focus into practicing our crafts and really honing in our skills of what we get to showcase and perform,” he said.
“There’s just been immense challenges. The biggest obstacle has just been the immense shutdown of most venues – almost all venues – for the entire time. So really there being no realms to partake in any activities.”
With the entire world shutting down, all live events initially closed down with it, meaning even the biggest of names weren’t able to tour and perform. This lack of mobility for even established forces in the game seems to have started a stigmatized culture within the music scene of ‘if they can’t perform, what makes you so special?’
“There was quite a big stigma through the industry of anyone that was performing or was finding ways to find a way to present their live music. Just because having the biggest names across all genres and all aspects of the music industry having to take a knee, having to take a seat, having to take a step back,” DVille said.
“What sets you apart from the bigs of the bigs? Like if the Rolling Stones can’t jump on stage, why do you think you should have the right to?”
This stigma seems to also point to a potential reason musicians especially have been so hesitant to perform live again since COVID-19.
“I really felt that stigma, with other artists judging, really kept a lot of people at home and not performing,” he said.
DVille says while the normal crowd is still around, its begun to quickly expand.
“It’s been insane! The energy that the crowd brings is just unmatched. The amount and influx of new faces and new energy is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” he said.
“People aren’t just out to see headliners anymore. Now after COVID, like as soon as the nightclub doors open the dance floor is full and people are just there to be there, which is super sick. I don’t know how long that will last, but it’s quite a different vibe for sure.”
Along with a renewed bustle has come a renewed sense of gratitude.
“I feel like that’s because just every artist themselves is more competitive because we’ve all spent so much time working on our craft and getting better. So because we didn’t get the chance to perform, all the music that we would’ve been showcasing we’ve just been stacking up and saving and saving. “
Referring specifically to the Western Canada music scene, DVille says COVID-19 has and will bring large shifts to the music industry with commercialization being more prominent than ever. Smaller independent venues, companies, and artists are fighting to keep their heads above water with the duration of the pandemic forcing many to close up shop.
“The only people (who) are left are the big fish in the industry pond. People that were already really well off. So now they’re kind of taking a monopoly over the industry. People in the position to take a benefit from the monopoly are the ones who were already not really struggling,” he said.
With big players currently holding court over most of the industry, the pandemic has begun to erode the middle ground positions in the music industry and leave only the have or have-nots in a brand new age.
“It is kind of two-faced because taking out that middle section or middle ground of the community, of the industry, did create a little bit of headroom for very grassroots organizations to totally startup. So it is somewhat Renaissance-like, and a rebirth of there being a lot of new – brand new – promotion companies, event companies, events, different things like that,” DVille said.
When it comes to artists, the industry seems to be experiencing an influx of plurality. With major artists buckling and new artists emerging online, getting one’s foot in the door of the music industry right now is an interesting experience.
“There is an overlapping wave, because I feel like there are so many feet trying to get in the door right now that it is a little overwhelming. Strangely enough there still were a lot of new breakthrough musicians coming out during COVID,” DVille said.
When it comes to post-pandemic caution being exercised by patrons attending live shows, DVille hasn’t observed much. “Everybody’s like, ‘COVID who?’ Everybody’s just pretending like nothing ever happened, it’s very weird. The last two weekends at Palace have been quite dream-like, it’s exactly how it was before — it’s quite eerie almost.”
He attributed most of said normalcy to the inherent nature of clubs: “stuffy, indoor, hot, clubby, shoulder-to-shoulder, mosh-pit environments the people that wouldn’t necessarily be super comfortable or would be exercising a little more precaution, they’re just not ready, they straight up would pass,” he said.
Although Canadian patrons seem to be observably comfortable post-pandemic, DVille says both he and a handful of others in his circle are actually exercising more caution than they otherwise normally would. “Yeah Charlie (CJ We$ty) is for sure,” he said.
“Normally, if I wasn’t on stage I would be down right in the thick of it, down at the front, right in the most condensed bit of the crowd. The last two weekends I’ve spent the overwhelming majority of my time behind the rope, backstage, in VIP, up in the green room all six feet away from people social distancing all night,” he said.
Vaccines are set to play an interesting role in the reemergence of any live events, but especially concerts and live music. DVille says it’s like mixing apples and oranges to compare COVID-19 regulation capabilities between large and small venues.
“That saying ‘you have to spend money to make money’ because those promotion companies, those event staff, they don’t have the base income to get the whole ball rolling, they can only have the ability to put on subpar events,” he said.
“The larger venues are just more able to put on better events right now, and a lot of the small venues have just been closed or don’t have the initial booking fees to bring in big artists; therefore to bring in crowds to spend money.”
Questions surrounding the ethics of barring people from public spaces without immunization have been on the rise lately, with Manitoba’s new vaccine QR code system already drawing controversy. DVille says at the end of the day it should be a company’s choice to implement these rules or not, and patrons who don’t like it have the freedom to make other choices.
DVille recognizes not everyone is able to abide by the new immunization rules.
“If your health enables you to get the vaccine and you don’t have any precursors that would make you ineligible for the vaccine – yeah! I think you shouldn’t really have a problem with the need to have it to go to an event, but it’s definitely a case by case basis because not everyone is that fortunate,” he said.
What’s going on soon for live music:
Alberta and BC are hosting a number of live music events throughout the summer and into the fall, but many of the usuals are choosing to play it cautious and postpone another year to 2022.
• Chasing Summer, a weekend music festival taking place in Calgary, has officially announced it will be postponing once again until 2022.
“There’s not a ton of Canadian artists across a ton of different EDM genres really touring right now. It’s alright, but I see why it’s going on. And Chasing is just one of those things where there just wouldn’t be enough artists to keep them all booked locally.”
• The ever-popular Shambhala music festival hosted annually in BC also opted to postpone one more year until 2022.
• Country music festival Sunfest in Cowichan, BC will be returning in 2022 without a 2021 offering.
But Western Canadians can still look forward to their fill of live music coming up.
If you’re looking for a more casual scene, Social Beer Haus on Stephen Ave – previously showcased for their Stampede food selections – will be hosting live local musicians every day from 2-5 p.m. and boasts a dance floor inside.
Palace Theatre in Calgary boasts a modest docket of live music spaced throughout the summer and really picking up in autumn.
Running through August 7, Inglewood in Calgary will be hosting The Melodies and Myths live concert in Mills Park every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. until noon. This concert series aims to showcase local classical music artists including cellists, guitarists, and violinists.
If you’re able to wait until autumn, Boodang is hosting SCREAM, a Halloween-themed music bash on October 30 in Edmonton. With names like Alison Wonderland and RL Grime billed as headliners, and tier-one tickets already sold out, Boodang’s first live event since COVID-19 is expected to be big.
Jackie Conroy is a reporter for the Western Standard
Global music industry aiming for online opportunities
“To me it really speaks to the resilience artists have and the commitment they have to their art and bringing joy to their fans.”
Artists from around the world are beginning performing live again after COVID-19 barred them from the stage for more than an entire year.
But now many realize those days may be coming to an end, and are looking at doing more live stream shows to get their music to the masses.
At one point being described as the worst COVID-19 hotspot in North America, Alberta experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the resulting restrictions. One state within Canada’s southern neighbour has been hit comparably hard is Florida.
As of July 16 2021, Florida accounts for 20% of all new COVID-19 infections in America. Despite still rising COVID-19 cases, Florida is home to one of North America’s largest thriving music scenes.
Ariel Morer, a.k.a. ASHERAH, has been an established force in the music industry since the mid 2010s. Prior to rebranding as ASHERAH, her music has charted internationally in multiple countries, she’s performed at festivals alongside major acts like SOPHIE, and has released music with major labels like UMG and Warner.
Based in Florida and currently attending Berklee College of Music, ASHERAH says live music will always remain a pillar of the industry, but modern technology has and will continue to help musicians as restrictions begin to lift.
“There’s a lot to be said for forming in-person connections at shows, but to be honest the seamlessness of online communication makes the world and the industry feel so much smaller,” she told the Western Standard.
The pandemic has produced some obvious hurdles for musicians who give live performances, but ASHERAH says she’s still been able to take advantage of a number of opportunities right from her own home.
“I made an EP with a producer based out of the UK, started my undergrad at Berklee, and learned how to market and promote my music single-handedly, all without leaving my house,” she said.
“I think we’ve seen a tremendous amount of innovation during what I’d say is already a modern renaissance of the music industry,” she says, “virtual reality concerts and live streams took the place of in person shows and were often marketed as such. I definitely see that continuing to happen out of convenience, but I don’t think it will ever be a replacement for live shows.”
She also said all genres were embracing the online scene throughout the pandemic, “I saw everything from DJ sets to live electronic performances, acoustic sets, and metal festivals all done virtually.”
In reference to a Porter Robinson show she attended in Virtual Reality, she said “fans from all over the world were able to be next to each other and experience it in real time. It was amazing!”
With all the benefits of virtual platforms, the hit from not being able to give live shows has still been hard on many, says ASHERAH, also hinting at her disappointment in those who chose to break COVID-19 guidelines and host live shows anyways.
“I had several friends miss out entirely on touring revenue from things that were booked months out and had to resort to gig economy jobs, like Uber and Door Dash. These were people in really well known bands, too,” she said.
“Florida in particular didn’t slow down as much as, say, Boston, and I did see people continuing to play shows and host raves during the thick of the pandemic, which was disappointing.”
ASHERAH says though the delivery of online platforms has improved, the monetary structure surrounding them still leaves many artists and industry professionals out in the cold.
As for the new post-pandemic face of live music, ASHERAH says “I think we’ll probably see more outdoor concerts, capacity limits, mask rules, etc. when it comes to larger scale concerts. I’ve been to a few outdoor shows since getting vaccinated and there really haven’t been many, or any, restrictions.”
She notes The Flaming Lips, who she believes have “nearly mastered COVID-safe concerts.”
“They used inflatable plastic bubbles to pretty much sequester each individual concertgoer. Maybe we’ll see more of that at other shows if COVID persists in the future?”
ASHERAH says the differences in post-pandemic live shows in Florida have been obvious. Pre-pandemic live shows often saw people comfortably displaying “more touchy-feely, with less regard for personal space” type behaviours.
“Now I’ve noticed people are a little more wary of maintaining social distance,” but also emphasizes she doesn’t believe it will last forever. “I honestly see a return to normalcy eventually because nothing compares to squeezing together to get as close as you possibly can to your favourite artist.”
ASHERAH is pro-vaccine, and believes everyone who has the ability to get jabbed should do it.
As for the vaccine’s role in live music attendance, particularly how venues will handle vaccinations, ASHERAH says if it were up to her she would require vaccine cards upon entry – however she acknowledges this may not be realistic in smaller venues, and has the potential to alienate.
“If I’m being honest I don’t think vaccines will play much of a role in getting people into live events again, at least not in Florida. It very much seems like it’s every man for himself right now and you can only do so much to convince people to get vaccinated.”
ASHERAH couldn’t give away too much because it hasn’t officially been announced yet, but she has an indie electropop EP coming out this fall produced with friend Medulasa. For more updates on her and the project you can follow her instagram @asherahofficial.
Jackie Conroy is a reporter for the Western Standard
Moment of Truth: The must-read book about Alberta’s future
“If you’re concerned with Alberta’s place in confederation, pick up this book.”
What lies ahead for Alberta? Since confederation, the West generally – and Alberta specifically -have been subjects of the federal government’s Laurentian agenda. After over a century of struggle against Ottawa, the time has come for Albertans to decide which course they will take.
Moment of Truth: How to Think About Alberta’s Future is a compilation of chapters written by different authors and edited by Jack M. Mintz, Ted Morton, and Tom Flanagan. In it, readers are faced with the pressing discussion of Alberta’s place in confederation now, in the past, and in the future. Though sympathetic to independence, this book is by no means a manifesto for a sovereign Alberta.
Authors, who include famed Calgary School members such as Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton, Barry Cooper, and David Bercuson, clearly explain the problems faced by Alberta and outline possible solutions both in independence, or in a so-called “fair deal.” They also do not shy away in explaining the difficulties in independence, including increased defense costs and a lengthy constitutional process for peaceful secession. Nonetheless, the authors are agreed; as the title of Morton’s chapter suggests, “The status quo must go.”
As the Buffalo Declaration makes clear, “Our federation has reached a crossroads at which Canada must decide to move forward in equality and respect, or people in our region will look at independence from confederation as the solution.” For anyone concerned with the future of Alberta’s place in confederation, this book is a must read and comes at a perfect time, just as Canada chooses its path.
In his chapter, Alberta and the myth of Sisyphus, Flanagan builds an Albertan political mythology, complete with heroes and villains beginning just after confederation. Every time a hero – always a Westerner – tries to make a gain in the direction of Albertan self-determination over natural resources, a villain – always from Ottawa – attempts to thwart it.
Our first hero is Louis Riel with his villain Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald’s federal government wanted control over Rupert’s Land which it had just purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
“Canada had not stopped to consider that there was a civilized community already present [in Rupert’s Land] in the Red River Colony.”
Thus, Macdonald and Riel clashed over control of Rupert’s Land which resulted in the creation of Manitoba, and eventually Riel’s declaration of independence from Canada and the quelling of his North-West rebellion in 1885. Though failed, it was the first spark of Western secession in Canada.
The twentieth century also saw its share of Western heroes and Laurentian villains. Frederick Haultain clashed with Sir Wilfrid Laurier over the provincialization of the West. Whereas Haultain wanted one large province —‘Buffalo’ — Laurier ordered the creation of two smaller provinces, ‘Alberta’ and ‘Saskatchewan.’ Ottawa still retained control over public lands and natural resources.
This brings us to our next hero, John Edward Brownlee. As premier of Alberta, Brownlee (hero) negotiated with William Lyon Mackenzie King (villain) over control of public lands and natural resources. Though delayed by lobbying in Quebec, an agreement to give Alberta control over its public lands was eventually reached in 1929.
The federal government was not satisfied with its inability to control Alberta’s natural resources and in 1980, the National Energy Program was introduced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (archvillain). As Flanagan points out, “… federal Energy Minister Marc Lalonde later said, the motive was ‘to transfer wealth from Alberta to central Canada.’” Thus emerged our next hero, premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed. One of Lougheed’s victories against the National Energy Program was “insertion of Sec. 50 into the Constitution Act, 1982, to confirm provincial control over ‘exploration for’ and ‘development, conservation, and management of’ non-renewable natural resources.’” This, along with the election of (Brian) Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, led to National Energy Program’s eventual repeal in 1986.
Finally, we are presented with our final villain, Pierre’s son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau II has once again attempted to wrest control of Alberta’s natural resources by kiboshing pipelines and introducing a carbon tax. What we are not given is a clear hero. Will it be Jason Kenney? Someone else? And if we are given a hero, will they continue Alberta on its Sisyphean task and let the boulder of control over its natural resources roll back down the hill? Or, perhaps, will a new hero emerge who eventually breaks the curse and allows Alberta to take back its natural resources permanently? Alberta’s mythology is its own to create and the following chapters give Albertans a blueprint.
Donald J. Savoie offers the thesis that “The treaty Macdonald and [George-Étienne] Cartier struck in 1867 put blinders on national institutions to ensure they would focus on Ontario and Quebec, and would limit regional considerations to Quebec” (p. 97). Though strong, in his chapter, “Canada’s national political institutions wear blinders,” Savoie offers compelling examples of how this is exactly the case. Two institutions which clearly suffer this defect are brought to light in Savoie’s chapter; they are the Supreme Court and the Senate.
The Constitution guarantees Quebec three Supreme Court justices. No other province or region is given such a guarantee. While it might be thought that custom would protect regional interests in the supreme court, Savoie points out that this has not been the case, citing Justin Trudeau’s 2016 attempt to replace Nova Scotian Judge Thomas Cromwell with a judge from outside Atlantic Canada. Trudeau argued other forms of diversity beyond regional diversity were important when making appointment decisions. As Savoie asserts, “Political and administrative institutions matter” and the Supreme Court in no exception. Though writing in an American context, journalist Garet Garrett noted the importance of executive appointments of Supreme Court judges in shaping policy, in 1952. If some policy was previously considered unconstitutional, how is it that it can now be considered constitutional? Garrett responds; “By reinterpretation of the language of the Constitution. That is done by a sympathetic Supreme Court.” Thus, those concerned with their own regional interests cannot rely on that written document, the Constitution, alone for protection. They must also concern themselves with how that document is interpreted. While Quebec is guaranteed such sympathy, all other regions are at the mercy of the cabinet and governor general’s discretion in appointing judges.
Canada’s Senate faces similar issues in giving preference to the Laurentian provinces. The obvious problem for Westerners is under-representation. With Ontario and Quebec each respectively guaranteed the same number of senators as the entirety of Western Canada (24) Alberta and British Columbia come out wildly underrepresented. As of 2018, Quebec had one senator per 350,904 constituents whereas Alberta had one senator per 721,701. While under-representation is a problem which some Westerners have sought to reform, Savoie points to another problem which reform may not altogether solve. He points out the Senate has no mandate. Are senators to be the voice of regional interests or are they a check on democracy? It is not clear. As Savoie argues, “In short, the Senate has no widely accepted mandate. It all depends on how individual senators define their role.”
Though some argue that the cabinet should play the role of ‘voice of the regions’ Savoie remarks that though we may have once had “powerful regional ministers,” this is no longer the case. “Justin Trudeau even did away with regional ministers in 2015. For some unexplained reason, he decided to re-introduce the position in 2019 but only for Quebec.” Without the Senate or the cabinet, who is to be the voice of the West in Ottawa?
Robert Mansell offers empirical research surrounding the redistribution of Albertan wealth to the other provinces in his chapter, “Alberta’s fiscal contribution to confederation.” Looking at “direct taxes,” “indirect taxes,” “investment income,” “final federal expenditures on goods and services in the region,” and “interest payments on the public debt to residents of the region,” Mansell tells Albertans just how much they are giving to other provinces. From 1961-2018 “the net federal fiscal contribution by Alberta has averaged $3,700 per person per year.” This is the cost of confederation for Albertans.
Other provinces have certainly reaped the rewards with the maritime provinces garnering a net negative annual federal fiscal contribution of over $5,000 and the territories garnering a negative contribution of $22,842. As Mansell’s research shows, we are not trending towards a more favorable outcome for Alberta. Between 2000 and 2009 Albertans had a net federal fiscal contribution of $5,645 per person per year and a contribution of $5,243 from 2010 to 2018. As Alberta becomes relatively more productive than other provinces, its pockets continue to be picked. Alberta sows, and the Eastern provinces reap.
Mansell breaks down the contributions by source between various policies such as income taxes, equalization, employment insurance, and sales taxes. Most provinces pay in some categories and benefit in others with two exceptions. The first is that of New Brunswick which benefits in all categories outlined by Mansell. The second, which may come of no surprise at this point, is Alberta which pays in every category. The point made is clear: Albertans pay so that other provinces may live more comfortably.
This brings us to Barry Cooper’s chapter, “Challenges for western independence.” Unafraid and unrelenting, Cooper asks a question to Western politicians.
“How much more abuse will it take to persuade Westerners that serious action is required? How many times must polite petitions be answered with repeated injuries?”
For Cooper, that “serious action” might just be secession.
Cooper’s most poignant argument is many problems which have hitherto appeared to be legal matters are not so at all. They are, in Cooper’s words, “political, all the way down.” Two such issues are equalization and referenda on secession. As Canada’s 1982 Constitution explains: “Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”
For Cooper and other legal experts, the wording is totally unclear.
“The several governments are committed to the ‘principle’ of equalization payments, but nothing is said about the actual practice. Nor is the meaning of a ‘reasonable’ or ‘comparable’ level of public services or taxation discussed. If Alberta has a lower level of taxation than other provinces, does this imply Alberta should have higher taxes or the other provinces should have lower ones? The question practically answers itself, which is why equalization has been called a welfare trap for provinces. For these reasons alone legal scholars have reached a consensus that Sec. 36 in non-justiciable. That is, in the view of these experts, no court can legitimately determine that Sec. 36 imposes any obligations on any of the governments that have pledged their ‘commitments.’ In other words, the actual working out of equalization payments is entirely political.”
The same is true for the Clarity Act, according to Cooper. After Quebec’s 1995 referendum on independence, it was decided power would be vested in the House of Commons to determine whether or not all future referendum questions regarding secession were clear and whether or not a clear majority in favour of secession had been established. What seems like a legal barrier for Albertans to cross to gain independence, Cooper points out, is a wholly political one.
“Whatever the role and whatever the question, and however clear the question and the vote may be to common-sense or to the voters, the House can always ‘deem’ things to be otherwise.”
Cooper asks us to consider “… the following hypothetical: following an intensive and effective educational campaign detailing the long train of abuses suffered by the West, Alberta and Saskatchewan vote overwhelmingly (say, 95 %) in favour of a straightforward question: do you wish Alberta and Saskatchewan (and perhaps other parts of the existing country of Canada) to be independent of Canada?”
Cooper poignantly asks, “Then what?”
What is so troubling about the Clarity Act is that it vests the power of determining the clarity of the question and a whether a clear majority obtained in the House of Commons. We might consult a linguist, writer, or psychologist whether or not the question asked is clear. We might consult a statistician, mathematician, or political scientist whether or not a clear majority was obtained. Instead, non-experts with their own interests and agendas — Members of Parliament — are asked to determine the answer to these questions. What is more concerning is Cooper’s suggestion the House of Commons might determine a clear question was unclear, or a clear majority does not require us to suspect MPs of ignoble or immoral conduct. MPs are expected to represent their constituents.
Suppose a member of parliament from Newfoundland and Labrador is presented with Cooper’s above hypothetical. He must now decide whether or not 95% represents a clear majority. Some $3,000-plus per year per person is at stake for his constituents (as Mundell’s chapter tells us.) Should that MP agree 95% represents a clear majority and turn his back on the interests of his constituents? What should be expected of him in this case? Well-intentioned MPs may therefore, in a noble attempt to represent their constituents, go against all common sense and understanding of statistics and deem that 95% does not represent a clear majority.
Perhaps Alberta should follow Quebec in rejecting the Clarity Act, as they courageously did with the passing of Bill 99 which gave Quebec the authority to determine whether or not a referendum question was clear and understood a majority to mean “50 % of the valid votes cast plus one.”
If you’re concerned with Alberta’s place in confederation, pick up this book. Alberta has spent more than a century being abused by the federal government. If Albertans do not feel those abuses, read this book and you will feel them. If you think there is no hope in secession, read this book and you will see what it takes for Albertans to overcome those obstacles.
Alberta is at a crossroads. Which path will Alberta take? How will Alberta build its own mythology? This book may be a first step for readers in being part of that story.
Andrew Allison is a Freelance Columnist for the Western Standard and is a PhD philosophy student at the University of Waterloo
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