Western separatism, which advocates for the secession of Western Canadian provinces from the rest of the country, has been a recurring sentiment in certain segments of the population in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Ongoing issues that contribute to the Western separatist movement are economic disparity, centralized decision-making, and political alienation. The historical context of the Western separatist movement is compelling when viewed through the eyes of influential Conservative political figures such as John Diefenbaker, Peter Lougheed, and Preston Manning. Their perspectives shed light on the underlying concerns that continue to drive the Western separatist movement today.
John Diefenbaker: Western Alienation and the Quest for National Unity
John Diefenbaker served as Canada’s 13th Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963. He was a visionary leader who witnessed first-hand the growing sense of Western alienation during his time in office.
Diefenbaker’s efforts to promote national unity and quelle Western separatism are highlighted in his famous speech delivered in Saskatoon, on February 24, 1958, entitled, Our West: An Enduring Partnership. In this speech, Diefenbaker said, “We must have a true partnership with each region feeling that it has an influence in shaping the destiny of the nation”. This speech was a defining moment in Canadian history, as it highlighted Diefenbaker’s commitment to Western Canada and cemented his vision for creating a stronger partnership between the federal government and the western provinces.
Diefenbaker often pointed to the potential dangers of allowing regional divisions to persist at the expense of national unity. When addressing Western alienation within a united Canada, Diefenbaker highlighted the importance of why the federal government must acknowledge regional grievances, particularly those in the West if they don’t want separatist aspirations to take root.
Peter Lougheed: Challenging Centralized Decision-Making
Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta from 1971 to 1985, expressed his concerns about centralized decision-making in Ottawa and its impact on Western Canada. On September 23, 1982, Premier Lougheed delivered a speech that addressed Western Separation. Lougheed’s remarks, now referred to as the Fair Deal, addressed Alberta’s concerns that the federal government’s energy policies infringed upon Alberta’s provincial jurisdiction. Lougheed advocated for a fairer deal for Alberta’s resource economy. His remarks highlighted greater autonomy and better representation in Ottawa that was sought by the Western provinces.
Lougheed’s perspective stemmed from a desire to safeguard provincial interests and ensure a fair share of resource revenues for the Western provinces. Lougheed’s push for the provinces to have a stronger role in resource management and revenues mirrors the grievances driving the Western separatist movement in 2023. Recently, Albertan Premier Danielle Smith, (2022 – present) has been advocating for the same fairness in managing Alberta’s resource economy that her predecessor Peter Lougheed did 41 years earlier.
Preston Manning: Representation and Democratic Reforms
Preston Manning was the founder of the Reform Party of Canada (1987 – 2000). The Reform Party, under Manning’s leadership, saw the Reform Party emerge as a prominent voice during a period of heightened Western alienation.
In Manning’s book, “The New Canada: Proposed Reforms for the House of Commons, the Senate & the Political Parties,” (1988) he wrote, “We need to develop a stronger sense of regional identity and representation within a united Canada”. In this passage, Manning referred to the need that Western Canada had for more recognition and empowerment of distinct regional identities within the Canadian Federation.
Manning’s perspective emphasized the importance of giving regions, particularly Western Canada, a greater voice in the national decision-making process. He argued that by strengthening regional identity and representation, each region’s unique concerns, needs, and values could be better reflected in policy-making. This approach aimed to address concerns about the perceived dominance of central and eastern Canadian interests in shaping federal policies, while also promoting a more equitable and responsive governance culture.
Perspectives from esteemed Conservative leaders including Diefenbaker, Lougheed, and Manning highlight the recurring themes of Western alienation which are rooted in limited autonomy and a demand for a more equitable system of representation for Western Canada.
The recurring themes among these respected conservative leaders revolve around the frustrations of limited regional autonomy and the call for a more equitable system of representation for Western Canadians. They argued that by recognizing the distinct needs and perspectives of the Western provinces and granting them more influence over decision-making processes, the issue of Western alienation could be addressed. This they believed would foster a stronger sense of inclusion and unity for those in the West, within the Canadian federation.
Elaine Allan, BA, MBA
Vancouver, BC, Canada