‘Fair Deal’ Report Reflects Albertans’ Frustration; Equalization Referendum Going Ahead

June 24, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020

Indications of desperate times are all over Alberta.

“The thing that is selling the most right now are ‘For Sale’ signs,” Calgary resident Marco Navarro-Genie told The Epoch Times.

Navarro-Genie, founder of the Haultain Research Institute, is frustrated at a federal government that he sees as wanting to “shut down the hydrocarbon energy industry.”

Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel, whose report was released June 17, heard more of the same during public hearings, surveys, and other consultations.

“Whether it was Bill C-69, Bill C-48, the carbon tax or the equalization system, many respondents felt that the rest of the country was conspiring against Alberta,” reads the panel’s report.

“Job loss, continued unemployment, lack of opportunity, dropping property values, declining businesses and eroding business confidence, bankruptcies, the exodus of their children to other jurisdictions and increasing suicides were all frequent stories the panel heard.”

Even worse, this dire portrait preceded job losses from pandemic precautions and record low oil prices.

Among the panel’s 25 recommendations was that Premier Jason Kenney proceed with a provincial referendum on equalization, which Kenney has agreed with. The referendum, to be held in 2021, would ask Albertans if equalization should be removed from the Canadian constitution.

Tom Flanagan, senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, says the referendum would be “hugely popular” but unlikely to eliminate the federal program that supports provinces with weaker economies. A professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, Flanagan was among the signatories of the so-called “firewall letter” sent to then-Premier Ralph Klein in 2001. Many ideas explored by the Fair Deal Panel have their origins in that letter.

A constitutional change would require the House of Commons, Canadian Senate, and seven provincial legislatures (including either Ontario or Quebec) to agree to scratch Section 36—which stipulates equal opportunity requirements—from the Constitution Act.

Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island receive equalization payments and won’t want that to end. Regardless, Flanagan believes the referendum still holds value.

“Out of these negotiations you can get agreement to modify equalization without getting rid of it altogether; make it less expensive, make it less one-sided,” he says.

“I think that probably, realistically, is the real hope here.”

Albertans contributed nearly $240 billion to the rest of Canada from 2007 through 2018, an amount that dwarfed second-place Ontario ($97.9 billion) and third-place B.C. ($54.6 billion).

The panel also recommends that Alberta create a provincial police force to replace the RCMP. Alberta could also follow Quebec’s lead by opting out of the Canada Pension Plan to create an Alberta one.

These ideas have less support. An Alberta poll conducted by the panel found that only 42 percent supported a provincial pension plan, and just 35 percent wanted a provincial police force.

Flanagan believes the poll results are deceptive on the police question since it included urban residents who would not be affected by the change. Many rural residents feel dissatisfied with the RCMP’s service.

Navarro-Genie says some residents still resent police actions during the floods of southern Alberta seven years ago.

“Soon thereafter the RCMP went illegally kicking doors in neighbourhoods, almost door-to-door in High River where they knew that people had weapons. This has been one of the most grievous violations of people’s civil rights [by] the RCMP,” he says.

Provincial Pension Plan

An Alberta Pension Plan would require lower payroll deductions due to the province’s superior ratio of workers-to-seniors. Deductions would drop from 9.9 percent to 5.85 percent and save Albertans $3 billion annually.

Flanagan says the pension proposal faces political vulnerabilities. “It’s easy to make people afraid that they’re going to lose their pension.”

Alberta’s economic plight doesn’t help either.

“If our main industry continues to suffer from attacks, some of these younger people are going to leave the province, and our age profile may start to look more like the rest of Canada—in which case there wouldn’t be much benefit from it,” he says.

Flanagan says public sentiment and politics have changed since he and five other Albertans co-authored similar ideas in the “firewall letter.”

“I think there’s far more aggravation at Ottawa now than there was 20 years ago,” he said. “The ground is probably better prepared now for some kind of protest movement.”

The problem is that Preston Manning’s “west wants in” political movement is gone. All four Conservative Party leadership contenders live in Ontario.

Navarro-Genie says many Albertans have concluded that Ottawa will always serve the interests of central and eastern Canada at the expense of the west. He believes this only adds pressure to Kenney as a committed federalist.

“He’s got to walk a very tight rope and I don’t envy him, quite frankly.”