MONTREAL (Reuters Breakingviews) - Something disturbing happened Saturday on the platform of the Place-des-Arts metro stop in Montreal. As a woman of South Asian descent was boarding a train with a Domino’s box in her arms, a man slammed it from her hands, sending the pizza melting onto the subway floor. She called after the man, who had bleached yellow hair. He flipped her the bird, scrambling toward the exit. Her face registered astonishment, then fear. “I’m sorry, but do you know that man?” No, she replied, shaking. “Never seen him before.”
The incident was surely racially motivated, at least in part. It was shocking not just for its randomness, but for having occurred in Canada, a country which has led even other liberal democracies in its openness to the world and to immigrants and refugees. On the same day, Canada’s best-known hockey commentator, Don Cherry, suggested that new arrivals should spend a few dollars buying the red poppies worn to commemorate Remembrance Day. Two days later, Cherry was sacked as a host of “Hockey Night in Canada.”
A couple of anecdotes don’t define an entire nation, of course. But it’s hard not to see a reflection of the current divided state of Canada.
It’s a larger debate that could one day threaten the country’s cohesion. Taking control of immigration is one of the demands coming from supporters of “Wexit” – the withdrawal of western provinces, in particular energy-rich Alberta and breadbasket Saskatchewan. The far bigger beef, however, is economic. In part, that relates to the federal government’s approach to global warming under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is leading a minority government for a second term. It’s a disagreement that democratic countries will increasingly need to tackle, often in tandem with migration.
Canada has seen divisions like this before. A move for Quebec’s independence was only narrowly defeated in a referendum in 1995. And the question has cropped up in Alberta periodically since the region became a province in 1905, usually in connection with energy policy and taxation. During local boy Stephen Harper’s decade as prime minister, Albertan separatism was muted. It has come back under Trudeau. A third of Albertans think the province would be better off separate, according to an Ipsos poll released last week, up from 25% scarcely more than a year earlier.
The main issue is Canada’s approach to energy, or more specifically the tar sands of Alberta, which the provincial government says represent the third-largest oil reserves in the world, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. The sands employ 140,000 people and generated royalties of C$2.6 billion in the 2017-18 year. What’s less good about them, however, is their high cost of extraction, which combined with the expense of transport arguably makes tar sands the world’s least efficient large-scale energy resource.
That’s before what economists call the externalities. To extract bitumen from the sands, processors effectively melt the earth with boiling water and chemicals, creating toxic residues. The National Resources Defense Council argues: “From extraction to waste storage, every step of the tar sands oil production process wreaks havoc.”
Consequently, the province produces 62 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person, according to 2019 World Population Review statistics cited by Canada’s Global News. That compares to roughly 17 tonnes per Saudi Arabian subject or 16 tonnes per American citizen. By that measure, an independent Alberta might be the world’s biggest polluter per person.
That’s not deterring Peter Downing, who heads Wexit Canada, which he hopes to turn into a political party. Downing, perhaps Canada’s answer to Brexiteer Nigel Farage, says the group should gain political support beyond Alberta, in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and parts of British Columbia. He says the party “is basically going to be the Bloc Quebecois of the west but it does a little more damage.” While the francophone Quebec still commands 26% backing for separation according to the Ipsos poll, rising support for Wexit other than in Alberta is really only noticeable in Saskatchewan, at 27%, up from 18% a year ago. Manitoba and BC just aren’t into it, for now.
Conscious of the rift in his province, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney last week created a “fair deal panel” to study ways to reclaim powers from Ottawa. These could include taking Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan, creating a provincial police force, and fighting back against the Trudeau government, including its regulation of the energy sector and foot-dragging on the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Kenney says he is a federalist. Keeping Western anger at Ottawa and the so-called “Laurentian elites” of Toronto and Montreal from boiling over – while also not alienating the country’s two most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec – won’t be easy, though.
Downing’s response to Kenney’s panel on the VoteWexit Facebook page, which has 265,000 followers, suggests the difficulty that lies ahead: “Trudeau is set to DESTROY Alberta. Kenney is set to STUDY and STALL for the next 6-months. Only separation SOLVES the problem.”
Ultimately, the debate comes down to where Canadians see their economic future. When resource extraction is deemed the enemy of a warming planet, how will the industry and the country prosper? A government that wants to cut out fossil fuels will have to find economic answers that ease the transition – maybe reversing the majority view in Alberta and Saskatchewan, per Ipsos, that the provinces don’t get their fair share from the Confederation.
For a nation of just 38 million people occupying the world’s second-largest land mass after Russia, maintaining a vibrant economy in a warmer future in which the oceans encroach on coastal land almost certainly means encouraging immigration. That’s already a source of division, illustrated by the Montreal metro incident, but it could become much bigger.
It may sound far-fetched to suggest newish countries like Canada, or its southern neighbor, could break into smaller sovereign pieces. But the consequences of climate change will present existential challenges that could easily drive even friendly neighbors apart. Keep an eye on Alberta.
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