Plan B may come back to haunt former Reform Party leaders in Alberta

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Grunge textured flag of Alberta on vintage paper. Image: Nicolas Raymond/Flickr

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Clarity Act in Parliament on December 13, 1999, talk of separation is once again in the air, but not from Quebec. Although the idea of an independent Alberta seems highly unfeasible and unlikely, it is probably important to take it at least theoretically seriously -- lest one be accused of ridiculing and exacerbating what obviously many Albertans experience as justified anger and anxiety about their current situation.

Having said this, should such an idea gain significant acceptance, Albertans would have to satisfy the terms and conditions set out for any such separation that grew out of a demand by the Alberta-based Reform Party for a so-called plan B when it came to the possibility of a province like Quebec separating from Canada. Plan A of course was for Canada to keep substantially winning any referendums put to the people of Quebec. But after the close call in the referendum of 1995, many, including the then leader of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, were pushing for a plan B.

The response of the Liberal government led by prime minister Jean Chrétien was first to refer some important questions to the Supreme Court of Canada, having to do with whether Quebec could, constitutionally, unilaterally separate from Canada, and whether it had such a right in international law. The Supreme Court ruled that there was no Canadian constitutional right to unilateral separation and no right under international law either. But it also ruled that should Quebec indicate support for separation with a clear majority answering a clear question, that Canada would be obliged to enter into negotiations with Quebec.

The response to the Court's decision was the introduction of Bill C-20, the Clarity Act, which laid out the way in which the requirement for a clear question and a clear majority would be determined. The Bloc Québécois were opposed to the legislation, as were the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark. The Reform Party supported it. And the NDP was divided, within its caucus and across the country, with NDP premiers like Gary Doer and Roy Romanow coming out in favour of the bill, as well as former leader Ed Broadbent, whereas the federal council of the NDP and the Quebec NDP urged the NDP caucus to oppose it.

Unfortunately, there was a lack of clarity in the Clarity Act about what a clear majority would look like, and much debate ensued about that question. In the end, it was not definitively defined. What was defined was a consultative process by which the question of whether there was a clear question and clear majority would be answered. Unfortunately, the Indigenous peoples of Quebec were left out of the original draft. This grievous colonial oversight was corrected by way of an NDP amendment that was passed in the very late stages of the legislative process, as part of a discussion that led to NDP support for the bill, even though it had been the intention to not support the bill on final reading. In the end, though most NDP MPs voted for the bill, there were some who still found the whole idea of the legislation unacceptable. The Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party were united in opposing the NDP amendment to include Indigenous peoples in the process.

But this column is not about the NDP. It is about the fact that should Alberta get as far as having a referendum, which at this point seems somewhat far-fetched, it will have to deal with the NDP amendment. This means that First Nations in Alberta will have to be part of the process as laid out in the Clarity Act that was finally passed in the spring of 2000.

The proponents of "Wexit," like some western Canadians before them, often claim to speak for all western Canadians as if we were all one monolithic group that agreed with them. This an old movie, and just as irritating now as it was in the 1980s and 1990s for western Canadians who have a different point of view. But should push come to shove, it seems highly likely that at some point it will be clear they may also not be speaking for the people who lived in Alberta long before them, and who would have a role to play in determining the nature of a referendum, and interpreting its result.

Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties and Parliament.

Image: Nicolas Raymond/

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