With recent discussions of separation, most as a result of the controversy surrounding the Kyoto Protocol, this question begs an answer. According to a poll conducted in late October, 20 per cent of Albertans favour considering separation if the federal government ratifies Kyoto.
This is not the first time that separation has been brought up in Alberta. For several years, fringe organizations discussed splitting from Canada, either as an individual province, as part of a block of provinces, or as one of a group of provinces and American states known as Cascadia.
Early last month, Premier Ralph Klein brought up separation as a veiled threat against the ratification of Kyoto.
"I don't think Albertans are ready to leave Canada," Klein told reporters. "If you ask Albertans now if they want to leave, they would say 'no, but don't push us too hard.'"
Among the leading advocates of Western separation is Douglas Christie. Christie is perhaps best know as the controversial lawyer who defended such infamous Holocaust deniers as Ernst Zundel and Alberta schoolteacher Jim Keegstra. He has also been active in promoting separation of the four westernmost provinces through the Western Canada Concept, an organization he founded in 1980.
On its website, the WCC bills itself as "The movement dedicated to building an independent nation of Western Canada," and advocates such ideas as "an end to immigration to preserve our environment, culture and stability," "preservation of our Christian culture and European heritage," and "one official language of Western Canada."
Christie holds a strong belief that Western Canada can survive economically, politically and socially without the East.
"From a practical point of view, the diversity of economic contribution from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba would create a very balanced and successful economy," says Christie. "Add to that... the territories we used to call the Northwest Territories and Yukon, and we could have a perhaps even bigger resource base."
From Christie's point of view, Western alienation is the biggest reason for considering separation. The WCC's website complains Ontario and Quebec control two-thirds of the House of Commons, Senate and Supreme Court, and states that Western Canada produces 52 per cent of Canada's fishery, forestry, mining and agricultural revenue, and 90 per cent of Canada's fossil fuels. Christie points out that previous attempts to solve the problem of Western alienation have been fruitless.
"The Reform Party was an expression of Western alienation, and Mr. Preston Manning's slogan 'The West Wants in' was catchy but ridiculous, because the West will never get 'in' until it surrenders to Ontario. I think the Reform Party demonstrated that given an opportunity to support a real political alternative, Westerners are very eager to do so, and the Reform Party was a misguided, or perhaps deliberately misguided, attempt to focus Western alienation into a federal political reform movement. I've said then and I say now: it was doomed, it is doomed to failure. It's doomed because Ontario doesn't have to listen."
University of Calgary Political Science professor Dr. Anthony Sayers debunks the myth of Western alienation as primarily a method of getting attention.
"In a general sense, Western alienation is a flag to run up a pole to show that 'we're really upset and we want something done about it,'" says Sayers.
If he was given the chance, Christie says, he could persuade Western Canadians to opt for separation from Canada.
"If you give the amount of resources in time, energy, and communication that were given to the Reform Party to the cause of Western separatism, I have no doubt that it would be a success politically."
Christie feels that convincing Western Canadians to separate is merely a matter of informing them.
"[There is] an interest among people who are already informed and are intelligent," Christie claims. "I don't include in that the vast majority of people, who I don't mean to imply are not intelligent, but they're indifferent. And they're frequently depressed. Depressed by the fact that they don't count, and they don't think there's any way they could count. And they pay taxes to a government they don't elect. Consequently, it's a matter of education."
In Sayers' view, the separation of Alberta is feasible, if nearly entirely unlikely. Sayers strongly doubts British Columbia would join Alberta in such a movement.
"We tend to think of Western alienation as if it includes B.C." Sayers explains. "But B.C. and Alberta are very different places. We're the East as far as people in B.C. are concerned. There's not much evidence now that people in B.C. are keen on separation. When we talk about Western alienation and separation, you might say 'could Alberta survive?' because it would be going alone. For it to happen, you would need B.C. and Alberta to both agree."
In terms of viability, Sayers feels Alberta could survive on its own, or with a lesser connection to Canada, but only at the lowest levels.
"[Alberta] can dig a lot of holes in the ground and it can produce a lot of wealth," Sayers notes. "Given that and given non-combative neighbours, if Alberta wasn't required to defend its borders in any profound way, sure, Alberta could survive. But that survival is if we set the bar at an absolute minimum."
The costs of separation, says Sayers, could be extremely high. As well, Alberta, or any separating entity of which it was a part of, would become a "very small, tiny principality in the world system" with "no international relationships."
"Alberta is a wealthy place," says Sayers, "and money can buy you a lot. But the practical difficulties are so great that just the frictional costs would run into the billions. And there's other concerns about what you gain; you become a very small, tiny principality in the world system, with no international clout."
Separation as part of Western Canada or as a single province are not the only options that have been tossed about. The idea of the republic of Cascadia has existed for several years. With a nucleus of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, Cascadia has also included Idaho, Montana, Alberta and Alaska, depending on when and who one asks.
The concept of Cascadia began with the differences noted by historians and politicians between what is commonly called the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the U.S. and Canada. Political union is only a small and mostly insignificant part of the idea of Cascadia.
"In the U.S. and in Canada, the definitions of West have been a little bit different; historians have struggled with them differently," explains U of C History professor Dr. Elizabeth Jameson. "In Canada, this has been resolved a bit more neatly than in the States by simply separating B.C. from the prairie provinces, and with good reason, because of the different timing of settlement and incorporation. In the States, there has been this tendency simply to define the West as anything west of the Mississippi River or anything west of the 98th [meridian], which is where it gets very errant, so there's an environmental definition of the West that doesn't fit the Northwest.
"There's a group of historians in B.C. and in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon and Washington, who see that region as a connected region. That's the vision of Cascadia. Not only is it damp, but it shares regional economies, like lumber, or salmon fishing and canning, and workforces that move back and forth across the border, and Native peoples whose original territories got divided by the 49th parallel."
Christie says he likes the idea of Cascadia, but he is quick to point out that the U.S. Constitution does not permit states to secede from the union.
"Realistically, it's not legally possible for a state of the United States to separate," he says. "Since the Civil War, that's been fairly well-established. But it is legally possible for a province to separate. So [Cascadia] is sort of a legally impossible abstraction. There's no question it would be viable. There would be a large resource base; it would have quite a diversified economy. But in actual fact, there are many political and legal obstacles to any amalgamation of the Northern states with the provinces of Western Canada."
While Supreme Court decisions resulting from past incidents involving the Quebecois separatist movement may have set a legal precedent for Canadian provinces to exit Confederation, Sayers is quite certain that the federal government would do everything in its power to prevent Alberta from leaving.
"In broad terms, the rest of the country would have to treat Alberta the way they would have to treat Quebec after the Supreme Court Secession Reference, which means that if there was a referendum and there was a clear question and an acceptable clear majority, Canada would have to negotiate in good faith," Sayers explains. "Given the practical difficulties, I doubt that full separation would make much sense. Unless you were really angry and willing to cut off your nose to spite your face, chances are that even if Albertans were in favour of separation, some sort of loose confederation would result. There are just too many advantages to having strong connections east-west and north-south."
Despite his frustration regarding the Kyoto Protocol, Klein is not in favour of separation, claims Marisa Etmanski, the Premier's Media Relations Coordinator.
"The Premier himself doesn't believe that that's something we want to do," says Etmanski. "He's interested in talking about Kyoto. He doesn't discount the sentiment that is out there from some people. There are some people talking about it, but he's certainly not pushing it.
"[Klein] believes in Canada; he believes in Confederation. That's always been very important to him, but he also senses the frustration that Albertans are feeling right now with the federal government and they're not wanting to discuss this with us."