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Does Any Province of Canada Have A Right To Separate?

Here is a reply I wrote to a gentleman who informed me with a scary intensity that the Province of Alberta is once again thinking about separating from the Canadian Federation.
My brief comment on any call for separation by any province in a (con)federation such as Canada was rehearsed with respect to the call for Quebec separatism in chapter 14 of The Trouble With Canada … Still! The internal situation with Alberta is somewhat different, of course, but the obstacles to separation are not much different.
Basically, while I understand Alberta grievances – many of which echo those of Quebec – I think we need to shine a light briefly on the deeper issues involved. Among them:
1) Canada is a Confederation, and not a simple democracy in which any part may hold a UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and decide to leave the federation. Why? …. because:
2) The lines on the map demarcating each of Canada’s ten provinces are lines of provincial legal jurisdiction, and do not indicate ownership of those lands by the people who happen to live there today (but who may leave tomorrow for another province).
3) Alberta (like other provinces) opted into Confederation as part of a constitutional arrangement or contract with Canada, and has no unilateral constitutional right to break the deal. Any referendum question put to Albertans would have to be agreed upon by both parties, as could happen if, say, Canada actually wanted Alberta to separate.
4) The land-area now controlled by Alberta was recognized as falling under Alberta jurisdiction as a province of Canada, and not as a separate country. No one knows what the territorial ramifications of an attempted unilateral separation would be, or in such a case, how much of those lands would be reclaimed by Canada (or by Indian nations).
5) If a “referendum” was ever agreed to by Albertans, it would have to have legal teeth. But no one is absolutely certain what those teeth would, or could, be. In the case of Quebec, for example, its last so-called “referendum” was not a legally-prepared and agreed-upon referendum per se. It was actually just a province-wide plebiscite, with no proper legal basis or widely-agreed formulation of the questions at issue.
6) Canada would have legal obligations with respect to any Albertan-Canadians who might choose not not support a referendum to separate. Suppose a little more than half the 4.3 million Albertans chose to separate? The other two million Albertans would very likely call upon Canada to protect them and their property (as well as all federal property in Alberta).
7) It is likely, as happened in Quebec with the Cree people, that Alberta’s Indians would themselves in turn declare a UDI to separate from Alberta if Alberta declared a UDI, and/or, a right to remain in Canada as Canadian citizens so they could continue to receive their massive tax-free handouts annually. In this case, and using the same democracy logic of majority rule by a part to sever from the whole, Alberta could end up having quite a few separate Indian nations inside a nation called Alberta.
8) Unilateral Declarations of Independence cannot succeed without international recognition of the new “nation” declared. And generally, if ever recognized, such is generally only the case where internationally-recognized oppression, suppression, dictatorship, or other such hardship of all the people is present and is recognized internationally as such. As it happens, Albertans are a wealthy population. in fact, are the highest median income earners in Canada. They cannot succeed in crying “poor”. 
9) Canada’s own Supreme Court, after the last Quebec debacle, issued an opinion that a UDI is not possible in Canada. To wit:

“the Constitution does not permit unilateral secession: Canada is a federal state based on constitutional government – and subject to the rule of law. The courts have a duty to uphold that Constitution – and to ensure that no level of government exceeds its powers. Secession would affect the structure and scope of that Constitution – so it would require constitutional amendments,”

All the above would seem to put a heavy damper on the question of any province of Canada ever succeeding with a call to separate.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Mike

    The idea of Alberta separation is nothing less that a petulent threat, of absolutely no substance whatsoever. Firstly, I doubt that any more than 5 percent of the population would support it (and I lived there for five years, so I know the people). Secondly, how would separation address their current problem with resource development and the export of hydrocarbons? Would BC be any more likely to acquiesce to pipeline development if Alberta were an independent country? I hardly think so. Trade barriers would be worse with the rest of Canada than they already are, and Alberta would have great deal of difficulty resisting being absorbed into the United States (Texas started out as a republic, but before too long became a state). . So I’m not worried.

    1. William Gairdner

      It will certainly be interesting! I remember when the heat was on for separatism in Quebec (as it may be again?) and the question became not whether Quebec would ever separate, but whether or not we should throw them out (on our own terms, of course 🙂

    2. William Gairdner

      Well, as I have said, /I am not against separation of a province form Canada in principle. However, I think it is a waste of time to try to take this initiative forward on the mistaken ground that a simple majority vote on a clear question would decide the matter. I suggest you read my chapter on this question entitled “French-Fried” in my book “The Trouble With Canada … Still!” (20210) to get a better understanding of the dog’s breakfast that a plebiscite (it was not a true or legal referendum) on a UDI would have unleashed in Canada had they got their 50% +1 vote.

  2. Terry

    Mike. If a referendum were held today, I would put the YES vote somewhere around 35 percent. We will likely send separatists to Ottawa, and potentially form the next government in Alberta. Strong chance of a referendum within the next five years. If we get at least two chances at bat, anything over 40 percent in the first referendum would be quite exciting. Klein felt 1/4 of Albertans were separatists in his day, and a recent poll put the number at 25 percent.

    1. Mike Milner

      Terry, I am dubious that a provincial separatist party in Alberta could form the next government. It is more likely the vote splitting would bring the NDP back into power. Although the rural ridings are deeply conservative (and could in theory elect a sepratist candidate), if you examine the urban ridings, the voting patterns are such that the Conservative candidates receive a far smaller percentage of the votes, and so I doubt that a separatist candidate could win in the cities. Apart from the political aspect of a separatist government winning an election, there are important fiscal considerations to be addressed. The population of Alberta would have to start paying for government services that right now are paid for by Ottawa. Has anyone completed a cost benefit analysis to determine if separation has any fiscal advantages? Lastly, even if a “Wexit Party” gained power, the Feds may not not agree to any form of separation and could in fact intervene to prevent it from occurring. In any event, having lived in Alberta for a number of years, I have a great deal of fondness for the people there, and certainly wish them well. Of course, like many others I understand the fiscal hardships they are now suffering, and I certainly hope for better times for them in the future.

  3. Rick Johnson

    If Albertans can unify under one banner to essentially save themselves from the same fate as Canada, they can claim oppression and economic embargo as justification for their declaration of independence. It is a big “if” because we are not of the same fibre as the American Colonials of the 1770’s who hated taxes more than the concept of fighting and potentially dying for treason. We would rather walk peacefully into a cage than draw unwanted attention to ourselves. Such the Canadian mettle of today.

  4. KP

    The fact is that most Ontarians want to separate from Quebec, Quebec wants to separate, and Alberta wants to separate from Quebec for financial reasons.

    Quebec has crazy financial laws that make everyone poor, even Quebec.

  5. Steven

    I agree with ALL efforts for separation.Resource rich provinces are too restricted,not to mention agriculture and manufacturing.Broad stroke speaking,It seems it is clear that we cannot unify as a country, so maybe separate jurisdictions and trade deals might be the way to go.

    1. William Gairdner

      very possibly true. In fact, there are many serious thinkers around who are convinced that many modern nations are just too big to manage. They grow complicated beyond their capacity to self-control. I am not against dividing Canada up into, say, three or four separate nations tied by treaties and trade deals. I am just saying that under our current constitutional and legal arrangements, that would be close to impossible, and any effort to separate unilaterally – as Quebec tried lamely to do – would likely lead to a civil war, simply because Canada owes obligations to all loyal citizens within any region that might try this unilaterally, and would have to protect their rights against the separating entity.

  6. Dan

    Is this thread still active?

  7. murray

    the political system is the main problem the system pop by rep should not apply to the federal government or the senate if they had equal representation in each province and the provincial government by area large cities and town rep by pop things would much much better ????

  8. Keith

    So if Alberta opts to leave Canada, is it the will of Canada to force Alberta to be unwilling participants in confederation? If so, then Alberta is not a province. It is a colony.

    1. William Gairdner

      I understand why you come to this conclusion. But it presupposes that there was never a mutually acceptable deal between all parties that created Canada’s Confederation. There was, and it is summarized in Canada’s Constitution Act 1867. No confederation in history was ever created in which the parties agreed they could break the deal at any time of their choosing in future. That would be a strange agreement indeed. Some nations/federations do have clauses with special conditions that might permit an exit from the deal. But most do not. That is not to say it couldn’t happen. But it could only be legal/constitutionally acceptable under our Acts of Amendment that require agreement of 7 of the 10 provinces having between them at least 50% of the people’s vote.

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