Rebellion in the West

MARY JANIGAN March 30 1987

Rebellion in the West

MARY JANIGAN March 30 1987

Rebellion in the West

The warning was both blunt and bitter. In an unusually tough statement last week, Alberta Premier Donald Getty predicted that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will pay a steep political price if he does not help his province’s troubled oil industry. The Conservative premier noted that Alberta is a Tory stronghold—and that it faithfully elected a full slate of 21 Tory MPs in the 1984 federal election. But last month’s federal budget contained no help for the province’s energy sector, crippled by low oil prices. “One of the sure things about [Alberta’s recession] is that we

are going to come out of it,” Getty maintained. “But if we come out of it all by ourselves, we will not forget it. We would start to pursue either a western party or a separatist party— or to hell with all of you.”

Getty’s admonition was a signal that alienation and resentment are, once more, on the rise in Western Canada. Populist movements are not new in the four western provinces. There, in the 1930s Social Credit rose to challenge Central Canada’s political and economic establishments. That rebellious cycle began again last October, when Ottawa awarded a $1.4-billion contract to maintain CF18 fighter jets to Canadair Ltd. of Montreal —even though Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace Ltd. had submitted

a lower bid. Across the West, outrage spread swiftly.

In the past six months support in Manitoba for the new Confederation of Regions Western Party (COR) has tripled to 6.5 per cent. Membership has also doubled in the Canadian Committee for a Triple E Senate, an eclectic group of angry Westerners who advocate an elected Senate with equal numbers of senators from each province. Edmonton Chamber of Commerce president Elmer Brooker acknowledged last week, “I verge between being a Triple E Senate supporter and being a separatist.”

That rising discontent has distressed the federal government, especially Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski, Alberta’s key player in cabinet. Maclean's has learned that Mazankowski has overseen development of the 50-page Framework for Western Economic Development and Diversification. That policy paper, prepared after consultation with key western ministers, will be presented to cabinet within the next few weeks. A public announcement will follow before the end of April.

The study outlines plans to buttress the West’s economic base, with its reliance on agriculture and energy resource products, by diversifying into such industries as high technology and aerospace. Federal ministers

are also considering plans to direct more future government contracts to companies that agree to channel subcontract work to the West. As well, Ottawa is considering a $200-million refundable tax credit—available only to small companies—on oil exploration costs. If a company does not pay taxes, and so could not benefit from the credit, it would be eligible for a grant equal to the amount of the credit. Mazankowski’s special assistant, Tom Van Dusen, told Maclean ’s that Ottawa will devote “considerable funds” to implement the paper’s policies. “Western alienation is largely based on the economy,” he said. “We do not want to rob anything from Central Canada—but now is the time to do something for the regions.”

The litany of western woes is long.

Grain prices plummeted 20 per cent last year. Oil prices have dropped more than 40 per cent since November,

1985. Workforce statistics are grim:

132,000 of the country’s 137,000 new jobs were created in Ontario last year compared to a net loss of 29,000 in the West. Informetrica Ltd., an independent Ottawabased forecasting firm, estimated that Ontario’s real economic growth was about five per cent last year—in contrast with 4.5 per cent in Manitoba, three per cent in Saskatchewan, 3.5 to four per cent in British Columbia and a contraction of 2.5 per cent in Alberta.

The CF-18 decision triggered the latest wave of anger. But the bitterness hardened last month when Finance Minister Michael Wilson rejected Mazankowski’s plea for a $100million program of depletion allowances to encourage investment in the beleaguered oil industry. That rejection incensed many westerners.

Getty pointed out that Alberta sac-

rificed $50 billion to $60 billion in lost revenue when it accepted a lower domestic price for oil throughout the boom years of the 1970s and early 1980s. Says Calgary oilman James Gray, a proponent of the Triple E Senate movement: “The country to-

day simply is not working.” Gray related a history of western complaints, including price freezes on grain during both World Wars. Declared Gray: “We have a tyranny of the majority.”

The movement for Senate reform has dramatized western grievances. Under the label of “Triple E”—for elected, effective and equal—the group was founded in November, 1983, by grain farmer Bert Brown of e Kathryn, Alta., and now § has 4,000 members. In I the 282-seat House of ^Commons, Brown pointed out, populous Ontario and Quebec have 170 MPs—while the West has only 77. To compensate, he called for an elected Senate with an equal number of senators from each

province and powers to block programs that hurt western interests.

Brown’s nonpartisan movement is thriving: polished brass “EEE” pins are sprouting on westerners’ lapels. And in Manitoba two months ago former Tory provincial cabinet minister Robert Smellie met for the first time with 15 backers, including former Manitoba premier Douglas Campbell, 91, in a Winnipeg hotel room. As well, Triple E has attracted endorsements from Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs and Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy. Said Smellie: “Frustration is at the point where people want to get the hell out of Confederation.”

Support for western separatism or pro-western parties is small—but growing. Membership in Alberta’s separatist Western Canada Concept has dwindled to 1,000 from a high of 12,000 in 1982. But the 3,000-member COR, which calls for a common western front to oppose Central Canada, is flourishing. Tory insiders said that the expected appointment of former federal cabinet minister Jack Murta to the Canadian Wheat Board last fall never took place —in part because Ottawa wanted to avoid an embarrassingly strong showing by COR in the byelection that would have followed Murta’s resignation as MP for Manitoba’s Lisgar riding.

For the federal Conservatives, charges of bias against the West are disturbing—and often frustrating. Last month B.C. Premier William Vander Zalm denounced Ottawa for cancelling tax provisions used to provide a generous deduction to purchasers of trust units in Vancouver’s Automated Light Rail Transit system. Declared Vander Zalm: “Ottawa is trying to kill us every chance they get.” But Maclean’s has learned that all provinces, including British Columbia, agreed in 1984 to avoid using similar tax provisions. The provinces agreed that no government should provide deductions for investors in Crown corporations—because those corporations do not pay income tax. Last year then-B.C. premier William Bennett abandoned a plan that violated that same agreement—after consultation with Ottawa. A senior Conservative close to the deal dismissed Vander Zalm’s indignant charges as “an unfair rap.” But he added, “When the West perceives some wrongs in Ottawa, everything is suddenly wrong.” Clearly, for an increasing number of westerners, some things seem very wrong indeed.

-MARY JANIGAN with JOHN HOWSE in Calgary, DALE EISLER in Regina and DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg