Wexit: How a political divide in Western Canada is driving calls for separation

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Wedged between the federal government’s climate policy and the politically driven oil-and-gas economy in the west lies a deep-seated regional divide that some believe has reached a breaking point.

As calls for a so-called “Wexit” began trending on social media, a newly re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the stage to acknowledge the frustration felt by voters in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“To Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan, know that you are an essential part of our great country. I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you,” Trudeau said during his victory speech.

But the sentiment did not reach some Conservatives, including Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who renewed his calls for Trudeau to cancel the federal carbon tax, rework the equalization formula and build pipelines to reach international markets.

“There is a fire burning here in the Prairie Provinces… What I am doing is handing him a fire extinguisher and I’m asking him not to show up with a gas can,” Moe said Tuesday.

A quick glance at Canada’s new electoral map points towards a growing frustration in the western provinces.

Though the Liberals won a minority government in Monday night’s election, the party was shown the door in Alberta and Saskatchewan where the Conservatives picked up 47 out of 48 possible seats.

Most of that frustration can be linked back to Alberta’s oil industry, where tens of thousands of people have been laid off and pipeline projects remain up in the air. But experts say calls for western independence stem from far beyond the current state of the oil industry — it’s an issue that spans generations.

“It’s not just oil and gas; it’s also the equalization payments, the premise of which is oil and gas. Without the resource wealth from Alberta, the equalization program would not exist and everybody knows that — especially the recipients in Ontario and Quebec,” Barry Cooper, political scientist and professor at the University of Calgary, told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.

“It’s about the bizarre ingratitude of Laurentian Canada and what they have taken from here. People are saying, ‘What is the point of belonging to a political organization where we are donors and no one says thank you.’”

Cooper is linked to the “Calgary School,” a group of Conservative-linked academics at the University of Calgary whose work largely focuses on Western Canada interests.

He notes that the region has always had different interests from the rest of the country, pre-dating confederation. But renewed motivation for a separatist movement is likely thanks to increased polarization between federal climate policy and oil industry.

“What’s new is this ideological attack on the Alberta and Saskatchewan oil-and-gas industry, motivated by what many people here think are fraudulent complaints about the environment,” he said.

“This time it might be a little bit different because so much of the economy of the country relies on the oil sands.”

‘The concept of Canada has died in people’s hearts’

At the helm of calls for an independent west is Peter Downing, founder of Wexit – as in “western exit” – Alberta.

Downing created the group in a bid to bring together the small, fractured parties all calling for independence and harness their collective frustrations to create a larger group that would vie for party status, eventually bringing together similar movements in B.C., Saskatchewan and western Manitoba to form Wexit Canada.

“People are heartbroken,” Downing told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday. “The concept of Canada has died in a lot of people’s hearts.”

He says that many at the heart of the movement feel that the votes of those in Western Canada, and Alberta in particular, don’t count federally, with many growing tired of having “money and resources” stripped from the province.

“We really do have a pioneer mindset, we have an expectation of taking care of ourselves,” Downing said.

Wexit’s Facebook page experienced a surge of support in the hours following news of a Liberal minority win on Monday, growing from just 4,000 members to over 171,000 by Tuesday.

The attention has already sparked controversy, raising allegations of Russian backing thanks to a recent article by Russian news agency Sputnik — allegations Downing calls entirely false. But Downing hopes this surge of attention will put further pressure on the provincial government.

“Wexit Canada will be the Reform Party 2.0.,” he said. “Their slogan was ‘The West Wants In,’ but ours is ‘The West Wants Out.’”

According to Angus Reid polling released in February, 50 per cent of Albertans believed separation was a real possibility, compared to 68 per cent of Canadians who thought it unlikely.

That same poll found that 60 per cent of Albertans would either strongly or moderately support the province joining a Western separatist movement.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, however, is largely seen as a federalist and has addressed calls for separation in social media campaigns.

“Albertans have been rightfully frustrated by the unfair deal we are getting in the Federation going as far as to even express support for separation,” Kenney tweeted in August.

“I don’t want to let @JustinTrudeau push us out of our country. I’d rather focus on separating him from the Prime Minister’s office.”