How the West was lost

B.C. could be a lonely Western voice in Ottawa, now that Liberals are shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan

BC Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. B.C. may be the only western province not seized by western alienation. | BC Government Photo

Look at a federal seat distribution map of Canada, following the federal election Monday October 21, and it becomes clear that Canada has become balkanized by region, although one political scientist actually sees it more as an urban-rural divide.

The Bloc Quebecois owns much of Quebec again, the Liberals retain much of Central and Atlantic Canada, the NDP holds chunks of Canada’s north and West Coast, and the Conservatives now own almost all of Western Canada.

With the exception of Metro Vancouver and a small pocket in Winnipeg, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was virtually obliterated in Western Canada Monday night.

One hundred per cent of the MPs elected in Saskatchewan were Conservative. Alberta elected a single MP who wasn’t a Conservative – a New Democrat. Manitoba voted in a mix of mostly Conservative and NDP MPs, with just four Liberals in Winnipeg.

The Liberals lost six seats in B.C.; the Conservatives picked up seven. Conservatives now hold the majority of seats in B.C. – 17. The Liberals and NDP each won 11 seats in B.C., the Greens two and former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould retained her seat in Vancouver-Granville as an independent.

B.C. and Manitoba are now the only western provinces with any representation by the governing party, so they may both have a stronger voice in the new Trudeau minority government.

“I think that B.C. and Manitoba are going to play a greater role in the cabinet,” said Rob Gillezeau, assistant professor of Economics at the University of Victoria.

While B.C. may get an expanded seat at the cabinet table, Richard Johnston, political science professor at the University of BC, does not think B.C. will end up speaking for Western Canada.

“I don’t think that the part of B.C. that is in charge here – the (federal) NDP, Liberal combination – honestly has any credibility in the rest of the west,” he said.

B.C. Finance Minister Carol James on Tuesday said she thinks a federal Liberal minority government reliant on the NDP for votes could mean more money for progressive policies, like child care, and for public infrastructure funding in B.C.

The NDP government in B.C. is counting on federal funding for things like the George Massey tunnel replacement, as well as public transit.

In the past, when provinces shut out the governing party, governments have sometimes appointed senators from those provinces to give them at least some regional representation.

That may be difficult for Trudeau to do, however, so Alberta and Saskatchewan may end up having no voice in Ottawa – something that could aggravate the sense of alienation already felt in those two provinces.

Appointing Liberal senators from Saskatchewan or Alberta isn’t really an option any longer, since the Trudeau government has made the Senate independent.

“Of course, there are no Liberal senators,” Johnston said. “That’s come back to bite them. He’s excluded senators from the Liberal caucus. I think, in some ways, he’s hoist on his own petard on that one.”

“I don’t think that the Senate really has the buy-in from enough Canadians – and certainly from the other parties in the House of Commons – to appoint a senator to the cabinet to represent the West,” added Gillezeau. “So I think he’s in a bind.”

He added that Trudeau may be just as concerned with addressing alienation in Quebec, where the Liberals lost seats to the Bloc Quebecois. There, he at least has some Liberal MPs to appoint to cabinet.

“I suspect we are going to see equally, or even stronger representation, from the Quebec caucus in cabinet,” Gillizeau said.

There’s some question whether Trudeau’s minority government may have to either back away from, or augment, some of his campaign promises, in order to win support from the NDP.

Johnston thinks it’s possible a Liberal minority government could continue to govern as though it has a majority. He said the NDP is in no position to bring the government down and fight another election, so it may not have a lot of leverage.

Gillezeau thinks it would be a mistake, however, for Trudeau to carry on as though he has a majority mandate.

“I think it would be a huge mistake if he were to govern like that,” Gillezeau said. “I think that they need to come to an arrangement where there’s going to be budget-by-budget support. I think if they don’t do that, I don’t think it would be good for the country, and I don’t think it would be good for the sustainability of the government.”

In his victory speech Monday night, Trudeau acknowledged the divide between east and west.

“To Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan, know that you are an essential part of our great country,” he said. “I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you. Let’s all work hard to bring our country together.”

But if Trudeau is serious about bringing the country together, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said in a letter to Trudeau that he needs to do three things: complete pipelines, scrap the national carbon tax and renegotiate Canada’s equalization formula.

Apart from simply seeing the Trans Mountain pipeline completed, Johnston doesn’t think there is a lot Trudeau can or will do to address western alienation, which he sees more of a rural-urban “representational deficit” than an east-west division.

Like his Saskatchewan counterpart, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also penned a letter to Trudeau, calling on him to complete the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and rewrite some parts of Bill C-69 – Canada’s new environmental act – or risk a constitutional battle over Canada’s equalization formula.

Unlike Moe, however, he did not insist on Trudeau scrapping the carbon tax. While he said Alberta will support Ontario and Saskatchewan in its legal challenged to the federal carbon tax backstop, he did not make it a condition of cooperation between Alberta and Ottawa.

And in a press conference Tuesday, he dismissed the long-simmering western separatist sentiment that came to a full boil on election night, when the hashtag #Wexit was trending on social media.

Kenney has struck a panel that will examine Alberta’s role within confederation and fight for “fairness.” And while he said western alienation is a serious problem, he said adopting a Quebec-style separatist agenda would do nothing for Alberta.

“Landlocking ourselves through separation is not a solution to the problem of a campaign to landlock Alberta,” he said. “The Green-left has been leading the campaign to landlock our energy. Why would we give them what they want by landlocking Alberta within North America?”