A Divided Nation

Academics need to be involved in any plans to separate says political scientist Jared Wesley

Donna McKinnon - 22 October 2019

Monday's federal election has highlighted political schisms across the country, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta where the Conservative Party dominated. Jared Wesley, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, says that Canada's political divides will get worse before they get better.

What struck you most about last night's election?

I wasn't really surprised by it. We've seen this kind of stampede voting among Albertans a number of times: 1957, 1979, 1997, 2000 - where we've sent almost all of our MPs to Ottawa from one party where they are often sitting on the opposition benches. I guess I was a little surprised that Scheer's message didn't resonate more in the 905 (Greater Toronto Area). Their platform was built for that, and if they can't win with a platform like they had, I'm not sure where that party goes from here.

What precipitates stampede voting?

Antipathy and animosity towards another party. People don't often stampede to a party as much as the stampede away from one, so if you're looking to explain the trouncing that the progressive parties had in Alberta, it had to do with people not being enamoured with them as opposed to being necessarily attracted to the Conservatives, which was the story of the provincial election as well.

. Jared Wesley, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, says that Canada's political divides will get worse before they get better.

A Divided Nation

Earlier this year, Edmonton was the sole NDP holdout in a UCP sweep and yet federally we vote overwhelmingly conservative. Why do you think that is?

It's a bit of an illusion that the last provincial campaign was a sweep for the New Democrats. It was in terms of seats here in Edmonton, but it wasn't in terms of the popular vote. The UCP only came one point behind. Nationally, the CPC and the UCP vote is really inefficient. They rack up huge numbers in other parts of the province and the country, but not where it counts. There are people who will vote NDP provincially, but also vote Conservative federally. We know them - and they don't just exist here in Edmonton. They exist in parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well.

I talked with Jason Kenney just after his leadership victory. He asked me that question: why does the UCP poll between 10 to 20 points behind the CPC in Edmonton? I asked him why he thinks that is, and he said because people know that provincial government services and jobs are at stake when the UCP gets elected at the provincial level. They don't tend to have the sense that voting Conservative would mean service cutbacks at the federal level. So people are able to distinguish between what a provincial government does and what the federal government does. In a government town like Edmonton, people do vote with their pocketbooks, and it's just not for the Conservatives because those pocketbooks are dependent on public service jobs which the UCP has all but guaranteed will be cut this time around. So that to me explains the disjunction, but the disjunction isn't nearly as stark as the electoral map makes it look.

What message do you think Alberta is sending Ottawa?

The most important message wasn't sent last night. The most important message will be sent by Premier Kenney and by Andrew Scheer in the days to come because Twitter is lighting up and Facebook is lighting up right now with discussions about Western alienation. It's turning into resentment and rage very quickly. And unless we have a national leader, somebody like a Preston Manning or even a Stephen Harper that is able to bridge those divides at least somewhat successfully and turn this into a broader national discussion, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

Do you think the UCP will stoke this divisiveness?

Yes, at their own peril. I wouldn't consider Jason Kenney to be a populist leader, but leaders of populist parties or leaders of populist movements have a very difficult time historically keeping the genie in the bottle once it's out, or putting it back in. You can ask people like David Cameron in the UK how well that goes when you start talking about Brexit for Western alienation in a serious way. That said, I think that we have to acknowledge that the sentiments are as high as they've ever been. We have a survey in the field right now and we will have results back within two weeks. That will tell us just where a separatist sentiment is concentrated, and how deep and how broad it is.

As an academic community, we need to start having serious discussions about what potential paths to separation would look like because it's something that academics didn't do in Quebec in 1995 and they didn't do it in the UK in 2016 when had their vote. At the University of Alberta, we've been putting together a group of scholars that are ready to talk seriously about the path to separation and the 100 questions that need to be answered before we even start to entertain it. We need to start putting some of the policy issues front and centre in a way that Albertans can actually absorb and understand, things like are we going to have a military draft? How are we going to staff a military when our population just can't sustain it? It will have to be through some kind of a draft. Are we ready to go down that road?

A deeper dive, not like the Twitter activists using hashtags like WEXIT.

Yes. As an offshoot of myAlberta Political Culture Project, we're going to do a series of two or three workshops that will devise the top 100 questions that need to be answered. How do we police, how do we establish a military, and what do we do with our share of the national debt, questions like that. And then the final workshop we will actually have experts from across the political spectrum and academia answering those questions in a way that is accessible to Albertans. We can actually have an honest discussion about it before we start entertaining the idea, because it's coming. We're going to have to entertain it in one way or another.

Can we can expect a bumpy road for the next four years, if the Liberals last that long?

They won't last that long. The longest minority government was Stephen Harper's in 2008 and it lasted just short of three years. It will be about that long because the New Democrats are not going to have an appetite to go back to the polls any time soon. And quite frankly, neither are the Conservatives. They are going to have to have a serious autopsy done on this campaign to figure out why their message didn't resonate in the 905 when they designed a platform around it. And when the Prime Minister of Canada was shown with not one, but several Brown and Blackface photographs. And that's the thing. Trudeau almost gets now absolved of those sins. The Conservatives cannot run the same campaign that they ran this time. They've got to re-engineer it, they can't rehash it. The electorate has already decided. It's old news.

We've not had a Liberal government this scandal ridden since Paul Martin. And yet, they're still governing. So the Conservatives have to figure out a way to penetrate that wall that seems to be preventing them from winning seats in Toronto and parts of Quebec. They're in their old Catch 22 scenario again, where they've got a western base that dominates their caucus, their image and their brand, and they need to reach out to voters in Toronto that only see that the party as a Western party. And this is what George Perlin called the Tory Syndrome. They get caught in this trap all the time, and they're in it again. I don't know how quickly they're going to be able to re-engineer that brand. For perspective it took from 1993 until 2006 for them to do it last time. So 13 years of re-engineering, re-branding to do it, and now in a way they're back at square one. This election map looks a lot like it did in 1997 if you combine the Reform and Conservative votes. And it looks a lot like 1958 and 1979 where we continued to send a lot of opposition party members to Ottawa.

Will Andrew Scheer last?

I don't know. Certainly the Conservative war room is going to be talking about how to re-brand him.