STRATHMORE, ALTA. — Here in Wheatland County, the very heartland of a troubled Alberta, when the clearest official marker on the province’s possible separation from Canada was finally thrown down, it came not from the hand of some cantankerous old sourpuss nursing ancient grievances.
No. Instead it arrived courtesy of a young man; one who could so easily be featured as a Canadian Prairie symbol of a life being lived honestly and productively, here in this tightknit community of small towns and hamlets, nestled among the grain fields and feedlots of the northern plain, on the eastern side of the Rockies.
The first part of the fateful resolution 22-year-old Jason Wilson presented to his six colleagues at Wheatland County Council on November 5 was toughly worded, calling on the Alberta government to leave the Canada Pension Plan and create its own provincial scheme.
It went on to reiterate more of the same demands that a younger Stephen Harper, then leading the National Citizens Coalition back in 2001, along with a group of like-minded university academics and political thinkers, had presented in a letter to then Alberta premier Ralph Klein (although Klein responded with hostility to the ideas).
Provincially, the policy plan was and still is called the “firewall” — a way for Alberta to, in part, emulate Quebec’s insistence on provincial autonomy by clawing back some of the powers Alberta has ceded over the years, for reasons of expediency, to the federal government in Ottawa.
So, like Harper’s firewall letter, County Councillor Wilson’s motion also included calling on Jason Kenney’s provincial United Conservative Party government to begin collecting its own revenue from personal income tax; to replace the Mounties in Alberta, who patrol most of the province outside the big cities, with a provincial police force; and to have the province oversee immigration into Alberta, the way Quebec does for its immigrants.
The motion went on to demand a review of the equalization formula, a particular bugbear that leaves Alberta as a seemingly endless contributor to overall federal coffers, thanks in part to revenues from an energy industry that is also seen by some in the very same provinces who cash the benefit cheques as a national blight that deserves to be shuttered.
Wilson’s resolution may have sounded tough to some, but all of that was stuff Albertans have heard many times before. And they’ve heard a great deal of it since 2015, when the federal Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began taking a series of steps perceived as directly attacking Alberta’s fossil fuel industry, from cancelling the Northern Gateway pipeline, to implementing carbon taxes, to passing new and more burdensome regulations that many believe will prevent any new oil and gas or pipeline projects from happening.
Recently the Alberta government announced a panel that would begin assessing ideas for greater Alberta autonomy, including the ones recommended in the firewall letter.
Except, here in Wheatland County, Wilson added a kicker on top of those usual proposals. And it was one the other six Wheatland County councillors present at that early November meeting passed unanimously.
We have to portray that frustration. We used to have oil rigs — I couldn’t drive no more than two miles from home and see an oil rig— but we don’t see them any more
The motion said that if Ottawa does not facilitate the moves towards taking back Alberta’s powers, such as the provincial pension plan, and by not doing so stands in the way of Alberta exercising those rights, then the provincial government should hold an October 2021 referendum vote on the secession of Alberta from Canada.
And with those words. this young rancher, curler, hockey player and proud member of the 4-H beef club, discovered what it is like to be inundated with media calls emanating from across the country, from CTV national news, CityTV in Toronto, the National Post, and several others. The words had been spoken, the resolution passed: the separation cat was out of its Alberta bag.
But why Wheatland County, a collection of several small communities about a 90-minute drive east of Calgary, comprising no more then 9,000 people? And why Jason Wilson, a young man from a ranching family that can trace its Prairie roots back to a time before Alberta had even emerged as a province?
“I think of Wheatland County as a mirror of Alberta. Our two largest industries are oil and gas and agriculture. We are a very highly educated community and I think people understand how we need to move forward and they see the opportunities we could have if we were to act on these recommendations,” said Wilson.
“I’m a rancher myself. My family is in grain. A carbon tax is a direct hit on our agricultural producers. So we have to portray that frustration. We used to have oil rigs — I couldn’t drive no more than two miles from home and see an oil rig— but we don’t see them any more.”
“They just aren’t there, which means they aren’t spending in our towns: the shallow-gas companies, the oil companies, they just aren’t there to support the community. It is an indirect effect, but it is really very hard when you have a federal government that is essentially attacking our communities,” he added.
Wilson says he is both a proud Canadian and Albertan and although he had no clue that his successful motion would make such a national fuss, he has no regrets.
He does not want Alberta to go its own way but says, like many in the province, that the frustration level is at an all-time high and the addition of a separation clause to his council motion was absolutely necessary to highlight the seriousness of the situation.
“There has to be a line in the sand that says you can push us but don’t push us too far. That is why I added that last piece: the resolution about a referendum on independence.”
“That was never the final intent and I hope to gosh that it doesn’t get that far — that we can fix Confederation before that would happen.”
“But I believe it is the same feeling all over Alberta – separation has to be on the table as a bargaining tool so the severity of this issue is understood,” added Wilson.
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So far he says the reaction to his successful motion has been overwhelmingly positive. Messages of support and calls of congratulations have poured in from across the province. He says it makes him both proud and slightly embarrassed. He is, after all, only 22 years old.
“I have not personally had any negative comments back. People are happy that someone finally stood up and said ‘enough is enough.’”
“It is very rare that a local politician gets calls from all over the province,” Wilson said.
“It is really refreshing to know that we aren’t the only ones out there frustrated.”
Derek Fildebrandt, who used to represent Strathmore-Brooks as a provincial MLA, understands such frustration. He’s felt it for years, every since he’d spend what little free cash he had in his Carleton University days on the Western Standard magazine, then an Alberta-based bastion for radical conservative and libertarian thought.
Since then he’s had a checkered career in provincial politics. As a Wildrose MLA for the region east of Calgary who once ran for that party’s leadership and helped lead the merger that created the United Conservative Party, he represented some of the same southern Alberta communities that Wilson now represents on a local level. He knows many of those Wheatland County families, though his days as a politician are currently over, having been ejected from the United Conservative caucus after getting caught in a number of scandals, including an illegal hunting charge, and leaving the fringe Freedom Conservative Party he joined in 2018.
Western alienation, if you can call it that, although I think we are well beyond alienation
Today Fildebrandt lives in Calgary where he is working to resurrect a new iteration of the magazine he once devoured as a student a dozen or more years ago. Yes, the Western Standard is reborn, at least online. Fildebrandt believes the time is right.
“The idea began to crystallize for me that we needed to revive the Standard about a month before voting day in the federal election. I had a sense of what the reaction would be — Western alienation, if you can call it that, although I think we are well beyond alienation.”
“This has been bubbling for some time. A Tory win federally would have been merely a placebo. People were willing to pin their hopes on the Tories, even if what they offer the West is to ignore us. When the Tories lost, that hope was dashed. It was really a closing-off of the relief valve,” said Fildebrandt.
He believes the old Reform party battle cry of “The West Wants In” has run its course; that Albertans have trod that road and found it a dead end.
“’The West Wants In’ is not a slogan that anyone can get elected on today. We tried it for 20 years and the gains were marginal and so quickly erased in the first six months under Trudeau,” said Fildebrandt.
“Albertans are either going to entrench themselves behind firewalls and accept a hostile federal government or they are at the point of being willing to cut the cord,” he added.
Meanwhile across Wheatland County residents have expressed no regrets to the young man who finally put into words their building frustrations. Where this path eventually leads they do not know, but a lot of them are just encouraged that the journey to change is finally underway.