Say Yes To End Equalization Presentation

I was lucky enough to be invited to be a guest speaker at the Say Yes to End Equalization event.

I gave a presentation on behalf of Project Confederation outlining why we need to win this referendum with a substantial "yes" vote and to take the opportunity to talk about how Western alienation is not a new facet of political thought in Alberta.

I encourage you to read the text version of my presentation below, and we will post the video of the event on our website once it is available.


"Say Yes to End Equalization" Presentation


I’ll begin with a brief history lesson on some of the root, fundamental causes of western alienation over the years. Obviously, this is nothing new, it’s been around for over 150 years. Western Canadians, truthfully, have never gotten a fair deal in confederation.

Obviously, most of you are aware that in 1867 Canada became a country when three British North American provinces - Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were united in one federation. At the time, Canada was a much smaller place - not even encompassing the entirety of what is now Quebec and Ontario. It was actually centred on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

In 1870, there were major changes to the map, as the Dominion of Canada completed its purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company, as outlined in the Rupert’s Land Act of 1868. Rupert’s Land contained what is now Northern Quebec, Northern and Western Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The transfer of Rupert’s Land marked a monumental change in the fate of Canadian history, transforming the country from a small British colony to a major empire of its own, with a domain five times the size of the original dominion, all under direct federal administration.

Within the political framework of the time, western Canada was largely settled to act as a colony of central Canada - where our abundant natural resources were mined and sent east, where the robust manufacturing industries of the Laurentian establishment would use these resources and produce goods that they would then sell in the open market.

Included in the “purposes of the Dominion” of the original British North America Act was Ottawa’s intention to use land grants to build the Canadian Pacific Railway and to promote western settlement. Only when these objectives were completed would ownership of the public domain revert from the federal government to the prairies - which did not happen until after decades of protest and opposition.

In fact, it was the fight for public domain - namely rail lands - in which drove the political leaders of what was then the Northwest Territories to seek provincehood for the people in the west. Frustrated in their development goals, the merchants, farmers, journalists, and politicians of the West turned their energies to agitation against their weakened status, demanding control of the public domain “in the West, by the West, for the West” and compensation for lands and resources already alienated by the federal authorities. 

“The erosion of this formal structure of colonial power was only partially accomplished by the accession of Alberta and Saskatchewan to provincial status in 1905.  The Territorial government had advocated on one large province in the Territories but the federal cabinet, fearful that such a province would challenge the hegemony of Ontario and Quebec interests, created two.  Like Manitoba before them, Alberta and Saskatchewan found that some provinces were more equal than others.  Ottawa insisted that retention of the public lands and resources of the west was necessary for the implementation of the vigorous immigration and settlement program being pursued by Sir Clifford Sifton, Wilfrid Laurier’s Minister of the Interior.”

Over time, Westerners of all classes came to perceive Ottawa as an imperial government, a complex of institutions organized by central Canadian elites for the purpose of dominating and plundering the hinterlands.  The provincial administration, whatever its political colouration, became the indispensable agent for attacking political colonialism and bargaining with external economic interests.

Agitation against their second-class status continued in all three prairie provinces until the final transfer of resources in 1930, but in Alberta, the campaign was lent a special sense of urgency by the province’s chaotic pattern of economic development.

So, obviously, western alienation has been a major topic of conversation regarding equalization, and it's something that is rooted inside of the political culture of this province. The concept of the political power of the east - in which presently 199 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons reside - using political tools in order to deprive the west of rights and resources has been around ever since the Rupert’s Land Act of 1868.

Now, that brings us to today.

In 1957, the formal system of equalization was brought in, where wealthier provinces would contribute higher sums of taxes to the federal coffers, and that money was used to ensure that all Canadians receive reasonably comparable provincial public services at reasonably comparable rates of taxation. The one consistent theme throughout the years is that the eastern and central provinces intensely disliked the wealth of the prairie provinces, simply because the rapid growth of the west would see the power dynamics shift politically in their favour. There has always been a strong push by the federal government to use their powers to remove that western access to wealth and power.

And that they have done. Since the equalization program was instituted in 1957, Alberta has contributed over $600-billion dollars to the rest of the country. In the past thirteen years alone, Alberta has contributed over $240-billion to the rest of the country - mostly to Quebec, who collected about $170-billion. The program, which was designed to ensure equality, has turned into a wealth redistribution scheme designed to take from the west and give to the east - a trait that has defined Alberta’s relationship with Ottawa for our entire history.

So, to sum up, on average we contribute $20-billion dollars in equalization transfers to the rest of the country. Now you would think they would appreciate it, and leave us alone. But that isn’t exactly what happens - nor is it a historical appreciation.

The federal government not only takes our money, but has also - consistently - ignored our concerns, failed to address our problems, and have consistently attempted to nationalize our natural resources. While Premier Peter Lougheed did manage to get natural resources into the constitution as a provincial control, the federal government has used their definition of environmental concerns to directly supersede that constitutional right - and were upheld by the Supreme Court just this March regarding the constitutionality of the Carbon Tax. But here’s the thing - Alberta has two justices on the bench - Quebec and Ontario have a combined six. And, all Supreme Court members are not appointed by their respective legislatures, but by the sitting Prime Minister. Of the nine current Supreme Court Justices, four were appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Given this seemingly impossible political situation, I know one of the major questions I get is this:

“Why are we voting to remove equalization from the constitution, if we cannot unilaterally do so?”

This is somewhat complicated, so I’ll try and simplify it.

Back in 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled - in the Quebec Secession Reference - that in the event any province passed a resolution on the floor of their legislature regarding a specific constitutional point, as long as that resolution was clear, that the country had a “duty to negotiate” with that province. This is why the referendum question is worded in this way:

"Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 — Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments — be removed from the Constitution?"

That’s a clear question. There are those that have proposed changes to the equalization formula, however, that is entirely set and controlled by Parliament - which, as I pointed out earlier, is represented by 199 out of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. Attempts to renegotiate or change the formula would - from a legal perspective - hold no weight, as the Supreme Court ruling in 1998 outlined, since the formula is not in the constitution.

The principle of equalization, however, is outlined in Section 36(2) of the Constitution - which reads:

“Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”

So, why a referendum?

The simplest explanation for this is that, according to Alberta provincial law, as outlined in the “Constitutional Referendum Act,” The Alberta Legislature cannot pass any constitutional resolution without first having the approval of the Alberta public, as ascertained through the holding a constitutional referendum with a clear question. Therefore, according to law, the only way to trigger Ottawa’s duty to negotiate the issue of equalization is to hold a referendum to remove section 36(2) from the constitution, and win that referendum with a clear “Yes.” 

This is by no means a meaningless referendum. It is the opposite. It is entirely necessary in order to advance the cause of independence - whether that be independence within the country or independence outside of it. For Ottawa to ignore the results of the referendum would be a clear signal from them that they do not care, that we are nothing but a colony to them used solely to take our money, minimize our power and rule us as if we are simple subjects without a say. If that’s what they think of us, then it will become clear to the majority of Albertans who voted on October 18 to remove section 36(2) that Ottawa is not listening, and will never listen. This is possibly the most important provincial referendum we have ever voted in.

The only way to demonstrate clearly that constitutional reform is required to strengthen national unity and give Alberta an equal footing in this perhaps doomed confederation is to win this referendum.

A loss would be a major setback, not just for those fighting for a fair deal, but for those who believe in independence, too. It is not a “red herring,” nor is it a waste of time. It is absolutely essential to the entire subsection of the Alberta population who believes that Alberta is not getting a fair deal.

If we lose this referendum, whether you like it or not, we are screwed. And for the separatists who I know are going to be coming at me for this, I leave you with this:

How do you expect to win a referendum on independence if we can’t even win a referendum on equalization?

Whether you want more independence for Alberta within Canada or complete independence for Alberta outside Canada, the equalization referendum is only the first step.

But in either scenario, it is an absolutely necessary step and one we cannot afford to lose.

So vote yes.

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  • Kenneth Copithorne
    commented 2021-10-11 10:45:48 -0600
    I fully agree and hope Albertan’s will recognize how important it is to vote yes. This is such a important first step to allow Alberta to live up to it’s potential.