Western alienation: A brief history

No wonder Canada’s west doesn’t trust Ottawa. They’ve been second-class citizens for more than 100 years

(Photo illustration: Ronit Novak; Canadian Press; iStock)

In Ottawa, when the House of Parliament is in session, the 15 minutes before Question Period has long been reserved for what are known as Statements by Members. In the past, these statements, each of which is up to one minute in length, have tended toward the appealingly quaint. Members of Parliament have used them to laud local sports teams or to recognize historical, if obscure, anniversaries. Once, not long ago, according to the political website, three separate MPs rose on the same day to praise contestants on Canadian Idol.

But this fall, statements from the Conservative side have adopted a more singular purpose. Instead of praising baking contests, the Tories have been using the opportunity to accuse the New Democrats of plotting to unleash “a job-killing carbon tax.” Under the guise of a cap-and-trade plan, the NDP, they charge, would put a price on carbon emissions that would ruin the energy sector. In late October, one Conservative even suggested this “sneaky” plot would “raise the price on everything we love about Halloween: the pumpkins, the candy and the costumes.”

A cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions hasn’t always been “a job-killing carbon tax” to Conservatives. Between 2004 and 2009, it was the party’s official policy on climate change. The ensuing flip-flop even prompted one writer to publish an online compendium to the issue entitled “A rough guide to the Conservative’s carbon tax farce.”

There’s more to this Conservative about-face on carbon tax than meets the eye. It’s possible that the Tories had a sudden change of heart, but it’s more likely they realized that by opposing the tax, they would be linking the NDP to a history of regional resentment as old as Confederation itself. For almost as long as Canada has been a country, the western provinces have been fighting the centre for control of their natural goods. “Job-killing carbon tax” is a way for the Conservatives to tie themselves to one side of that western history and New Democrats to the other. The NDP may have been born in Saskatchewan, but at the federal level, the Conservatives are saying they’re no different from any other Ottawa political group: they want what you’ve got, and if you vote for them, they’ll take it.

Journalist Mary Janigan sheds some light on just how deeply the resentment underlying that strategy runs in her new book, Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark. To most Canadians, “western alienation” might mean the National Energy Program or the Reform Party. But as Janigan details, regional battles over resources in the West go back to at least the 1860s when, shortly after Confederation, the new Canadian government agreed to pay £300,000 to the Hudson’s Bay Co. for the lands between Ontario and the colony of British Columbia. As Janigan explains it, that payment would haunt the Canadian West for decades.

Under the terms of Confederation, the original provinces entered with full control of their own resources. The new provinces that were eventually carved out of the West, however, did not start out with the same rights. When first Manitoba and later Alberta and Saskatchewan were created, Ottawa retained control of their natural goods. The federal government believed, probably correctly at the time, that the new provinces lacked the capacity to fully exploit their lands. But politicians, especially from the Maritime provinces, were also of the view that their taxpayers had bought and paid for the western timber, farmlands, coal and later oil and gas with the payout to the Hudson’s Bay Co.


The Prairie provinces, then, felt they had come into Confederation as second-class citizens. And the resentment this bred has never really gone away. Through the early part of the 1900s, successive western premiers battled successive prime ministers for resource control, mostly to no avail. At times, they struggled even to be noticed.

Janigan describes a heated first ministers meeting in 1913, in which the three Prairie premiers teamed up for the first time to demand resource control from Prime Minister Robert Borden. It was a watershed moment for the West. For Borden, it barely registered. (The entire conference, Janigan notes, went completely unmentioned in his memoirs.) After another disastrous conference in 1918, Ottawa began to acknowledge that the western provinces might benefit from having some control over their resources. Still, a 1920 report prepared for the new prime minister, Arthur Meighen, suggested key commodities like coal, oil, gas and timber remain under the federal thumb.

It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the West gained something approaching the same rights as the rest of the country. Even that deal, though, didn’t keep Ottawa’s hands out of western pockets. Up until the 1980s, Janigan writes, the federal government employed price controls, tax restrictions and export schemes to keep western largesse flowing East. (Many will recall that in 1980, when the National Energy Program was imposed, Albertans started slapping bumper stickers with “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” on their cars). It was around this time that western politicians, from Ralph Klein to Stephen Harper, grew accustomed to stoking regional grievances for electoral gains.

Janigan, for one, believes those days might be over. “The New West,” she writes, “has power and confidence. It also has economic clout.” In politicians like Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, it also has local leaders less bathed in old animosities than those who came before them.

In Ottawa, as the ongoing cap-and-trade saga demonstrates, the rhetoric, of West vs. the Rest lives on. The “job-killing carbon tax” line is nothing if not a dog whistle to westerners still fearful of Ottawa’s grubby hands. That the line itself is baldly hypocritical isn’t really the point. As long as Conservatives believe there are votes to be won, it’s worth poking ancient regional wounds. After all, as Janigan all too ably demonstrates, this is the Canadian way.

Richard Warnica is a staff writer and western bastard currently freezing in Toronto.