If former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean established anything on Monday with his Epistle to the Albertans, wherein he set out his “agenda to move Alberta forward,” it’s that he remains a man desperate to be taken seriously.
Much mocked in circles that no longer take Mr. Jean very seriously at all, if ever they did, his not-entirely-unexpected disquisition on Confederation and Alberta’s place in it nevertheless generated lots of Serious Ink, actual and virtual.
In his screed, definitely meant to be taken seriously, the man on horseback from Fort McMurray proclaimed that “Canada is broken” and “Albertans are furious.” These are the sort of claims journalists love to repeat, even if they are contentious and their motivation tendentious.
I suppose we can agree some Albertans are furious. This has always been true as long as I’ve lived here, which is getting to be a very long time indeed. Perhaps it’s something in the water, although probably not in our constitutional arrangements with the rest of Canada, which for most of that time have been very much to Alberta’s advantage.
It is also true there’s an elite political consensus in this province that the country isn’t working the way it ought to, that is, that our leaders are not getting everything they want the instant they want it. But since other Canadians don’t necessarily or always want the same things Alberta’s leaders do, one could argue that’s evidence the country is working the way it should.
When a group of social media savvy Albertans who are not furious cooked up the ironic Twitter hash tag #NotAngryAB in response to Mr. Jean’s musings, that just made the citizens of the Principality of Angry Alberta angrier, to mainly comedic effect.
This can’t have been an entirely happy outcome for a man who had just informed us “Alberta’s future looks bleak unless bold action is taken” – that is, unless we Albertans swallow the prescription he has issued for us, to wit, to start acting like Quebec separatists, demand the Canadian constitution be renegotiated to our advantage, and, while we’re at it, recognize we have no better leader than Brian Jean. Still, better to be spoken of badly than not to be spoken of at all!
Mr. Jean made the first two propositions explicitly in his essay. As for the third, that’s implied but pretty obvious. He’s telling us he’s the only person who can, in his words, “return Canada to the original spirit of Confederation.”
The only problem with Mr. Jean’s convenient declaration that “our country is not working the way it was intended in 1867” as a starting point for his prescription for the future is that it is a profound misinterpretation of the reasons Canada was created, and the federal form it took.
It is simply not true, as Mr. Jean contends, that “the original constitution was essentially a business deal guaranteeing free trade and free passage of goods between and through our provinces, to bring prosperity to all Canadians.” This is an ideological fantasy with shallow roots in the late 20th Century.
Indeed, Alberta was part of the Northwest Territories, entirely under federal jurisdiction, until 1905, and did not receive full control over its natural resources until 1930.
Confederation was a 19th Century British Imperial project to strategically block the United States from the western half of British North America at an affordable cost that would be largely borne by citizens of the new country. It was also intended to meld badly functioning colonial governments like that in the former Upper Canada into a system that would be stable, and to break the historic deadlock between French and English Canada.
Notwithstanding the horrible example of the American Civil War, still fresh in everyone’s memory in 1867, it took the form of a federation to ensure it could be accepted by the French-speaking colonists of what is now Quebec and long-established English-speaking colonists on the East Coast.
Free passage of goods among provinces was an afterthought at best, although it would get there in the fullness of time with the construction of railroads westward.
It is true our Canadian federation was structured to avoid the worst features of the United States’ slaveholder constitution – which led to the Civil War. So Mr. Jean is partly right when he says our original constitution – the British North America Act, passed by the Parliament at Westminster – “envisioned a central government making the ultimate political decision to declare a project to be in the national interest and thus override regional objections.”
But to suggest Canada could or should return to a near-unitary government able if inclined to enforce the decisions Alberta wants (and presumably only the decisions Alberta wants) is dangerous nonsense that ignores a century and a half of Canadian constitutional jurisprudence.
In our nearly 152 years, Canada has gone from being a highly centralized federation dominated by Ottawa to one of the most decentralized federal unions in the world. The ship Mr. Jean so fondly remembers sailed long, long ago.
Nor would bringing it back to port be good for Alberta, which inevitably would sooner or later be overruled by the majority on policies that matter to it. If anyone was suggesting this seriously, Albertans would fight it tooth and nail – and we would have allies in most other provinces.
Mr. Jean has to understand this stuff. He may be being a dope, but he’s not a dummy. He’s a lawyer, for heaven’s sake!
So what’s up? One can only speculate, of course, but consider the position he finds himself in.
Here it is, 2019, about the time he’d been hoping to be getting ready to take hold of the reins of Alberta’s government. Instead he’s a man without a party to lead or a political role to fulfill.
He’s not exactly a spring chicken at 55, but he and his second wife Kimberly Michelutti, whom he married in 2017, have just declared that they’re about to have a baby. Funny how his idea that “the marriage between Alberta and the rest of Canada is deeply troubled” seemed like an appropriate metaphor.
And recent polling suggests the aggressive advertising campaign by Alberta’s current NDP Government led by Premier Rachel Notley may in fact be working, moving Canadians in most places toward viewing a pipeline as a national necessity, just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also says it is.
Mr. Jean’s rival in the conservative movement – now the leader of the United Conservative Party – is a former federal politician who apparently still casts covetous eyes at the Prime Minister’s Office, just down the street from the half-million-dollar condo he bought in 2009 with a little help from taxpayers.
So, who knows, there might be a job opening in Edmonton soon. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the “‘Mad As Hell’ Party, that isn’t going to take it any more.”
So never mind the facts of history. What better way to set yourself apart from all those other little conservatives clamouring for the brass ring than to have a slogan concise enough to stitch on a ball cap: “Make Confederation Great Again.”