Separation means different things to Alberta and Quebec

In the ongoing Alberta-versus-Quebec debate, it is increasingly hard to differentiate facts from fiction.

For example, to believe some of the commentary, both provinces — for different reasons — are deeply unhappy with Justin Trudeau’s re-election victory. The return in strength of the Bloc Quebecois tends to be exhibit one in those analyses.

But in reality, while Alberta did soundly reject the federal Liberals on Oct. 21, it is the Conservative alternative to the current prime minister that was left standing at the altar by the Quebec electorate.

In last month’s election, Andrew Scheer earned his best score in the popular vote in Alberta and his worst in Quebec.

Last week, the polling firm Abacus reported that a majority of Quebecers would be OK with Alberta leaving the federation.

That high proportion stands in stark contrast with the results in the other provinces. Nowhere else is a majority on side with the idea. In Alberta, only 36 per cent responded positively to the notion of their province’s secession.

But are those numbers really a symptom of ever-increasing frictions between the two provinces, or do they mostly reflect a stark difference in the perception of secession?

Quebecers have lived with the sovereignty debate for the better part of five decades and have twice over that period voted on whether to remain in the federation.

In 1995, half of them believed independence was the better option.

These days, separation does not generate the enthusiasm it did back then, but that does not make it any less legitimate in the eyes of the province’s electorate.

At this juncture, two of the parties represented in the national assembly are pro-sovereignty. From one poll to the next, anywhere from 30 per cent to 40 per cent of Quebecers still say they would vote yes to the province’s secession in a referendum.

From the perspective of the voters who have spent the most time thinking about life outside the federation, it is not automatically negative for a province to consider a future independent from the rest of Canada.

From the perspective of sovereigntist supporters, the secession of Alberta would actually be a positive development, inasmuch as it could amount to the kiss of life for their own independence project.

A few weeks ago, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tasked a commission to study a list of made-in-Quebec options liable — at least in his mind — to increase the province’s leverage in the federation.

The options range from Alberta opting out of the CPP to create its own pension plan to the setting up of a provincial police force to replace the RCMP and the collection by the province of the income taxes.

In Quebec, Kenney’s proposals barely elicited a shrug. Given that those policies have been in place in Quebec for as long as its people can remember, it would have been hard for anyone to find the Alberta premier’s moves particularly bold.

Quebec has long been governed by parties with much more ambitious constitutional agendas than anything Kenney is considering.

Indeed, were there to be another constitutional round, the Coalition Avenir Quebec government would likely bring the province’s traditional demands and more to the negotiating table.

Polls also show Quebec to be the province most hostile to new pipeline projects.

That reality is reflected in the fact that no provincial party will support plans for a pipeline to link Alberta’s oilfields to the refineries of the East coast.

But Quebecer’s hostility to developments related to fossil fuels extends beyond out-of-province industries.

In 2011, Quebec’s shale gas industry recruited former premier Lucien Bouchard as its chief lobbyist.

Bouchard may be Quebec’s most influential ex-politician. But in the case of shale gas, he hit a wall. The hope was that his image would improve that of the industry. The reverse happened. He relinquished the position after two years.

At around the same time, the province’s then-Parti Quebecois government announced plans to impose a moratorium on shale gas development.

Shortly after he became premier last year, Francois Legault told Quebec’s federation of municipalities that his government was no more open to shale gas projects than its Liberal and PQ predecessors.

In recent days, there have been musings in both Alberta and Quebec’s provincial capitals of the two governments finding common ground in their respective desire for more provincial autonomy.

After all, is not Quebec intervening in support of Alberta in its court battle against Bill C-69 and the reinforced environmental assessment powers that law vests in the federal government?

But Legault’s government is also in court with British Columbia over that province’s contention that it has the constitutional power to regulate the amount of oil and gas that transits through its territory.

All of which is to say that political autonomy means different things to different provinces. What B.C. and Quebec would like to do with more autonomy is not at all what Kenney has in mind.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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