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2003 Archives from ColbyCosh.com
And those winds sure can blow cold way out there

There's a remarkable interview in today's Edmonton Journal with Gordie Johnson, guiding spirit of the bar-rock outfit Big Sugar (which is playing the Conference Centre tonight). Johnson's struggles with his label, Universal, have persuaded him to fold up Big Sugar: this will be its last date in Edmonton, whose relentlessly proletarian musical tastes have guaranteed the band its most devoted regional following. Johnson now lives on a farm near Red Deer and is looking at taking his solo career to the Internet.

Over the last two years, [Johnson] says, Universal wouldn't fund Big Sugar videos or release "All Hell for a Basement" as a national single. The track, an ode to Newfoundlanders working in Alberta's oilfields, was thought to be too regional for Canadian tastes.

"At the time, our record company hated (the song)," admits Johnson. "They only released it as a single out west and the Maritimes. They wouldn't release it in Ontario or Quebec because it said 'Alberta' in the song. Do you believe that? As every passing year goes by, that'll be a story that gets more and more impossible to believe but I was sitting in the room, listening to it.

"Someone actually said, 'Would you consider putting a different province name in the song?' Come on, give me a break. That's when you know when it's time to walk away from the Canadian music industry."

...What capped it for Johnson was Big Sugar's greatest-hits set, Hit and Run, released in September. One of the two discs was defective in some packages, just as a batch of Our Lady Peace's Live DVD was recently riddled with glitches.

"There again is a statement on the state of our record industry," says Johnson. "They say downloading is hurting record sales, well, maybe it's (because) you're not doing a good job. What are people getting for their money? ...[I]t took (Universal) a year and a half to put together a greatest-hits package for Big Sugar. A year and a half? And then when it comes out, it has a glitch on it and the drummer's name isn't in the album credits. Things like that make you go, 'Maybe it's not downloading. Maybe there are other issues you're not facing. Maybe you're in denial.'"

(Or maybe people just don't give a crap about the drummer for Big Sugar... still, the man's got a point.)
- 6:37 am, December 31 (link)
It's alive... alive

Those of you who have been waiting for the unveiling of the top-secret successor to Alberta Report, wait no more. The Western Standard now has an online presence and is selling subscriptions. Publisher Ezra Levant discusses his new project in today's Calgary Sun.

- 2:39 pm, December 17 (link)
On the dole

I'm in the middle of reading the weird C.D. Howe Institute study on the bilateral costs and benefits of union between the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Where, by the way, did this idea even come from? I've never heard an Alsask political union proposed outside the context of Western separation, unless you count the occasional wishes expressed by my Saskatchewan relatives that Alberta would somehow invade and take over. Which isn't one of the cases explored in the study.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight one remarkable statistic which appears therein. Keeping in mind that Alberta has three times the overall population of Saskatchewan, consider this an insight into how well the NDP cares for the poor--and multiplies it:

Welfare recipients in Saskatchewan, 2002: 56,100
Welfare recipients in Alberta, 2002: 53,800

- 11:13 am, November 15 (link)
That board's got a nail in it

My Monday column, which I mentioned here but which hasn't appeared on the Web, was about the Canadian Wheat Board. The CWB, the federal agency which has a legislated monopoly on exporting wheat grown in the Prairie Provinces, is one of those old-fashioned Soviet elements in Canadian life--and it will, as you're about to see, stoop to defend itself. Indulge me in a small lesson in Canadian politics, which must begin with a long excerpt from my column.

EDMONTON - That rumble you hear from the West is the sound of grain trucks being fired up. On Halloween 2002, 13 ornery Alberta farmers allowed themselves to be jailed for violating the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on prairie wheat exports, having trucked small symbolic amounts of grain (in some cases, a single bushel) across the U.S. border without CWB permission. The free-market protesters refused to pay their fines and served varying amounts of time in stir for selling their own grain; some quit after a day, some lasted more than a month. A couple dozen farmers are now talking about repeating the exercise. On the first anniversary of the original group's surrender to police, they placed a conference call to the Wheat Board and demanded export licenses. The board turned a deaf ear, so soon it'll be back to the border--and, eventually, back to prison.

...Most [Canadian] farmers still have no interest in learning how to sell their own wheat abroad; they like the simplicity of a system that pays them up front for their produce and finds foreign markets at low cost. They don't concern themselves with abstruse questions about the CWB's opaque overseas dealings, and they--reasonably enough--consider American anger at the board a sign that it does its job well. But some want out.

...Ontario [unlike the Prairies] has its own public wheat marketer possessing sovereign legal authority--the Ontario Wheat Producers' Marketing Board. The OWPMB has responsibility for only about one-ninth as much grain as the CWB. In recent years, the Ontario board has made a radical shift from old-fashioned monopoly seller to a voluntary agency--a truly co-operative organization. In Ontario, wheat farmers can sell their wheat through the OWPMB, but if they want to export it themselves, an exemption is granted automatically. Farmers who take such an exemption pay a modest fee (five cents a bushel) to cover the board's research and lobbying efforts. Aside from that, they are on their own. In 2002, 63% of Ontario's export crop was sold outside the OWPMB pool by farmers willing to give entrepreneurship a try.

Get the picture? Ontario farmers are free to go outside their pool, Prairie farmers aren't. It's that good old asymmetrical federalism in action. My column drew a response Wednesday from Ken Ritter, chairman of the Wheat Board.

The rumble you hear from the West is not the sound of grain trucks being fired up to cross the border, but the sound of farmers heading to the ballot box in order to democratically elect their representatives on the Canadian Wheat Board's board of directors.

That's right, farmers control the CWB. Every two years, five of the 10 farmer seats on the board go up for election. Those farmers who want to alter the direction of the CWB can vote for a candidate who supports their views. That's what happened in Ontario--Ontario farmers, rightly or wrongly, decided to dismantle the single-desk selling authority of the Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board.

So far in Western Canada, the majority of farmers support the idea of 85,000 farmers marketing together as one and using that leverage to get the most out of a very competitive international marketplace. We'll see what happens in the next CWB election in the fall of 2004.

Thanks for your interest in this matter, but Prairie farmers will decide the future of their own marketing organization.

Mr. Ritter is right to point out that Ontario farmers voted to make their pool a civilized, voluntary organization. But in his appeal to a national audience which may not be familiar with the nuts and bolts of wheat marketing, he left something out: the electoral structure of the CWB is a little different from that of the OWMPB. Those "10 farmer seats" he mentions are only 10 of a total of 15 on the board. The other five directors are appointed by--guess whom?--the government of Canada.

The tilt of the CWB gives old-style single-desk marketing an excellent head start on a board majority before any farmer casts a single vote, not to mention more or less permanent control of a well-funded propaganda apparatus. Meanwhile, the OWMPB has no appointed seats--the farmers vote for all 10 directors, which is how the Ontario board was transformed into a competitive vendor. In Ontario, the farmers really did decide their own future. On the Prairies, they have a little help.

- 9:10 pm, November 6 (link)
Maybe we should send a trade mission to hell

Derek Lowe's drug-discovery weblog has an entry inspired by good old (#$%&*@#) Alberta sulfur. When it's extracted from our oil and gas, we end up with more than we know how to use. More, indeed, than anyone knows how to use. Research is underway to create new applications and markets for the yellow stuff; here's a report on the ongoing world sulfur glut.

- 9:24 pm, November 4 (link)
Goodbye to all that

The leaders of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance concluded their same-sex political marriage on Thursday with handshakes, grins, and a certain amount of violence done in passing to the English language. Tory leader Peter Mackay said he had "fulfilled" his agreement with protectionism agitator David Orchard not to proceed toward a merger with the CA. The CA's Stephen Harper, elected leader in order to build the party further as an independent force, reassured Alliance supporters that merger was the plan all along. The two men talked of merging the "assets" of the two parties; is the multi-million-dollar debt of the PCs, now to be covered through cross-subsidization by donations made in good faith to the CA, meant to be counted as an "asset"? (Yes, there will be a separate fund to retire that debt, but money donated to that fund will not be available for campaigning, so surely the war chest is denied the cash all the same.)

Most people in both parties now believe that stopping the Liberals is so important that any other consideration - Solzhenitsyn's injunction to live not by lies, for one, and the principle that Western votes should count as much as Eastern ones, for another--may be set aside. Westerners may have no one to blame but themselves for taking the view that Harper was the party's Indispensable Man. Since he won't be leader of the merged party, and apparently had no selfish desire to try his hand in a national election, he could well afford to concede to the Conservatives on every major point: the name of the party, the method of electing a leader for it, and even its basic political orientation. I don't know of any member of the press who has taken notice yet of one particular guiding principle in the merger agreement, though I can assure you that many thousands of Western voters already have. The new Conservative Party is committed to seeking

A balance between fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities.

Fancy that! They took the "Progressivity" out of the Progressive Conservative name and installed it under the hood instead. I'm pretty progressive myself on social policy, but I never asked to have my views implemented by means of a swindle.

I can foresee that my attitude to the new party will be very different from my feeling for the old. Like most Westerners, I identified emotionally with Reform. I remember the climate in 1987, when the Western Assembly was convened (by means, let us recall, of the old Alberta Report magazine blowing its shofar). There was genuine doubt as to what would emerge from the Assembly; the essential idea of the conference was to test the depth of separatist sentiment in the West. It was, and is, deeper than anyone will confess frankly. Albertans, at least, still believe that separatism would be practical, and may be desirable, but has the disadvantage of being irreversible. So it was decided that the East would be offered a last chance to vote for a party in the Western spirit, a party committed to small, transparent government, free enterprise, and procedural reform.

The usual response of Eastern voters, politicians, and writers over the next 16 years was to either demonize the resulting movement or denounce it as a puerile schism. Many were eventually worn down. With time, more would have been. Threats from big corporate donors to "withhold money" if no merger occurred could only hurt the Conservatives, who were carrying a huge debt load, and help the Canadian Alliance, which has always been supported mostly by small individual donors. But Westerners are now being told by the leaders they created that there is no more time. The experiment, a success by any perceptible benchmark, has failed and must be abandoned. It's your choice whether to believe it; it is strictly a matter of idle historical interest now. As for me, I feel a certain bracing cleanliness; I am a professional commentator who has been liberated from the last vestigial tugs of instinctual loyalty, the last hints of temptation to obfuscation in the name of advancing a party preference. It is perhaps useful to be confirmed in one's necessary faith that all politicians, without exception, are savage and false sons of bitches down to the very soles of their shoes.

- 2:34 am, October 17 (link)
Don't mourn--organize

Ezra Levant has taken his pitch for an Alberta Report successor to the pages of the Calgary Sun. Warning: column may contain ferocious regionalism!

The media serves as a public town square where the issues of the day are chewed over. Why would we allow that town square to be run from afar? How can Albertans rely upon Maclean's or the Globe and Mail to tell us what is important to us? And where else could we hear from our own Alberta opinion leaders, instead of from our official minders in Ottawa?

The magazine should not be Western separatist. But it should be a forceful advocate of Alberta's rights. It should not be extreme. But it should be unashamedly conservative, with a good libertarian streak of self-reliance. It should not be a religious crusader. But it must treat religion with deep respect--especially Christians, toward whom the general media drips with hostility and intolerance.

The link will rot on this one quickly, so Alberta visitors shouldn't put off reading it. Ezra reports that he has raised a third of the money he and his partners regard as necessary to get the thing rolling.

- 1:54 pm, September 9 (link)
Big generators

Columnist Robert Fulford contributes his usual excellent work to Saturday morning's Post, pointing out that tenure only seems to make university professors more and more terrified of speaking their minds about pressing public issues, and particularly about their own professional fields, with each passing decade. But even a brilliant column can contain a bad sentence.

Is there now, in English-speaking Canada, a Canadian professor who visibly generates some of the central ideas of a political party? I can't think of one.

...but then again, I'm on deadline. Fulford is a creature of Toronto, and we wouldn't have it any other way, but his despairing query may cause an inadvertent snort or two in Alberta, the land of Ted Morton, Rainer Knopff, Barry Cooper, David Bercuson, and Tom Flanagan. They're the most prominent members of the Calgary Mafia that has, for more than a decade, provided much of the intellectual horsepower for the Canadian right and for Reform/Alliance. It's not like they've been especially quiet about it; books pour out of these guys like crap from a goose, Flanagan was Reform's research director, and Morton was elected to the Senate in a provincial referendum. I find myself wondering if it's actually necessary to describe the deep influence and involvement of these men, let alone to point out that the country's lowbrow redneck Western-based party is also its only party of ideas. If anyone wants to offer me a book contract, I'll be happy to set Toronto right on this subject...

- 9:29 am, August 30 (link)
Jarred out of complacency

It's good to get some static from readers! Colin Roald read the previous entry about the CAFE standard and dashed off this note:

I'm not sure I can figure out what your CAFE article is about. You seem opposed to everything: the status quo sucks, all proposed changes are worse, we should just ditch fuel-economy standards and bring back land yachts even though that's the only greenhouse-control proposal on the table that might actually go anywhere. Do you have a point, or are you just bitching randomly? [Note: ColbyCosh.com does reserve the right, at all times, to bitch randomly. -The Management]

If you are certain enough that CO2 emissions have nothing to do with global warming, then it seems a truth has been revealed to you that has not yet reached the scientific community. Even if, suppose, the warming is really primarily the Sun's fault, coast-dwelling humans, tropical humans, and farming humans are still going to suffer for it. In those conditions, are you really going to argue for saying the hell with fuel economy standards?

Some months ago, in writing about the Kyoto Protocol, I referred to a long and basically indigestible logical chain of propositions which you had to accept in order to believe that that particular measure was an appropriate one to take. The chain is shorter when we're talking about fuel-economy standards for automobiles, because Colin's "land yachts" have other effects that are better-understood than global warming. My basic point is that it's irresponsible for lawmakers to have a debate on an environmental measure without (a) specifying their premises and (b) stating how it might affect people's lives. Maybe it's really worth it to make cars out of lighter materials and condemn thousands of people to death--but the current state of the debate doesn't require senators or anyone else to be remotely honest about this. If you're "doing something about the environment" it's assumed your heart is in the right place. And that's all that matters. And in a situation like this, where everyone's wandering around in an uncritical fog of love for Mommy Earth, it will be a matter of sheer chance if lawmakers happen to do a socially beneficial thing.

I didn't actually propose that Americans should get rid of the status quo on fuel-economy regulation: I only described the way in which it sucks because it's an excellent study in the unintended effects of environmental regulation. But in the current Senate debate, nobody actually favours the status quo. Everybody wants to make some sort of change. Is it because air quality in American cities is declining? As I understand it, air quality in American cities has improved quite rapidly over the past thirty years. Is it because we can predict the state of the climate with the supreme confidence with which we specify the orbit of Jupiter, and there is a strong consensus that the earth is warming to an unacceptable, unprecedented degree because of anthropogenic CO2? We can't, and there isn't: even if you trust our mathematical climate models, estimates of the overall economic effect of warming are all over the map, and depend on where you happen to live. Going back to what Colin said:

 

Even if, suppose, the warming is really primarily the Sun's fault, coast-dwelling humans, tropical humans, and farming humans are still going to suffer for it.

An as interior-dwelling, subarctic, urban human, I'm a bit startled to find myself relegated to second-class status in the planet's name. There is nothing sacred about the present-day climate of the earth, this we do know: its natural background variance, which is shockingly large, somehow never enters into the discussion. We are much surer, I think, that things have been warmer for much of the past thousand years than we are of present-day anthropogenic net effects on climate. We know the Vikings traded, and indigenous people fought wars, in areas that are now icebound Gehennas. We know there were agricultural colonies in Greenland. We know there were vineyards in England in medieval times, and that you could grow melons in an English garden as recently as Pepys' time. None of this seems to have stopped relatively advanced civilizations from existing--before air conditioning--in Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East. And in the long run, humans ought to be more highly adaptable than ever to natural changes in climate.

But I don't want to pretend to have an idea about the costs and benefits of climate change. What I do know is that if intensifying and multiplying regulation is going to always be the solution to any climate challenge, then we'll end up destroying high capitalism no matter how climate science evolves--it will be remembered, by some, that global cooling was the big fear in the 1970's, and the proposed solutions were all regulatory then, too. The proposed solutions are always regulatory, and it's that mechanism I object to. I'll turn Colin's final question on its head: if you are certain that human activity is warming the planet to a degree that will change the map of the world, are you really so confident that letting people migrate inland and northward over a period of centuries isn't the most humane, practical, inexpensive solution? (And in case you're wondering, no, I don't own real estate in northern Alberta--which may actually be more vulnerable to global warming than the coastal areas which have Colin so vexed; but that's a story for another time.)

- 11:47 pm, July 29 (link)

You're in good hands with all-state 

CALGARY - The Alberta government announced Monday it would work toward changing the rules governing the auto insurance industry so that drivers would pay a fairly standardized rate and be rewarded or penalized for their driving performances. However, the province said it would not introduce no-fault insurance. 

Auto insurance is the hot story in Alberta right now. Its neighbour provinces on both sides have socialized auto insurance, as other Canadian jurisdictions do, and claims have been rising for certain demographic groups in Alberta's private-provided industry. Some companies have even taken the step of refusing to write new policies for Alberta customers. Naturally some Albertans are wondering whether this isn't an instance of "market failure" requiring government intervention. 

ColbyCosh.com's assignment desk is on the case! Although, in view of the fact that the proprietor is no longer employed as an editor, he may be first in line for his own assignment. Still, I have surprisingly few Alberta readers, so it can't hurt to show the world where I'd start beating the bushes on a story like this. I'd start where I always do--with the numbers. Even in Alberta, auto insurance is a publicly regulated business, which makes the numbers public business. Unfortunately our provincial regulator of financial institutions is a little slow with the spreadsheet: the 2001 numbers only just came out in April of this year. 

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia is B.C.'s socialized provider: you can find a link to its 2001 annual report here. I have to say that, even as a libertarian, I normally have trouble working up much hatred for the ICBC. They're replacing a private business, in auto insurance, whose operating revenues and expenses are largely going to be determined by the conditions of tort law (or statutory accident benefits) in a given province. It might be fair to say that in a province like Alberta, the government allows private auto insurers to profit from the particular legal structure; you could argue that it is an implicitly privatized business for which the state bears a logically antecedent responsibility, and that it is an open question whether private or public means of provision are appropriate. (I'll still vote private every time, myself.) ICBC does a lot of research and experimentation on road safety, it makes a show of watching the bottom line, and it seems to be a model of relative bureaucratic efficiency (it has managed, for example, to get out a 2002 annual report). That said, ICBC is not immune to the excesses of government monopoly: B.C. drivers, for instance, are still obliged to purchase license plates for both bumpers of their automobiles, a small but noticeable abuse of coercive power. 

What do you find when you study the most recent (2001) set of comparable figures for premiums and claims in Alberta and B.C.? The premise in the air is that socialized insurance results in cost savings to the consumer. In truth, the savings in premiums per capita seem to have been marginal at best: $591 in B.C., $608 in Alberta, assuming that the number of drivers in each province is proportional to the population and that the demographic profiles are appropriately similar. If the assumptions hold, B.C.'s bureaucracy saved the average driver just $17 per year-- 

--but wait! On the claims side, the ICBC suffered staggering losses in 2001, losses that taxpayers, including many non-drivers, are ultimately obliged to cover or at least guarantee. Alberta's insurance industry paid out $527 in claims per capita, keeping $81 of each $608 in premiums for itself. (The rakeoff was even higher in previous years, a fact you should not necessarily expect insurers to remind you of just because they've been caught flatfooted by what is probably a cyclical peak in auto claims.) B.C.'s provincial insurer paid out $704 in no-fault claims per capita, losing a provincewide total of $467 million. Some of that shortfall would have been made up by investment income from the float, but in 2001, at least, it's fair to say that B.C.'s no-fault system channelled money (or a very big loan) from people who never got behind the wheel into the pockets of drivers who would have, in a tort regime, been found culpable for causing accidents. 

As I say, this is where the story starts, not ends: these 2001 figures may have been completely reversed by now, and indeed the premise of the debate seems to be that they have. But that is a suspicion, not a confirmed fact. As you can see, the CBC's story is short on numbers, as other items on the subject have been. Go ye forth armed, and report!

- 3:47 am, July 8 (link)
Clash By Night

Are there any physicians reading this weblog? I need a doctor's note so I can sit out future rounds of Canada's gay-marriage fight. I couldn't stand to be seen battling on either side, you see. On one hand you have the judges, who have elevated the preservation of "dignity" to the highest legal principle of the land without coming within a parsec of defining it, and the gay and lesbian activists, whose blind worship of the state has them virtually falling over themselves to obtain marriage licenses the very hour Leviathan permits them to acquire one. We've got "dignity" now; I read it in the Globe and Mail. Poor sods, all they've done is relinquish whatever dignity they had to begin with. But on the other hand you have a pack of perspiring Christians (and Muslims and Sikhs) so befuddled about their own doctrine that they believe a change in civil marriage procedure somehow threatens the special status and nature of the marriage sacrament. I swear I'm just waiting for these people to call for a government ban on soda crackers because some consumers might accidentally conclude that they are ingesting the corpus Christi with their Campbell's tomato soup.

Nobody in Canada has ever, to my knowledge, uttered twenty consecutive lucid words about "gay marriage" that don't contain some evasion, equivocation, fallacy, or factual error. (Some, for example, have cited Canada's principle of "church-state separation" as the reason for permitting gay marriage: I'm worried that these people may veer right off the road the first time they drive by a Catholic school.) And now that great conservative hero, Premier Ralph Klein, is threatening to use the "notwithstanding" clause in the Constitution to forbid homosexual marriage if the Supreme Court introduces it Canada-wide in the appeal of Halpern. Here is some late-arriving cavalry indeed. Five years ago the Supreme Court, in the Vriend case, rewrote Alberta human-rights law to forbid discrimination in housing, employment, and "public" services on the grounds of sexual orientation. That was a legal issue in which genuinely fundamental rights--freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, property rights--were sacrificed by the judiciary on the altar of "dignity". Albertans reacted with visible outrage, because on that issue the secular libertarian interest which is the true animating spirit of the province was allied with the reflexive reaction of the churchy crowd (a loud, organized minority here, as elsewhere, but a minority all the same, despite what you may have heard). Ralph refused to invoke the "notwithstanding" clause, spitting unkind words at the constituents who had deluged him with faxes, letters, and phone calls. Now, on a purely fanciful issue--a technical question of the limits of a civil privilege--he declares war to the knife. Of course, Ralph may be well served by his changing political instincts: in electoral fact, and doubly so in Progressive Conservative calculus, the votes of the fever-browed evangelicals awaiting the End Times in the countryside count for more than those of us citified folk. And these pillars of PC-dom, for whatever reason, honestly do believe that Christian institutions require active, exclusive state sanction to "survive" (granting the laughable premise that heterosexual marriage has "survived" as an institution in our society). It's welfare for Jesus! And why shouldn't he be eligible then, eh?

- 12:37 am, June 13 (link)
You Bet There Is

I guess the point I'm groping towards is that predicting the breakup of Canada along provincial lines due to a lack of national identity presupposes fairly strong provincial identities, and I don't think those exist either. There are certainly deep regional divisions within Canadians, but they don't track provincial boundaries especially well--and if there's no good answer to "what it means to be a Canadian", try and ask "what it means to be a Manitoban". I lived there for 21 years, between the ages of 5 and 26, and that doesn't even parse as a sensible question to me, although I do have a fairly strong sense of being from the city (Winnipeg) I lived in. If anything, I think Americans get much stronger identities from their individual states than most Canadians do from their provinces (with the possible exception of the Maritimes). (Is there an Alberta identity? Colby?)

This query appears in the midst of Evan Kirchhoff's response to Steven Den Beste's recent discussion of Canadian national cohesion. (Sample SDB quote: "[If the western provinces] applied for US statehood, they'd have to expect to be territories for at least 20 years before statehood was even seriously considered, just to make sure they truly wanted to join us and really did share our values.")

There is such a thing as an Alberta identity, and it is real and quite powerful. Often Albertans have to move to Ontario to really discover it, mind you--but they do, soon enough.

Alberta comes close to being what Americans call themselves sometimes: a politicized "proposition nation", one concealed within the bosom of Confederation. A half-century of labor flow hither and thither has given Alberta a population with anti-statist instincts and a Protestant work ethic that are, by Canadian standards, off the charts. In a real nation-state this would make us odd, but not essentially separate. However, Canada itself has been redefined as a "proposition nation" over fifty years of mostly Liberal government. The Canadian project is no longer the creation of an imperial outpost, a haven in the New World for an essentially British way of life (with a space demarcated for the preservation of the French-Canadian way). Canada has been remade, in the Liberal image, as a multicultural European-style social democracy whose slogan might be "Medicare o muerte!". This redefinition of Canada has permanently and effectively alienated the great mass of Alberta voters from Canadian national sentiment, except where things like international hockey tournaments are concerned. If being Canadian means loving big government, what are you if you don't love big government? A: you must be an Albertan.

If this Albertan self-identification were merely a matter of political advocacy and voting behavior, one wouldn't necessarily be inclined to make much of it; mere political opinions change within an individual's lifetime. But the distinction reaches down deeper than that. It creates cultural differences and personality differences which are less subtle with each passing generation.

Put it this way: it's fairly obvious, I think, that Quebec really is a separate nation within Canada. And it's fairly obvious that Quebeckers aren't just English Canadians who happen to speak French. A Quebecker grows up with a different version of his national past, his personal prehistory, than an Ontarian has; he interprets every event in the "history of Canada" differently, and so the history itself is different, even though it may be knit from the selfsame events. Albertans shared a national narrative with the rest of English Canada (with some tension during the Great Depression) until Trudeau was elected. His contempt for the hinterland polarized Albertans, and his creation of the National Energy Program--an uninvited declaration of economic war by Confederation against Alberta--bifurcated Canadian history, for Albertans, completely. Most of what has happened since then has only intensified the alienation.

- 6:00 pm, June 11 (link)
Hinterland What's What

Consider Alberta's response to the SARS epidemic in Toronto. When the feds pumped $20 million into helping Ontario tourism to recover from the outbreak, Alberta officials praised the move. Other federal SARS sweeteners--including mortgage deferrals and even special loans from the ever-helpful Business Development Bank of Canada--have been politely overlooked. TransAlta Utilities, which is based in Calgary, stubbornly insisted on going ahead with plans to hold its April 30 general meeting in Toronto. On April 24 provincial health minister Gary Mar offered Ontario access to Alberta operating-room space to take the pressure off of cramped Toronto-area hospitals and even said that Alberta public-health workers could be sent to relieve their exhausted Eastern counterparts.

The goodwill gestures were inconsistent--Alberta companies other than TransAlta have been limiting business travel to Ontario, for example--but the spirit was recognizable, anyway. Today, Alberta--whose cattle exports to the United States and other markets are under moratorium because of a single cow found to have had bovine spongiform encephalopathy - received news of its reward.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Helen Johns is looking at ways the province could prevent Prairie cattle from entering her province. Some officials in Ontario think that by keeping their province's herds free of possible mad cow contamination they might be able to export beef again to the U.S. and other world markets.

Oh... uh... right, then, no help there. Can't blame them for pressing their advantage, I suppose. But surely the federal government is on our side?

Ottawa's decision not to waive the two-week waiting period for employment insurance for laid-off beef industry workers, was criticized Thursday by Saskatchewan's premier... Federal Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart, who waived the waiting period for workers affected by SARS, said enough measures are already in place to help workers affected by the mad cow situation. "There are other aspects of the employment insurance system that are there," she said during question period in the House of Commons. "They are there and working well." The discovery of mad cow in Canada last week has brought about layoffs for 1,000 pack plant and feedlot workers, among others.

That's how Canada works: we're all in this together, except when we're not.

- 11:50 pm, May 29 (link)
Saudi Alberta

Via Bourque: the U.S. Department of Energy has 36-tupled its estimate of Canada's "proven oil reserves" overnight. How did it happen? Simple: they finally decided to start counting the Athabasca oil sands as "proven". Since the sands have been delivering steady profits since before the first Gulf War, and petro giants like Shell and Mobil have been racing to expand capacity, this is the opposite of news to Albertans. But for those inclined to believe petroleum doomsayers, it's a reminder of how hard it is for a resource to become truly "proven", for international accounting purposes, even after researchers and oil companies have ascertained economic viability to their own satisfaction many times over. (I had some other stuff to say on the petro front, but, alas, I'm saving it for my print column...)

- 4:26 pm, May 6 (link)
Political Masochism

The incredulity in this Hill Times article is not exactly unfamiliar:

In Ralph Klein, Ottawa has the most Canada-centric premier Alberta is ever likely to elect. And Ottawa treats him as if he is some inebriated oaf with oil-stained jeans. If he suggests that there are concerns among some Albertans about their status in Canada, he gets a snotty lecture from Intergovernmental Minister Stéphane Dion--so condescending in tone that even Premier Klein responded that he wasn't going to be hectored by a junior minister in Ottawa who henceforth should communicate with his provincial equivalent. And, if Premier Klein writes a letter to U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci to express sympathy with and support for the coalition effort in Iraq, he gets a slap-down lecture from Deputy Prime Minister John Manley over federal primacy in foreign relations (and leaves one wondering why Ottawa had nothing to say about Premier Landry's vigorous rejection of Canadian participation in Iraq). And commentators appear surprised that the "firewall" concept for Alberta is getting a second look?

It's not the rhetoric that's news, it's the source: not Barry Cooper or Ted Morton, but David Jones, who "was the political minister counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa from 1992-96." In short, a Clinton-era U.S. diplomat is expressing astonishment that Western Canadian ill-feeling isn't much, much further advanced. "From a U.S. perspective, one puzzles over the durability of Canadian unity in the West, and more specifically its attraction for Alberta." It's a puzzle all right.

- 11:39 am, April 28 (link)
Separation - Close But Not Touching

Now this is an interesting development. First, the text:

Two years ago, a group of prominent Alberta conservatives--including Stephen Harper, now leader of the Canadian Alliance--sent [Premier Ralph] Klein a letter recommending several measures amounting to putting an economic and political firewall around the province.

The ideas included setting up a provincial police force, a provincial pension plan, a provincial income tax regime, and forcing a showdown over health care. The letter also said Alberta should force Ottawa to create a Triple-E (effective, equal, elected) Senate.

Klein dismissed the letter at the time, saying a retreat behind provincial boundaries would be defeatist. But he said on Tuesday that recent talk of separation has forced him to allow the ideas in the letter to be discussed.

The topic came up last month at a party convention, where Klein said he would never use separation as a bargaining chip with Ottawa.

To deal with the last paragraph first, Premier Klein doesn't have to use separation as a bargaining chip with Ottawa as long as he can show Ottawa that a large minority of his party, perhaps a majority, is willing to consider it. The bargaining chip is that Ralph is willing to defend federalism to Albertans, and take a certain amount of crap for it, as he did at the convention--but if Ottawa doesn't do more to make federalism defensible, Ralph cannot guarantee the happy federalist character of his eventual successor.

The "Alberta Agenda" was put forward by the Calgary mafia that, at the time, included Stephen Harper--now Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Harper, having been drafted more or less forcibly into a job he shows little taste for, is now in a bargaining position similar to Ralph's. This is itself a bit odd, as Ralph is a Liberal-style power monger down to his boots, a secret admirer, one may be certain, of Pierre Trudeau. Harper is, at heart, a Hayekian intellectual who deplores every detail of the last 35 years of Canadian history. Nonetheless he has agreed to participate in the federal state on its own terms, perhaps on the ground that it is well to have one sensible man in Parliament in the event of a major crisis.

The Agenda was a sort of café defense strategy for Alberta-in-Canada, but the version people should probably really be keeping their eye on is Ted Morton's. In recent months Morton, a U of C political scientist and charter member of the Calgary mafia, has set out on his own, conducting a quiet tour of the rural areas that control Alberta politics through the medium of the Conservative Party. The original Alberta Agenda was basically a talking-points memo, a manifesto dictated to the newspapers and written solely for their benefit. Morton's scheme is (a) broader, (b) more radical, and (c) being sold directly to the voters, far from the eyes of the national media. The key idea is that Alberta must abandon its futile pleading for procedural change, like Senate reform, and start acquiring real powers parallel to, and to be bent to the same purposes as, Quebec's. Moreover, Morton sees Quebec as being a potential ally in this project. He said this in a March 7 lecture that he's been reprising for various audiences since:

After 25 years of working for reforms, Western Canada is further from our goals than we were when we started. The gap between Western Canada's economic contribution to Confederation and our political influence is growing, not shrinking. This means that the tactics of past 25 years have not worked--and, I shall argue, will not work. Ontario and Quebec are not, out of the goodness of their hearts, going to consent to changes to an institutional status quo that privileges their interests. That is not how politics works. Central Canadian elites will only become interested in Senate reform and other institutional changes when they come to see these reforms as the lesser of two evils--that is, as preferable to an alternative that is even less in Central Canada's self-interest. The challenge for the next generation of Western Canadian leaders is to construct such an alternative.

The guiding principle of this new alternative must be to decrease Ottawa's influence in the West, rather than trying to increase Western influence in Ottawa--the strategy of the last generation. The latter requires the help and support of Central Canadians, which is why it has failed. The former, we already have the powers to do by ourselves--which is why it will work. There is an array of constitutional and policy instruments that British Columbia and Alberta could use, short of secession, to chart out a more democratic, more prosperous and more hopeful future. If this sounds familiar, it should. This is essentially the strategy Quebec has used to protect its interests for the past generation. It also why this strategy will succeed. Rather than pursuing an agenda that Quebec opposes (strengthening the central government), we can align ourselves and our new agenda--strengthening the provinces--with Quebec, a new, post-Parti Quebecois Quebec that is more interested in reforming Canada than destroying it.

Notice the accurate implied forecast about the outcome of the Quebec election--which Morton was quoted, in the Calgary Herald, as approving. I can't say Jean Charest strikes me as a very promising partner in such a project, but it's funny how he started sounding the right notes immediately.

The full text of Morton's March 7 lecture is online. It provides a useful summary of Western grievances and sets out the much more ambitious Morton "Plan B" which contains, but goes well beyond, the Alberta Agenda. Morton is careful to disavow, even denounce, separatism; but I do not think that, like Klein, he would discard the "bargaining chip" before the poker game started. By mentioning Quebec's example he implicitly puts the chip on the table; and when he quietly talks of presenting "the lesser of two evils" to central Canada, the subtext is apparent.

To whatever end, Morton is working to cement the real political constituency he already possesses, to some degree, as an elected "Senator-in-Waiting" (one the Chretien government refuses to recognize, despite the precedent Mulroney set by appointing election winner Stan Waters in 1990). Like Harper, he doesn't really want power for its own sake; his ideas are all open to friendly co-option by people who really control votes and money. When you see the headline "Klein To Consider 'Firewall' Ideas" you should realize that that process may already be underway. I think that, at the very least, Morton is well positioned to become the largest intellectual influence on the Alberta Conservatives. Not that this is hard--he would, after all, also be the first intellectual influence on the Alberta Conservatives, with the honorable exception of Sir Roger Douglas.

- 1:08 am, April 16 (link)
The Sands of Time

Lisa Dusseault has a neat explanation of--among other things--why Albertans may be more likely than other people to blow off concerns about "non-renewable resources".

Conventional oil production from Alberta peaked in a classic Hubbert curve in about 1976. Heavy oil production took over, however, and that kind of oil peaked in 1984. National oil production dropped 5 to 6% from its peak in 1984 but since then has gone up again because tar sands oil extraction is now economically feasible. So Canada experienced a drastic and sudden increase in economical oil reserves when tar sands entered the picture: an increase of 315 billion barrels, or roughly one sixth of total world conventional oil reserves.

- 5:11 pm, April 3 (link)
I! Am! Un-Canadian!

Susan Riley of the Ottawa Citizen says (March 3) that Carolyn Parrish's "bastards" comment was lamentable--but not as lamentable as some domestic criticisms of Canadian policy:

Meanwhile, the same week, Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper described Canada, in a slighting tone, as a "minor military power" in the eyes of Washington. He is right, but his weary disgust was redolent of what might be called a narrative of anti-Canadianism within the Alliance party. Harper himself once famously accused Canada of aspiring to be a "second-rate socialist country."

His foreign affairs critic, Stockwell Day, along with Calgary MP Jason Kenney, frequently compare Canada unfavorably to the U.S.: Our economic policy is inferior, our military is a joke, our foreign policy is incoherent, our gun laws are an affront to individual rights and so on. Some days you wonder why they don't emigrate.

Not that every criticism of Liberal policy is anti-Canadian--Joe Clark is also harshly critical of the government, but without the cultural insecurity manifest in the Alliance's eagerness to be just like the big guys. And, in some respects--environmental regulation, affordable housing--the U.S. does do better.

Got that? Admiring relatively successful U.S. government planning is not anti-Canadian, but don't you dare say anything about our declining standard of living, our preposterous failure to equip a professional military, our "soft power" foreign-policy doctrine, or our expensive, useless gun registry. It's not even necessary for Susan Riley to defend any of these things (how do you defend poverty and stupidity?): it suffices for her to state the eternal central Canadian doctrine--"Canada: love the Liberals or leave it."

Well, Quebec doesn't support the federal Liberals, and neither does Western Canada. Would Canadian federalists like to explain how comments like Riley's are anything less than an open invitation to secede? Canadian unity has its back broken anew every day by people like Riley, and yet for thirty years of such days they've pretended to be mystified about the matter. If Stephen Harper quit Parliament and advocated Alberta leaving Confederation, she'd be the first to call him a traitor; yet that is just what she is tacitly (barely tacitly) recommending. I wonder if the editors who underwrite careers like hers know what they are slowly accomplishing.

- 9:58 pm, March 4 (link)
You Gotta Serve Somebody

March 28, 29, and 30. Those are the dates of the Alberta Conservative party's annual general meeting in Red Deer, and they could be the dates when Western alienation suddenly appears on the national agenda. Neil Waugh reports in today's Edmonton Sun that Premier Ralph Klein could find himself in an uncomfortable minority on federalism at the convention.

Constituency presidents have in their hands a package of resolutions from a dissident group of longtime Alberta PCs, led by Airdrie Tory Rob James, that hangs out all of Alberta's dirty laundry. The list includes the Kyoto accord, environmental authority, health care, the Triple-E Senate, firearms, the dictatorship of the prime minister, the Canadian Wheat Board, pensions, employment insurance, taxes and an Alberta police force.

In each case, PC delegates will be asked to instruct the government to "get constitutional agreement from the Government of Canada by Dec. 31, 2003. ...In the event all the approved resolutions have not been accomplished by the dates specified," the final resolution states, "the Alberta government will hold a binding referendum asking Albertans if they wish to separate from Confederation."

In a letter that James recently e-mailed to all constituency presidents and the executive, he claimed the response he has been getting is "nothing short of phenomenal."

And if there's anything like a fair vote, the resolution will pass. In fact, whether Klein allows that to happen or not will be the real test of whether he truly represents Albertans to Ottawa, or Ottawa to Albertans. Take to make up your mind, Ralph.

- 8:54 am, January 23 (link)
The Wages of Success

For those following the evolving Kyoto-in-Canada train wreck, superwonk Finn Poschmann has a state-of-the-union summary from the Friday National Post. To summarize the summary: federal resources minister Herb Dhaliwal has put a two-part "15-15" plan on the table. The first part calls for the burden of the CO2 reductions to be spread amongst sectors by "negotiation" (read: "fiat"). The second part is the quid pro quo; it limits the compliance cost to $15 per metric ton.

If tradable emissions credits are available on the market at less than $15/t, the responsible industries will simply give a bunch of money to Russia (which is awash in credits thanks to the catastrophic contraction of its economy) and keep spewing carbon dioxide as before. Net environmental impact: nil. But it'll be the good kind of CO2, you see. Essentially the Kyoto Protocol, in this respect, is revealed to be an agreement that we'll pay restitution to Russia for the crime of not having screwed up our own economy with Communism...

If the market price of the credits end up being much higher than $15/t, Ottawa has two options. It could directly pay back the industrial emitters for any abatement cost incurred over $15/t--which would leave the emitters no incentive to choose the lowest-cost measures--or buy the credits at the market price and resell them to the emitters at $15/t--in which case we'd still get only $15/t worth of abatement out of the emitters, all the while sending potentially unlimited amounts of tax money to Holy Russia. Let's hope they don't blow it all on vodka.

This is all fairly ridiculous. It could be worse: the Liberals could blunder ahead as if the laws of economics simply did not exist, as they would have in Trudeau's day. The people working for Herb Dhaliwal seem to understand something of how the world works. But here in Alberta, enviro minister Lorne Taylor pointed out over and over again that the Kyoto Protocol was nothing more than a global welfare program in the guise of an environmental accord. He was shouted down, and is now being proven right--the fate of many such people.

Where are the critics of foreign-policy "unilateralism" when you need them? At Kyoto, a whole bunch of economically successful countries were basically asked whether they felt like paying a voluntary tax to the world's basket cases. The only significant one to say "Yes", at any real cost to itself, was Canada. (Direct your jokes about Canada being "significant" to the circular file, please.) Now Canada's businesses and the people who work for them have to go out and compete with the countries who said "No", including a rather large one right next door. Good luck to us.

- 2:05 am, January 15 (link)
The Power Corporation

On to our main topic. Canada's federal justice minister, Liberal Martin Cauchon, said something astonishing this morning (as so often happens, we're linking to a Globe story by Darren Yourk):

The control of firearms is a core Canadian value.

My first thought upon hearing this quote on the CBC was, "What amazing self-deception." I'll admit that polls have shown strong support amongst Canadians for gun control, as a principle. But by any measure, somewhere between 20% and 40% of Canadians have always opposed the Liberal gun registry. In some regions of this country--regions which are presumably entitled to a presumption of Canadian-ness, no?--opposition runs closer to 50%, 60%. With the recent revelations of insane uncontrolled costs, revelations made by the Liberal-appointed auditor general, these figures will have climbed. So how, on that basis, can the registry be defended as part of the furtherance of a "core Canadian value"? Must the cause of gun control stand or fall on the performance and cost of the registry? Does it not even matter how many actual Canadians are annoyed, enraged, or punished by a program, as long as it's intended to promote "Canadian values"?

But you all know--even those of you foolish enough to vote Liberal know--that this is not self-deception. It's just an evil political tactic. Cauchon hopes to convince you that people who are against increasing "control" of firearms (I'm not sure, by the way, that a registry even qualifies as "control"), as achieved by the expensive and futile Liberal method, are somehow less than Canadian. It's a standard sort of demonization, but will anyone dare say that it is good and acceptable? Shouldn't "core Canadian values" be shared, in fact, by nearly all of us? No: by implication, in Cauchon's philosophy, "core Canadian values" are found in Liberal campaign pamphlets.

Because, you see, some people do oppose new, bureaucratic, and illiberal gun-control programs, like it or not. If you are going to accuse them of being "non-Canadian", they may take you at your word. You'd think a French-Canadian like Cauchon would understand the long-term consequences of this sort of thing. Call me un-Canadian? Very well, I'm un-Canadian: the Liberals, guardians of Canadian-ness, have cast me out. Don't expect me, henceforth, to defend Canada when it needs defending--say, the next time Quebec votes to bail out of Confederation, or the first time Alberta does it. Hell, maybe we can all leave, and let a little strip of land between Ottawa and Toronto--where "Canadian values" are defined--wear the name of Canada.

No cabinet minister has any better moral claim to define "core Canadian values" than your plumber or your cab driver. Cauchon has a simple job to do: preserve public order and promote the quality of life in Canada. If the gun registry is to survive in any form, it had better be defended on those grounds. When a government program is justified on any other pretext, any sensible human will know he's being cheated. I'd like to see a pro-gun-control person stand up and denounce Cauchon's tactic, but in my experience, liberals with both small Ls and large ones don't care how they get what they want in politics. They only care about the power, its exercise, and its perpetuation.

- 10:45 am, January 8 (link)
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