How quickly they forget. Was it only last fall that Western Canadians were turning out to separatist rallies in droves, denouncing “centralist socialist Ottawa”; that the fledgling West-Fed separatist association reported a burgeoning membership of 30,000; that Bruce Roper, founding member and vice-president of WestFed’s Calgary chapter, said: “I can’t see what’s going to stop us now”?
The time seemed ripe for western separatism, and yet the idea went as quickly as it had come. A 24-hour fever of the western psyche, brought on by the National Energy Program, it has subsided into public indifference and organizational chaos. Roper, himself, quit West-Fed in January, to be followed in March by the entire Calgary executive and two members of the Edmonton executive. The Calgary office was closed, and a planned $800,000 advertising campaign cancelled.
The troubles stem from internal dissatisfaction with Edmonton millionaire Elmer Knutson, who helped launch West-Fed. Former members charge that Knutson was leading the movement to right-wing ruin, alienating potential supporters with disparaging public references to “chinks and wops” and “French Jesuits.” Says Roper: “He didn’t have the smarts to do it. It’s really sad because we need that voice.” A similar loss of momentum has affected other separatist groups. A recent meeting of Western Canada Concept, headed by Victoria lawyer Doug Christie, attracted only 18 people. Jim Rayment, a Calgary businessman elected to the new West-Fed executive, summed up the apathy: “I don’t think the West is going to vote for separatism, so why should I put time into it?”
Don Ray, a University of Calgary political scientist, attributes the puncturing of the separatist balloon to the lack of a credible leader. “Knutson was able to tap into a sense of discontent, but he has not shown the ability to build the movement.” In addition, there are what Ray refers to as “the Alberta civil wars”—the jockeying for power between Christie and Knutson and their separate supporters. Ray notes, however, that westerners are still discontented by their place in Confederation. A crisis in the energy or constitutional fields, “fueled by the bitterness of people like Peter Lougheed,” and separatism could flower under the right leadership. “People here are unhappy,” says Ray. “Don’t count the separatists out yet. The grievances that the movement built on are all still there.”
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