CALGARY — Mike Heier says he’s been a “soft” separatist for 25 years.
And in his mind, he’s been betrayed by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
“That’s all he did when he took separation off the table,” the 60-year-old business director said Saturday.
“The moral fabric required to keep this country together is gone.”
Heier was one of more than 700 people who gathered at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre this weekend to attend the Value of Alberta event, which was billed by organizers as “the largest ever and most comprehensive conference dealing with issues related to Alberta’s place in Confederation.”
While not explicitly a pro-separation event, the conference was, in many ways, a more sober look at western alienation and discussion of what one speaker called “the unthinkable.”
Last fall, on the heels of the federal election and rising frustration in Alberta with its outcome, hundreds packed into Edmonton’s Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall for a “Wexit” rally.
But on Saturday in Calgary, there were more business suits than “Wexit” ball caps — and the audience included high-profile speakers from Alberta and beyond.
The views were varied. Many said they simply wanted more autonomy for the West within the country. Some said they wanted a slow progression toward independence, and others yet were no-nonsense separatists.
A few elected United Conservative Party MLAs were in attendance, including Tany Yao, who represents Fort McMurray—Wood Buffalo.
He also sits on the Kenney government’s Fair Deal Panel and has been travelling around the province listening to Albertans.
“We’re close, quite honestly,” he said when asked about Alberta separating from Canada.
“When you see a federal government push through bills that specifically target our products from our province and ignore the products that come in from the Middle East, from Venezuela, even from the United States — that’s really discouraging.”
Specific topics at the conference included climate policy enacted by the federal government, the energy industry, Indigenous issues and what the downturn in Alberta’s energy-dependent economy has meant for working people.
Former media mogul Conrad Black was the keynote speaker, and held a book signing afterwards.
While Black didn’t touch directly on Alberta independence, he expressed his support for the province’s energy sector.
“Alberta is not just suffering from bad luck because it happens to produce something that is environmentally unsound,” Black said.
“It is suffering from extreme mis-government because the persecution of the energy industry is unjustified on any grounds.”
Black also questioned how united scientists are on the question of climate change causing catastrophe in the near future,
(Nearly 100 per cent of the climate science community across the world has agreed that action needs to be taken on human accelerated climate change in order to curb extreme weather events in the future and protect biodiversity.)
Ted Morton, a former Alberta cabinet minister and advocate for more provincial autonomy, and Joe Oliver, once a federal minister under Stephen Harper, delivered remarks as well.
Oliver also questioned the scientific consensus, while stressing that he wasn’t a “climate change denier.” He took issue with “alarmist concerns” over climate change.
While Oliver said that Alberta should try and get a fair shake, he said he doesn’t want Alberta to separate.
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“My Canada includes Alberta,” he said.
But the animosity that has underscored talk about western separation — dubbed various things over the years, from Wexit to Albexit and even “Saskalbatoba” — was evident at Saturday’s event.
As speakers took the stage and stood between the Canada and Alberta flags, a slide show appeared in the background showing an “Alberta Transfer Meter” counting upward second by second.
Jack Mintz, an economist with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, said estimates go as high as $611 billion (in 2017 dollars) that Alberta has contributed through taxes into federal coffers over the past 50 years.
A November poll from Ipsos put Alberta’s separatist sentiment at 33 per cent and Saskatchewan’s at 27 per cent.
One question often looms over a potential separation: What about treaty rights?
“Wexit is a non-starter for First Nations people,” said Treaty 6 Grand Chief Billy Morin, who also spoke at the conference. There are significant issues with Ottawa, but leaving the country isn’t the answer, he told the room.
“You would have Alberta with a bunch of holes.”
Wexit gained national notoriety in the wake of last year’s federal election that saw the Liberals returned to power with a minority government despite being shut out of Alberta entirely.
Since then, Wexit has been granted party status in Canada, making it eligible for the next election.
But Wexit was derided by some at the conference. Longtime conservative activist Judy Johnson said the movement is “painting us so badly.”
“Albertans are really not like that,” she said. “I am totally onside with almost everything Jason Kenney is doing.
“We’ll have to see how he does, because if he’s not prepared to do some of these things then, yes, I’m afraid another party is going to rise in Alberta.”
Johnson said she wasn’t fully committed to Alberta independence, but pegged the sentiment in the room and the province’s separatist feelings at “between three and five on a scale of 10, of like, an earthquake.”