UCP leadership contender Danielle Smith is in favour of the Alberta sovereignty act. Photo from Facebook

Canada needs political prophets of unity, virtue

  • September 22, 2022

The aspect of the proposed Alberta sovereignty act which most gives me pause is not the legal chaos into which it will throw this province if enacted — although that is worrisome enough — but the spirit of division which it seeks to codify in law.

Growing polarization and incivility are leading dynamics driving change in the Western world today. It behooves political leaders to rise above these trends which erode social solidarity. They should become prophets of unity and virtue — virtues such as humility, kindness and service to the common good.

The sovereignty act would give the Alberta legislature the power to reject any federal law or judicial decision it believes undermines the province’s rights or the interests of its people. It is a clear example of populism, a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel their concerns are disregarded by society’s elite groups.

The appeal of the populist is emotional and stirs up anger against elites, real or imagined.

Populism lives off the existence of another group which it believes exerts disproportionate power in society. In the extreme, populism can spur violent attacks on members of groups it believes are unfairly unfavoured. The mass hatred whipped against European Jews prior to the Second World War is the classic example.

Populist anger can be directed against imagined conspiracies. Or it can arise out of a sense that “ordinary people” are being deprived of their voice and fair share of society’s benefits. Often, that sense of grievance and exclusion is legitimate. Populism’s enemies may not be the ones it identifies as oppressors; they are as likely to be societal trends as clandestine meetings of powerful elites.

Today’s populism is, in no small part, a reaction against growing state power and bureaucratization, and identity politics. Identity politics is seen as weaponizing racial and other forms of injustice to institute social controls through legislation, the courts and the media. While one may debate how such injustices can be overcome, there is little doubt that populists feel their freedom is being impinged upon.

In the Prairie West, populism has another root — a longstanding sense of being disadvantaged by the power exercised by economic, political and cultural elites in Ontario and Quebec.

Populism in Alberta has a long history going back until at least the beginning of the 20th century.

During the Great Depression, when the province’s mostly rural population suffered intense hardships, William Aberhart became premier by decrying the big banks and “the 50 big shots in the East” who he saw as causing those hardships. Aberhart’s Social Credit party won a massive election victory in 1935. The grievances were real, but most of the Socreds’ legislation aimed at countering “the big shots” was unconstitutional. The government also passed legislation limiting freedom of the press and increasing the power of Alberta’s eugenic sterilization act.

Aberhart died in 1943 and was replaced by Ernest Manning who ran a traditionally conservative government until shortly before the Socreds were defeated in 1971.

The new government, under Peter Lougheed, was assertive in defending, against federal incursions, the province’s right to collect royalties and other revenues from the province’s petroleum industry. The federal National Energy Program of 1980 stirred outrage across Alberta. Lougheed didn’t go far enough for some, and an openly separatist MLA was elected in a 1982 byelection.

Later developments included the rise of the Reform Party and the Firewall Letter of 2001. The populist fury against the federal government and other Eastern-based institutions ebbs and flows but never disappears. The proposed sovereignty act has again brought it to centre stage.

Danielle Smith, a leading contender for the leadership of the governing United Conservative party, has been the main proponent of the act. While the other leadership candidates share her sense of grievance against Ottawa, most have denounced the sovereignty act. The UCP caucus is also unlikely to support the act.

No political party in Alberta says the province is getting a fair deal from Confederation. The sense of being unfairly treated is entrenched in the population.

Still, perspective is needed. Ours is the wealthiest province in Canada, we have cut petroleum royalty rates to a fraction of what they were in the 1970s, there is no provincial sales tax and income tax rates are the country’s lowest. Even so, the province is projecting a $13-billion surplus in the current fiscal year. If Alberta is hard done by, what can other provinces claim?

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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