Alberta has long played a pivotal role in Canadian federalism, with its economic might and vast oil reserves. However, the province’s equalization contributions have never quite matched its ability to influence the national agenda. This is partly due to Alberta’s size, but also reflects the province’s subdued role on the national scene.
For decades, the province engaged in an isolationist, defensive stance, strongly fending off any federal encroachment into its perceived sphere of control. This approach was consistent with both Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa, representing deep-seated resentment of Alberta’s expendable nature in a system where elections are largely determined by vote rich central Canada.
However, the nature of the challenges confronting Alberta today raises doubts as to the viability of this approach, particularly with increasing concerns over the province’s energy industry. Isolationism will not help the province overcome barriers to developing new means of transporting oilsands product to market, slashing the hefty discount purchasers are currently receiving. Neither will it address the major labour shortages facing Alberta, which involves making it easier for the province to lure workers from across the country and around the world. Rather, these challenges require Alberta to take a more robust role in federalism to shape the national agenda and ensure our interests are advanced.
Alberta’s role in confederation is a central issue at stake this election, with Allison Redford and Danielle Smith pitting two starkly different visions against each other. Visions both women outlined in speeches at the Economic Club of Canada a few months apart.
To Danielle Smith (speech), the solution is sticking to our isolationism and relying on a friendly federal government to make Alberta’s case to the rest of the country. Smith recognizes that this will make it difficult to expand our US oilsands market or develop new ones in Asia, but believes that an “all-Canadian solution” is the answer. By retrofitting current infrastructure, oil should flow west-east, eliminating the eastern Canada’s reliance on foreign oil and allowing depressed manufacturing regions of Ontario and Quebec to benefit from refining. A form of economic nationalism that one would expect to be proposed by Gordon Laxer, the Alberta Federation of Labour or the Alberta New Democrats than the Wild Rose.
How exactly she plans on accomplishing this without significant inter-provincial coordination is puzzling. However, the more important question is how this benefits Alberta. Refining oilsands product in Canada will increase the discount it’s sold at currently, meaning we will sell less oil and make less on each barrel sold.
Alison Redford (speech) on the other hand is calling for a break from the past, arguing that Alberta should take on a more robust role in Canadian federalism. At the core of this new role is her push for a Canadian Energy Strategy that will coordinate and advance provincial energy interests as a whole. In effect, the attempt is to link the oilsands to the energy interests of other provinces, in order to change national attitudes towards the industry. Although this sounds promising, the strategy lacks any real specifics to gauge what tradeoffs Alberta will be making in order to convince other provinces to get on board.
Regardless of what the election’s outcome, there are questions related to Alberta’s approach to federalism and its ability to address the challenges confronting the province. While the Wild Rose may have intentions of returning the province to the days of Manning, Lougheed and Klein, they and Albertans should be aware that the issues they dealt with are quite different from those that are confronting us today.