A Fairly Complex Deal

In a tub-thumping speech to Alberta’s conservative elite in November, Premier Kenney announced a Fair Deal Panel to examine ways to strengthen Alberta’s position in Canada. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick ORG XMIT: SKP117

But there is a significant challenge with the ideas the Panel will examine: None have a direct bearing on the root causes of frustration on the prairies. And some are pretty expensive and full of risk.  

Prairie frustration is made up of equal parts of:

  • Environment policies aimed at constraining the energy sector
  • A recession and painfully jobless economic recovery in Alberta
  • Huge wealth transfers from Alberta to Quebec and Atlantic Canada
  • A somewhat fractured democracy including a Senate that is ineffective in its duty to protect regional interests.

Some of the Panel’s ideas are a repeat of a ‘firewall letter’ (those in italics below) that was signed by a group of far-right politicians and academics in 2001. For reference, that letter came as a response to a nasty election campaign during which Prime Minister Chretien attacked Alberta.

The Panel Ideas

  1. Set up an agency to collect provincial personal taxes and perhaps, federal taxes too.
  2. Set up an Alberta pension plan and withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan.
  3. Replace the RCMP with an Alberta police force.
  4. Opt out of Health and Social Transfer programs and take tax points instead.
  5. Become more involved in international relations related to trade agreements.
  6. Require municipalities to get a provincial sign-off before accepting federal grants.
  7. Opt out of federal cost shared programs and take cash instead.
  8. Appoint a Chief Firearms Officer.
  9. Write a formal provincial constitution.

In 2004, Premier Klein asked an MLA task force to examine the ‘Firewall’ ideas.  They concluded:

  1. Collecting our taxes would be inefficient and a “costly venture”
  2. An Alberta pension plan would be exposed to greater risks associated with demographic change and weaker investment returns.
  3. A detailed business case related to a provincial police force was needed along with extensive public consultation.
  4. Alberta should focus on containing health care budgets and more federal money, with fewer strings attached.

So, what is the motivation behind the resurgence of the Firewall ideas that were debunked by the Klein government?  The ‘Firewall’ would disconnect some links with the federal government while theoretically protecting Alberta’s jurisdiction. But it can also be seen as a way to grease the skids for eventual separation.

The Panel’s ideas now become part of the almost 20 demands that Alberta has signalled it wants as part of it “fight back” strategy. 

Severely Normal Albertans might want to watch how all this plays out:

  1. Will there be a change in the federal tone on energy policy? 
  2. Approving a new oilsands mine (Teck’s Frontier project)?
  3. Getting tough with those interests that would block the TransMountain pipeline?
  4. Approving regulations under the new environmental act that are balanced?
  5. Will the Alberta government reduce its inaccurate rhetoric about the federal carbon tax? 
  6. Can the Supreme Court provide some helpful clarity about how the provinces and federal government should work together on the shared jurisdiction of the environment?
  7. Can the Equalization Program be reduced (together with offsetting increases in other per capita transfer programs) so that resource rich provinces are not perpetually the ‘cash cows’ of the federation?
  8. Is the rest of Canada open to a discussion on Senate reform so that its purpose of balancing the House of Commons actually succeeds?

Or should we just wait until the next time western separatism boils over again?