Western Alienation: The Case for Constitutional Reform

In the past few years, sentiments of alienation have been simmering among the people of the western provinces of this confederation. Many people who live in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia feel that the economic and political makeup of the country is unfairly centered on the central provinces of Ontario and Quebec, while the western provinces are less economically successful and less politically represented on the national stage.

The more industrialized portions of countries across the world tend to be much more economically and politically powerful when compared to the more rural and agrarian regions. One could look at the example of Italy, where the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, centered around the cities of Milan and Venice, were historically – and still are to this day – the most industrially and politically influential. The southern agrarian regions of Naples and Sicily, regions historically dominated by foreign powers like the Spanish and the French, fall far behind in terms of economic output, quality of life, and political power. Tensions have developed between northern and southern Italians to such an extent that there are popular political parties in both regions advocating for secession and independence of these various different regions from the Italian Republic, which, if successful, would leave Italy a rump state consisting only of the region around Rome. Such divisions exist in Canada in a similar vein.

This phenomenon of “western alienation” is not a recent development in the Canadian political history. In fact, this phenomenon has been a part of Canadian politics ever since the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald boldly wrought into fruition the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway through his National Policy which sought to colonize and settle the lands of the Prairies and to concentrate the manufacturing base of the young nation in Eastern Canada. This created a disparity in the nation, whereby the West of the country would be dominated first by the agriculture, and later the resource extraction industries, while the East would be the manufacturing and industrial centre of the confederation.

While this tension between the West and the East had been ever present in the background of Canadian politics since confederation in 1867, these sentiments were greatly exacerbated by the actions of the Liberal Federal Government under the premiership of Pierre Trudeau. During the 1970s, the world was rocked by two oil crises, the 1973 oil crisis incited by Western support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the 1979 oil crisis caused by the Iranian Revolution, in which the price of oil surged to extreme levels, causing massive stagnation in economic growth and inflation in the prices of commodities. In an effort to wean Canada off its reliance on foreign imported oil and to develop Canadian ownership of its significant oil industry, Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program under which Canada’s oil industry would become federally run. The massive profits generated under this scheme were redirected to the federal government, not to the provincial government as it had been before; many academics agree that between 50 to 100 billion dollars in revenue which would have gone to provincial governments had been collected uniquely by the federal government in Ottawa. This was massively unpopular in Alberta, the largest oil producing province in Canada. With natural resources being the exclusive prerogative of the provincial government, this was seen as an unjustifiable intrusion of the federal government into an area of provincial jurisdiction. All of these injustices, coupled with the fact the Trudeau Liberals had failed to win a single seat west of Manitoba in the 1980 federal elections, caused outrage in the Western provinces, with the sense that the federal government was stripping their provinces of their natural resources for the exclusive benefit of the Eastern provinces.

While this signalled the beginnings of the modern sentiments of Western alienation, another significant factor was the failure of the Mulroney PC Government’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These were in effect omnibus packages of various constitutional amendments which seeked to rectify several of the issues relating to the powers of the federal and provincial governments which came to be after the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982. Among the proposed amendments to the Constitution were the recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” and the assigning of previously federal powers to the provincial governments. The defeat of the Charlottetown Accord at the polls was motivated by two movements, the Quebec sovereignty movement and Western alienation. These accords were vehemently opposed by the fledgling new Western Canada-based right-wing populist Reform Party, who saw the accord’s declaration of Quebec once again as a “unique society” and the provision for the overrepresentation of Quebec legislators in Parliament as another sign of Eastern arrogance and the alienation of the interests of the Western provinces. These perceptions of Eastern arrogance in the perspective of Westerners stuck to such an extent that it saw the ruling PC Party, who had at the time of dissolution a majority of 156 seat in a Parliament of 295, decimated to just two seats in the 1993 election with the Reform Party surging in its place in Western Canada winning 52 seats, up from the single seat it had at dissolution. Incidentally, the Bloc Québécois also surged to 54 seats from 10 at dissolution. This election was seen as a clear repudiation by Western Canadians of the Eastern-centric politics of the last decade. It also struck a death blow to the once powerful Progressive Conservative Party who would thereafter never recover to the same levels of popularity it had once enjoyed; the conservative movement in Canada would forever shift to the more right-wing Reform Party and its successors including the modern Conservative Party.

The failures of all of these federal initiatives were among the largest factors which led to the emergence of Western alienation as a political philosophy. In the modern day, we still see the effects of Western alienation at play. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government, following in the footsteps of his father almost forty years ago, introduced and adopted a policy of a carbon tax in response to the so-called climate crisis which would tax producers of carbon emissions. This policy was and remains massively unpopular in conservative Alberta and Saskatchewan, seeing as it raises taxes significantly for many products, and since it is designed to target, some would argue unfairly, the oil and petrol industries which dominate the economies of these provinces. The devastating effect such a carbon tax would have on the economies of the West, along with the blasé and indifferent attitude of Justin Trudeau, who continues to virtue signal about rosy liberal and “progressive” values, towards the economic concerns of Western Canadians has reignited sentiments of Western alienation, feeling which had previously lain dormant under the Alberta dominated Conservative Harper Premiership. The emergence of a Wexit Party, inspired by the British exit from the European Union, is emblematic of growing hostilities. While the growing popularity of this movement may seem to present yet another problem to the practically leaderless and directionless Conservative Party, whose traditional heartland of support remains Western Canada as it was in the Reforms years, it may actually present the party with an excellent opportunity to rebuild its image and support after its defeat in the 2019 elections.

The Conservative movement in Canada has been practically leaderless since the resignation of Stephen Harper as Party leader. For the past twenty or so years, the Conservative Party, and its predecessors the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party, has relied on the strength of its leader for guidance; Harper had been at the head of the Canadian conservative movement, guiding it through the tumultuous times of the splitting of the Right and the financial crisis of 2008. However, in the aftermath of his resignation, the Party has consistently struggled to define itself and its political ideology. The chosen successor, Andrew Scheer, is a weak, pedantic and altogether boring man who carried with him the unwanted baggage of his socially conservative values, such as his pro-life views and his opposition to same-sex marriage, which have scared away the Party’s cruitially needed centerist and immigrant voters, most of whom voted overwhelmingly for the Liberal Party. Scheer’s attempt to shift the Party to the right has been a massive failure, given the fact that same-sex marriage and the right for a women to choose are increasingly seen by Canadians as important policies to maintain and by more right-wing voters as fait-accomplis. The candidates for the next generation of the Party’s leadership also seem thoroughly uninteresting. Peter Mackay is seen by most of the Party’s base as a stinking albatross who backstabbed Scheer’s leadership, Erin O’Toole is seen as generally continuing the Harper dynasty of moderate conservatism, and the other candidates would be mistakes, given their desires to shift the Party even more to the unappealing and unelectable right-wing fringe of social conservatism. What the Conservative Party needs to galvanize support among its wide and diverse base and to gain the crucially needed support of moderate centrist voters in the next federal election is a single, non-controversial issue to unite behind as thus far attempts to unite the party behind pro-oil industry anti-carbon tax have not resulted in the massive appeal that the Party leadership had hoped for in the 2019 elections.

The big ticket item that could be the saving grace of the Conservative Party’s chances and electability in future elections is the issue of western alienation and Senate reform. One of the main grievances of the Western provinces has to do with the political weight of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Due to the statistical fact that there are simply many more people who live in Ontario and Quebec compared to Alberta or Saskatchewan, they gain more seats, and therefore influence, in the House of Commons. In fact, a party that gains all the seats in Ontario and Quebec only would have enough seats to form a majority government. Such a disparity between the seat density of the different regions of Canada is the root of political separatism in the West. What has not helped in the situation is the fact that in both the 2015 elections and the 2019 elections, the governing Liberals won very few, in the case of the 2015 elections, or no seats altogether in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The only way the Liberals have managed to survive as the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons is due to the massive support in urban Southern Ontario and Anglophone Quebec, demonstrating the massive influence those regions have on politics in this nation. The perceived injustice is that the federal Liberal government is, like in the 1980s, imposing its anti-oil industry and carbon-taxing will on the Western provinces without any form of representation whatsoever in government. The obvious solution to this volatile situation is the creation of a vehicle through which the provinces would get an equal say in the laws of the land, regardless of the relative populations of each province. Senate reform is the most viable way of creating such an institution and should therefore be elevated to a status as one of the signature policy proposals of the Conservative Party should it desire to succeed in the polls.

There are many ways in which the Senate could be reformed. It being currently a chamber in which members serve for life under appointment from the Governor General under the advice of the Prime Minister makes the Senate as it is a fundamentally undemocratic and unaccountable body; that the unelected Senate can make changes to government policy and obfuscate the business of the elected government is an affront to all the democratic values of this nation. The rather ambiguous division and assignment of seats in the Senate, based not on population or province, is confusing and undemocratic. The Trudeau Liberals have tried to reform the Senate by the creation of a non-partisan consultative chamber by the appointment of prominent Canadians by an “independent” commission. What he has actually done is packed the Senate full of ideological liberals under a false veneer of independence. A newly reformed Senate would have to be fully elected and accountable to the people of this great nation in order to justify its continued existence. There are of course several models that we can follow to reform the Senate.

There is the Bundesrat of Germany, a chamber made up of members nominated by the assembly of Germany’s sixteen federal states; a system like this in Canada would see the provincial and territorial legislatures elect members to the reformed Senate, whose own makeup would change not during federal election, but after provincial and territorial elections. The disadvantage of the German system is that the sixteen länder do not enjoy equal representation on the Bundesrat, which would not fundamentally solve the issue of eastern provinces dismissing the concerns of the western provinces due to sheer population.

Another model is that of the Australian Senate. Australia’s Parliament is considered to be a mix of Westminster-style parliamentarism and American-bicameralism, their House of Representatives is functionally identical to our House of Commons. The Australian Senate, unlike the German system, represents the collective population of each sub-national division. Each Australian State directly elects twelve Senators and territories directly elect two senators each. This skews power in the Australian Senate towards the states with lower population, something which would be widely supported in the western provinces of this nation. The Australian Senate is also different from other upper houses of parliament in that it is vested significant power, such as the unilateral veto of bills passed by the House of Representative.

A final model is that of the French Sénat, where members are not directly elected by the people, but by an electoral college consisting of regional councillors, departmental councillors, municipal councillors, mayors and members of the National Assembly. This indirectly elected chamber has suffered criticisms from members of the National Assembly for being undemocratic, much in the same vein as the Electoral College of the United States.

The best option for Canada is not to unilaterally adopt one system or style of upper chamber, but rather it is to take the best from several models and combine them to form a uniquely Canadian senate. One way in which we can combine the best of several systems is to have a Senate whose members are elected in multiple ways in order to best represent the will of the people of a province and the will of the provincial government at the federal level: half of the Senators assigned to a province would be nominated by the provincial legislatures and the other half would be directly elected by the people of each province. This is, in effect, a combination of the German model and the Australian model of upper houses. The Senators nominated by provincial assemblies would grant the provincial governments more influence on the national stage, and would increase their relative powers compared to the federal government without the controversial reassignment of federal-provincial responsibilities which sunk both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. While this type of reform would augment the powers of the provincial governments unequally, it skews more towards the smaller provinces, it would still increase the powers of each and every province, ensuring that Senate reform would be in the best interest of each provincial assembly and making it more likely to garner the provincial approbations needed to reach the ridiculous 7/50 formula, support from seven provinces representing at least 50% of the national population, required to pass a constitutional amendment. The other Senators would be directly elected by the people of each province, much like in the Australian system, and would collectively represent the will of the people of each province equally. This, like with the other portion of reform, gives more power to the people of each province and would make it more likely that the people of each province would pressure their provincial governments into accepting and supporting the amendment, avoiding yet again the issue of lack of popular support which killed the two previous attempts at constitutional reform. All of these characteristics would make it very undesirable for a province to oppose, and would very much placate those in the West who feel that control of the government is centered on the East.

If the embattled Conservative Party is able to coalesce around this issue of Senate reform and the prevention of the deepening of sentiments of Western alienation, broadly popular policies, then their fortunes might be entirely changed for the next election. This issue would unite a currently fractured and factionalist Tory Party into one where both the PC and Reform wings of the party are able to cooperate in order to ensure the future success of the party, instead of bickering about faits-accompli and other political issues which would reduce the popularity of the party to the crucial independents and centrist Liberals it needs to attract in order to win an election. The reform of the Senate into an equal, elected and effective upper chamber will ensure that regional interests and seperatist sentiments do not destroy the careful, effective and successful confederation we have right now in Canada and is the Conservative Party’s ticket to popularity and power.

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