Maybe Canada needs a Clarity Act for pollsters' questions intended to gauge the level of support for provincial secession from Canada.
The Clarity Act, of course, is the federal law passed in 2000 in response to the scary 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum that came within 1 per cent of destroying Confederation based on a murky question.
Among other things, the law states that any question not solely referring to secession was to be considered unclear, and to be valid the referendum question on independence must be clear. It also says all provinces and First Nations must be part of any separation negotiation, and that an undefined clear majority of eligible voters within the province must support secession.
To a significant degree, it was the work of Stéphane Dion, then Jean Chrétien's minister of intergovernmental affairs and later the victim of a relentless Conservative campaign of vilification. He is probably tied with the late Robert Stanfield for the title of best prime minister Canada never had.
The province where separatism is now supposedly blossoming is Alberta, the spoiled child of Confederation. Conservative Premier Jason Kenney has been trying to make it appear there's a viable separatist movement here, the better to discomfit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In this seditious effort, spread through the use of social media memes and videos, a pious Kenney casts himself as national saviour. "I will never give up on Canada," he said in a recent video -- at least as long as there's a chance he can be prime minister. All the while, he has been ginning up a fake national unity crisis founded on the ludicrous notion that if Trudeau and his Liberal Party are re-elected, Albertans will stream to the exits.
This cynical and unpatriotic partisan tactic by a guy who claims to be "a Canadian patriot" has been aided and abetted by a couple of polls purporting to show support for secession at levels that are, quite literally, unbelievable.
This has been amplified by a cascade of stories in the U.S.-owned Postmedia newspaper chain, which dominates the press in Alberta with an unending stream of anti-Liberal and anti-NDP bias, that appear intended to give these dubious claims credence. (New separatist parties are springing up like dandelions. One of them, I kid you not, wants to call itself the Wexit Party!)
After an Abacus Data poll in late July supposedly showed a quarter of Albertans favoured separation, Postmedia's story made no mention of Abacus CEO David Coletto's observation that separatist sentiment "is not at a level to cause serious concern."
"The conversation about Alberta separatism that has been in the news lately clearly has some roots within the province, but it is very much a minority view at the moment and almost exclusively within the UCP and federal Conservative Party voter group," said the Abacus commentary on the survey.
Well, if 25 per cent of Albertans actually do favour separation, that would be cause for legitimate concern. However, this is hardly credible. (The finding that 86 per cent of Alberta separatists think climate change is a hoax is perhaps less surprising.)
"Most people in Alberta don't believe that Canada has been a bad deal for the province, including most of those who voted for Jason Kenney and most of those intending to vote for Andrew Scheer," the pollster also observed. "There are political hazards in stoking resentment: while a minority of Alberta conservatives cheer talk about separation; for most, it's a project they reject."
Remember also, this was an online panel of 1,500 Canadians. Abacus doesn't appear to say how many of these were Albertans. Abacus has not yet responded to my query about this. So let's just guess that it was 150 or fewer. From such numbers meaningful polls can be conducted, but this one sounds so unlikely it's safe to assume no one who answered who wasn't in on the Conservative agenda had considered the real costs of separation.
As for the Angus Reid Institute poll in February that Kenney's supporters have claimed shows 50 per cent support for secession, that's not what it actually says. The meaning of the question -- "to what extent do you consider Alberta separatism to be a real possibility," with "could happen" as an option -- is ambiguous enough to please even Lucien Bouchard.
None of this, though, has stopped Kenney from trying to peddle his fatuous claim Trudeau is trying to push Alberta out of the country -- you know, by buying us a $5-billion pipeline and being prepared to pony up another $10 billion to expand it, just because we want it, never mind the fact the business case for the thing is mainly fantasy.
The implication the Alberta premier is trying to foist on the rest of Canada is that if they dare not to elect a Conservative government, the fate of the planet be damned, Alberta will separate and take all its money with it. His long-game strategy is probably to hope the Liberals lose lots of seats, but not quite enough to lose the government. Then he can decamp for Ottawa to "save the country," not really being all that interested in running Alberta anyway.
Kenney's big threat in the event he doesn't get his way? He'll hold a politically and constitutionally meaningless referendum on … equalization, a program founded on contributions from all Canadian taxpayers that currently uses a formula put in place by Stephen Harper's government when Kenney was part of it.
When Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt echoed the words of the Abacus Data poll analysis on Sunday, Kenney's official office Twitter account responded with a characteristically sophomoric attack. (This is the Trump-style account that blamed Trudeau for a federal research grant approved on Harper's watch in 2015, and when exposed deleted the tweet without comment or apology.)
"Jason Kenney : 'I am a Canadian patriot & am against separation,'" tweeted @UniteAlberta. "So called 'political scientist' : 'Kenney stoking separatism' What. A. Joke."
Perhaps the way Abacus Data's and Bratt's similar observations rang true struck a nerve with the sensitive and ambitious Kenney's digital Praetorian Guard.
After all, being exposed as a politician willing to put our country's future at risk for short-term political gain isn't really a good look for a guy who still harbours his own prime ministerial ambitions. D'ya think?
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
Photo: David J. Climenhaga
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