It may not seem a scintillating way to spend a springtime Saturday but about three dozen Edmontonians cared enough to turn out for a workshop held by the Canada West Foundation. A grey-bearded man, puffing on a corncob pipe, heard about the event on television; a retired schoolteacher was urged to attend by her son; political science students and professors at the University of Alberta passed the word among themselves. They paid their $10 and spent the day arguing about Canada, its constitution and its political system because, as the schoolteacher said, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. The spilt milk, in this case, will be the new form Confederation will take and Westerners from all walks of life are determined that the West will have a stronger voice from now on. They turned up at Canada West’s workshops for just that reason, in Saskatoon and Regina, in Prince George, Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna and, now, Edmonton.
The western yearning for power is not new. But until Canada West was put together in 1973 by some of the West’s most powerful men, there wasn’t a single coherent body to channel the vague hopes. Now there is and if think-ins about Canada’s future seem interminable and impotent, Canada West’s have an undeniable edge because of the peo-
pie backing it, men who have put their party lines on ice to speak with a single, western voice.
If politics makes strange bedfellows, consider the mating of minds that brings together Ernest Manning, former Social Credit premier of Alberta, Duff Roblin, former Conservative premier of Manitoba, and Ed Schreyer, Manitoba’s former NDP premier, now Governor-General. Add some movers and shakers of industry—Arthur Child, president of Burns Foods Ltd., often called Alberta’s largest private employer, and Calgarian Fred Mannix, founder of one of Canada’s largest resource conglomerates, Loram International Ltd.—and you’ve got clout.
If the power is easily recognized, many are wary about the purposes to which it’s being put. Canada West is always having to deny that it’s either a western separation movement and/or the foundation of a new political party.
The confusion is understandable considering its shrouded origins. Canada West’s founders were people like the publicity-shy Child who refuses to have his picture taken, the late publisher Max Bell and oil tycoon Frank McMahon, who merely announced their intention of establishing a western power base. The precise direction of their initial planning may never be known; a
Canada West insider says the minutes of their meetings were shredded and no one yet, except perhaps the McDonald Commission investigating the RCMP, knows details of a rumored plot to kidnap the people involved in initial discussions on setting up Canada West, at Bell’s ranch near Calgary. “This all took place around the time of the War Measures Act,” says the foundation’s president Stan Roberts. “You must remember that this was a group of very wealthy men and the FLQ would have been interested in getting some of that money, maybe by kidnapping. More than one meeting was cancelled at the request of the RCMP.”
But more lately Canada West has been making a conscious effort to go public. In March it sponsored a Banff conference that drew everyone from Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, preaching the gospel of the third option, to Tory MP Flora McDonald and Dome Petroleum’s Jack Gallagher. Next came the series of workshops, originally scheduled to cover the four western provinces and aimed at finding out what average Western Canadians want. However in its dedication to nonpartisan politics, Canada West postponed the rest of the series after Edmonton as soon as the federal election was called. Enough
meetings had been held, however, to discover some surprising attitudes, among pulp workers in Prince George and businessmen in Victoria.
“The growing up of Westerners in the past year is unbelievable,” says Roberts, comparing these workshops with an earlier set. “It now takes 15 minutes for everyone to agree that French education should be available. And it’s been six months since I heard anyone wail about French being stuffed down their throat.” (Right away, the Edmonton workshop cracked that record with a complaint about French on cornflakes boxes.)
What interests people, says Roberts, is a radically amended political system so the West would be better heard in the seats of power. “They say fiddling with a government-appointed Senate is a waste of time. It’s the House of Commons that needs fiddling with in a major way.” Workshops want fixed election dates, the elimination of confidence
votes in the House of Commons and the weakening of party control over MPs (via public instead of party funding) so western MPs could act for the West without worrying about party lines.
“This is coming from guys who spend their days cleaning out chicken barns,” says Roberts, 50, a former Manitoba farmer whose grain-selling frustrations led him to the Manitoba legislature (as a Liberal), then to a vice-presidency at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He took over the Canada West presidency in Calgary last year at an undisclosed salary.
“Westerners don’t give a tinker’s damn whether the BN A Act is in London or here so long as it succeeds in dealing with the West’s problems,” says Roberts. Neither, he says, do they take seriously the threat of Quebec separation. Canada West and Roberts are alarmed, though, arguing that Canada’s economic problems would be eased if the current political instability were re-
solved because regional economies can’t develop fully amid the instability surrounding the decision-making processes.
Roberts also predicts that Quebec will separate or become such a weak member, so excluded from Confederation, that it might as well be out. Canada West, funded mainly by the four western provincial governments and two territories, seems ready for that while at the same time it is dedicated to strengthening the West within Confederation. It has compiled exhaustive economic studies that could serve as an inventory of western assets within Confederation or on its own. For, despite all the protestations about Canada West not being “separatist,” Roberts admits the foundation does have a blueprint for an independent West. That, presumably, is just in case eastern powerbrokers aren’t listening to what people like Edward Schreyer are telling them. Suzanne Zwarun
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.