Forget Ottawa – Albertans are also moving away from their own leaders

This column is the opinion of Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

There is no shortage of new irritants in relations between Ottawa and the three prairie provincial governments. In recent years, they have clashed over the carbon tax, pipeline construction, energy exports, federal spending and vaccination mandates. Western alienation may have deep historical roots, but current events never fail to rejuvenate the sentiment.

Consider these findings from the Confederation of tomorrow survey 2022 — the country’s largest annual survey of Canadians’ opinions of the federation, with 5,461 respondents, including 564 in Alberta. Residents of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are among the most likely to say they don’t get the respect they deserve, that they have too little influence on important national decisions and that they receive less than their fair share of federal spending.

And across the region, two in five believe westerners derive so little benefit from being part of Canada that they might be better off leaving – a proportion that has remained relatively constant for decades.

A New Type of Western Alienation

Yet this emphasis on grievances with Ottawa is less and less suited to fully capture the political mood of the region. Residents of the Prairies are certainly among the least satisfied with Canadian federalism, although levels of disaffection have declined somewhat since 2019.

But what stands out the most right now is that this is also a region marked by growing discontent with their provincial governments. With Western alienation, the call comes from within the house.

In each of the three Prairie provinces, the proportion saying their provincial government is the one that best represents their interests has dropped significantly over the past two years. In no other province has there been such a consistent decline.

Surprisingly, the proportion who consider their provincial government to be their best representative is only 21% in Alberta and Manitoba, the lowest in the country. (When a similar question was asked in the mid-1980s, the opposite was true: Prairie residents were among the most likely in Canada to see their provincial government as their best representative.)

Part of this change is likely related to perceptions about how governments have handled the pandemic. Yes, residents of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are the least likely to approve of Ottawa’s handling of the pandemic. But they are also the least likely to approve of the performance of their own provincial government.

This year and last year, in each of the three Prairie provinces, residents placed more importance on the federal response to the pandemic than on that of their own province.

A nurse holds up a sign for the next vaccinated client at the Telus Convention Center vaccination site in Calgary on April 20, 2021. (Lea Hennel/AHS)

On this issue, provincial leaders in the Prairies have put themselves between a rock and a hard place. In places like the Maritimes and Quebec, the provincial response to the pandemic frustrated those who felt the restrictions were going on too long, but won support from those who thought it would be a mistake to reopen things too soon. In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the provincial response did not sit well with either group.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute the growing discontent with provincial governments on the Prairies solely to the pandemic. In all three provinces, public approval of how their governments deal with other issues has also declined.

On the climate: more Ottawa, less Alberta

Most notable is climate change – a focal point for Prairie premiers in their disputes with Ottawa. The proportion of Albertans who trust the federal government more to fight climate change rose to 30%, from 19% in 2019. The proportion who trust the province more fell to 10%.

There has been a similar drop in the proportion of Prairie residents who trust their provincial government more to run the health care system – a drop that began before the pandemic hit.

None of this suggests that prairie residents are no longer participating in western alienation. But the recent trend is not an intensification of alienation from Ottawa, but a broadening of alienation to also encompass feelings about provincial governments in the region.

It is an alienation not only from the West, but an alienation within the West. If we stick too close to the traditional framework of politics in Canada, we risk obscuring this other important development.

the Confederation of tomorrow survey was conducted online in each province between January 18 and February 10. Online survey results are weighted based on a number of factors to be representative of the Canadian population (margins of error do not apply to online surveys).

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