Alberta has long been stereotyped as Canada’s most conservative province. But there are now plenty of signs it may be time to retire this cliche. In this year’s federal election, Alberta was one of the few provinces where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party actually gained votes and seats, and in municipal elections last month, Alberta’s two biggest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, elected solidly progressive mayors (again). Alberta’s conservative premier, Jason Kenney — once imagined as the quintessentially successful Alberta Tory — now leads the least popular provincial government in Canada, and polls suggest Albertans can’t wait to return the left-wing New Democratic Party to power, as they first did in 2015.
In fact, across a host of metrics, it’s actually next-door Saskatchewan that seems to be the true base of Canadian conservatism these days, with Premier Scott Moe the leader whose solidly conservative electorate seems most receptive to the sort of right-wing populism and contrarianism an Albertan politician can no longer get away with.
The latest example came this month, when Moe made headlines after musing that if Quebec can use its alienation from the federal government as justification for a nationalist movement, so can his province.
Saskatchewan voted nearly 60 percent Conservative in the most recent federal election, with the party sweeping all 14 of the province’s seats, making it the only province whose parliamentary delegation does not include any Liberals. Moe himself was reelected last year in a 61 percent landslide.
“Rather than provinces within the nation of Canada, we’re really starting to feel that the differences between Saskatchewan and where our federal government is heading, is that we are actually, at this point in time, more like a nation within Canada,” he told “The Roy Green Show” on Nov. 7, following a lengthy denunciation of the Trudeau administration. “Quebec has asked to be recognized like that, and I think you are going to see provinces like Saskatchewan start to ask those questions as well.”
“We’re going to be looking for every opportunity for us to carve out our provincial autonomy,” he added, singling out energy, immigration, policing, and taxes as policy realms he’d rather not be subordinate to the federal government on.
Lest there be any ambiguity, two days later the premier doubled down: “Saskatchewan needs to be a nation within a nation,” he tweeted.
Moe’s words contrast with those of Kenney in Alberta. In May, when Quebec’s nationalist Premier François Legault proposed amending the Canadian constitution to grant Quebec “nation” status as a precursor to gaining more powers within Canada’s federal system, Kenney praised it as an encouraging sign that Quebec separatism was on the wane, while disavowing nationhood for his own province. “I wouldn’t call Alberta a nation,” he said.
In his time as a seven-term member of Parliament, Kenney voted in favor of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2006 resolution declaring “the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” After spending nearly 20 years in the capital, Kenney has presumably internalized the Ottawa consensus that the word “nation” should only be used to describe a purportedly homogenous cultural community, like the French Canadians of Quebec (“les Québécois”).
But Moe — who has spent no time in Ottawa — seems to understand the word in the way most ordinary people do: a synonym for a political entity more independent and powerful than a province. Should Moe continue to press for this sort of nationhood for Saskatchewan, an awkward confrontation seems inevitable.
Quebec’s ambition to be recognized as a “nation,” in some vague ethno-linguistic identitarian sense, has always pressed uncomfortably against Canada’s pretense of being a diverse, multicultural and — as Trudeau once infamously quipped – “postnational” country. The demographic variables that make Quebec a distinct place are obvious, but explicitly constitutionalizing these distinctions requires looking at the world in a way that is not broadly encouraged in Canadian culture — that is, tying people’s political worth, power and importance to their heritage and background. Accordingly, Ottawa’s argument that Saskatchewan is not a nation will presumably entail a distasteful and illiberal rebuttal that whatever Moe’s unique economic and ideological hang-ups might be, his people are either too diverse or too blandly “Anglo American” to deserve as much autonomy from the federal government as Francophone-dominated Quebec.
At one time, Canadian conservatives prided themselves on championing a “10 equal provinces” view of the Canadian federation, in which this principle — found through a clear read of the constitution’s original text and intent — was upheld. Today, conservatives such as Moe have adopted a more mercenary stance in reaction to Ottawa’s newfound, all-party consensus in favor of legally differentiating Quebec: If the provinces are no longer understood as equals, then every province holds an equal right to be distinct from the others. A push for constitutional nationhood status for Saskatchewan — ideally passed unilaterally, as Quebec’s is set to be — could prove a good principled cause for a Canadian right that needs more of them.