‘Wexit’ should heed pitfalls faced by other separatist movements: experts

CALGARY — Recent secessionist movements in the world offer few encouraging examples to western Canadians who are miffed at the federal government and think they’d be better off living in a separate country.

“Wexit” — an apparent play on the nickname for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union — was in few Canadians’ lexicons before October when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were re-elected, but reduced to a minority and shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Paul Hamilton, a political scientist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., says separatist movements are usually born out of historic ethnic conflicts.

“And then there is another category of secessions, which are often the hobby horse of a couple of people with an internet connection,” he says.

“Or it’s done as a protest. Or it’s done as, frankly, a joke.”

Western Canadian grievances largely centre on a perceived federal animus toward the oil and gas sector and a belief that the region is making an outsized contribution to Confederation.

The “Wexit” movement aims to form its own political party, elect MPs and push for a referendum on separation. It has branches in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia.

Its platform says it intends to declare independence from Canada, secede from the British Commonwealth, elect a president as head of state and align with the United States. It also wants to establish its own defence force, police and currency. Costs and logistics are not detailed.

“Secessionists can always be counted on to make it sound easy. But that’s when you know they’re not serious, because it’s incredibly complicated,” says Hamilton.

Texas, which was its own country for nine years in the 1800s, has long flirted with separation from the United States. The Texas National Movement, established in 2005, wants an “independent, self-governing nation-state free from the control of the bureaucrats and political class in Washington.” It’s pushing for a referendum on “Texit.”

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine points out that an independent Texas would be on the hook for its share of the $22-trillion national debt and an “enormous transition cost.”

And just because a population votes for secession, doesn’t mean it will happen.

Secessionist sentiment in Western Australia has bubbled up periodically over the years. None of its iterations has gone as far as a 1933 referendum in which the state voted to split, but Britain refused to let it happen.

The Spanish region of Catalonia voted for secession in a 2017 referendum that the central government deemed illegal. Criminal cases were brought against several Catalan separatist leaders, spurring recent mass protests.

Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor who has studied separatist movements, says ”Wexit” types should realize there is no automatic right to unilateral independence under Canadian or international law.

“The major teacher in all of this to some extent, whether willingly or unwillingly, is our own Supreme Court of Canada,” he said.

The top court decided in the landmark 1998 Quebec secession reference case that the province can’t split from Canada unilaterally, but could negotiate terms of separation if there was a clear referendum result based on a clear question.

“The duty to negotiate in good faith with the rest of Canada would be huge and potentially insurmountable,” says Mendes.

Splits can be amicable, such as the “velvet divorce” that led to Czechoslovakia’s dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the 1990s.

“Would it happen with Alberta? I don’t think there’s a chance of that,” says Mendes.

The possibility of internal divisions in a newly independent state is also a huge issue.

Indigenous people voted overwhelmingly against Quebec separation. First Nations treaties are signed with the Crown, so a western split would be a “recipe for chaos,” Mendes says.

Even though Quebec didn’t separate, it has more control over immigration, pensions and other matters than other provinces.

“Quebec is the best example of a would-be state that has achieved the greatest degree of autonomy within a federal system,” says Hamilton.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has rejected secession and formed a “fair deal” panel to look at ways to reduce Ottawa’s influence.

Hamilton says: “Political elites are saying, ‘This isn’t going to happen, but we’ll use it to extract benefits from the central government.’”

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