Why Western alienation is an opportunity for the progressive left

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A red ball cap that reads "Make Alberta Great Again." Image: Make Alberta Great Again/Facebook

Western Canada is once again feeling alienated during this latest federal election. That should be good news for Canadian socialists.

Take the recently created Maverick Party. Their candidates, most of whom are running in Alberta, are campaigning on a "Twin Track Approach" to revising Western Canada's place within confederation.

"Track A" calls for five constitutional amendments. The balance of these proposals would limit the federal government's ability to legislate on matters of provincial concern, including in the area of natural-resource exportation. But the party also hopes to add a right to private property to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Track B" calls for the separation of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from Canada and the creation of a new Western state. The idea here is that independence would only be necessary if the proposed constitutional amendments failed to gain traction in central and eastern Canada.

Now, I doubt the Maverick Party will win even a single seat on September 20. Leader Jay Hill said in a March interview that the Party was trying to avoid running candidates in ridings where they might split the conservative vote, which is to say, where they might actually win. And if any Maverick candidates did make it to Ottawa, they would hardly be an ally of progressive causes.

But leftists should be buoyed by the party's emergence nonetheless. Here's why:

The Maverick Party is tapping into Western protest politics in an effort to achieve a version of what socialists want: an overhaul of the existing political and constitutional order.

To be sure, the party is doing so in a particularly conservative and capitalist way. Private property owners, and those aspiring to be, would gain the most from Maverick leadership, as would Alberta's flagging oil-and-gas sector.

This is hardly a radical departure from the status quo, even if it would be accomplished through potentially radical means. And that is in keeping with historical trends.

For years, it has been conservative-leaning parties that have championed Western disaffection on the federal stage. Currently it is not only the Maverick Party but also the Conservatives. Ahead of the election writs dropping on August 15, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole pledged to end the "mistreatment of Western Canadians" and protect the autonomy of Albertans in particular. Well before that, it was the right-wing Reform Party mobilizing voters who felt Parliament ignored their voices and concerns.

But Western alienation itself reflects a stance towards confederation more radical than conservative. It is unfortunate that, at the level of federal electoral politics, Canadian leftists have largely failed to leverage it to recruit Westerners to the socialist coalition.

Thankfully, the disaffection many residents of British Columbia and the prairie provinces feel with confederation is not difficult to understand.

As a political orientation, Western alienation boils down to four basic beliefs about the Canadian state. There is the idea, first, that Canada's national institutions -- from Parliament, to the judiciary, to the major political parties -- are unresponsive to Westerners' needs and concerns.

Second; that this is because the balance of power strongly favours political and economic elites in Ontario and Québec.

Third, that Canada's legal, constitutional and economic structures preserve this imbalance.

And, finally, that this set-up will not change unless Westerners mobilize themselves and, through democratic means, force those who enjoy power under the status quo to accept a more equitable order.

The goal, in other words, is not necessarily smaller government. Rather, it is responsive government; specifically, a government that is responsive to its Western citizens.

This is why, for example, Senate reform is a perennial issue in Alberta, as well as the reason Westerners are so concerned with individual property rights and provincial powers. At the end of the day, the Western obsession with these and related issues is rooted in Westerners' felt need to protect themselves and their interests from a ruling class they believe stands up for neither.

Importantly for socialists in central and eastern Canada, Western critiques of confederation -- and suggestions for how to reform it -- are not unlike those popular on the left generally.

There is the common conviction, for example, that the federal government serves the interests of powerful elites while blocking popular initiatives, like a wealth tax, that would benefit working- and middle-class voters. And the shared belief that there must be increased democratic control over the Canadian state.

There is also a consistent understanding that achieving the desired national reforms requires local organizing and, if necessary, the creation of new political parties to represent the popular voice. Even the Maverick Party's proposal to create an explicit constitutional right to private property does not differ too much from the more obviously leftist proposal to read socioeconomic rights into the Charter.

All this should make the Western provinces -- including areas like southern Alberta, traditionally thought of as right-wing strongholds -- an ideal target for socialist political organizing.

Why, then, have leftists not succeeded at channeling the West's protest politics and general skepticism of the prevailing political order into federal electoral victories?

In short, because they haven't really tried to.

Take the so-called Conservative citadel of Alberta.

Canadians have known for months that a snap fall election was likely. Nonetheless, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, New Democrats had still only lined up candidates to contest 13 of Alberta's 34 federal ridings – fewer than even the People's Party and the Maverick Party, both of which had announced 18 candidates.

This is par for the course for the NDP, the closest thing Canada has to a viable national left-wing party. During the last federal vote, party leader Jagmeet Singh couldn't even be bothered to stage a single campaign stop in Alberta.

This is a losing strategy.

Ignoring voters who feel the national political establishment ignores them only feeds their disaffection. The result is to push those voters into the arms of the parties that at least claim to care about them, which, at the federal level, are consistently conservative-leaning ones. The idea that socialists -- or even moderate left-of-centre candidates -- can't win in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and other "safely" right-wing places in the West becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That needs to change.

Leftists in central and eastern Canada should be treating Westerners as likely allies in the fight for a fairer and more equitable Canada. They should be campaigning here, hard, making the case that Westerners can count on them to uphold Western interests.

And what better time to do so than during a national election? Especially one in which Westerners are, again, making their frustrations with confederation known.

Charlotte Dalwood is a JD student at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Law. Her previous publications include articles in CBC News Online and the Edmonton Journal. Find her on Twitter @csdalwood

Image: Make Alberta Great Again/Facebook

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