Support for Canada’s energy industry is at the heart of Alberta separatist sentiment

Ahead of Alberta’s April 16 provincial election, several political parties in the country's energy heartland are speaking to voter anger with federal policies that are harming the petroleum industry and the well-being of the province’s citizens.

The roots of Alberta separatism stem from the time of Confederation, when the west was repeatedly pit against the seat of power in Ottawa and the east due to federal policy. It has largely been a fringe idea in the province for years but last month the Alberta Independence Party, which was revived in 2018 after a 17-year hiatus, was awarded official status after registering 63 candidates to fight in the election.

The Alberta Independence Party would hold an immediate referendum on separation if it came to power and interim leader Dave Bjorkman said there is a lot of support among people dissatisfied with Ottawa. "Right now these people do not vote because they are so sick of the system," he said. "The more our GDP growth, the more we have to pay out."

The central issue of the election campaign is clearly the economy, specifically the years-long economic recession Alberta has suffered primarily due to a lack of access to new international markets, such as Asia and Europe, via new pipelines to the coasts. Adding fuel to the separatist fire is a promise by the United Conservative Party, which is leading in polls and expected to form a majority government, to hold a referendum on equalization payments unless new oil export pipelines are built. Alberta, home to Canada's vast oilsands, receives nothing under a federal system of equalization payments because of oil and gas wealth, whereas provinces such as Quebec repeatedly receive billions of dollars.

As Jared Wesley, political science professor at the University of Alberta, notes, "[The UCP] is suggesting if we don't get what we want, there are plenty of people here that view separatism seriously. It's the first time we've seen a mainstream political leader in Alberta take as dramatic a step with the potential to jeopardise national unity."

In the televised Leaders' debate, UCP leader Jason Kenney promised, "I will make clear to (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau that if we do not get a fair deal in the federation, if we do not get a coastal pipeline, I am prepared to hold a referendum on removing the principle of equalization from the constitution of Canada."