Alberta’s oil wealth no threat to national unity

Imagine how Canadians would react upon hearing that Arkansas was seceding from the United States because California was just too rich. Ah, those Americans, we’d say. Always coveting. What money-grubbers. Don’t they know a country is about more than who has how much?

Yet, apparently, Alberta’s oil wealth is a threat to national unity. Voices are increasingly being heard denouncing the rising chasm between the western province and the rest of the country. If this is allowed to continue, they claim, Canada will become dysfunctional and will break up.

Currently, Alberta is the only debt-free province in Confederation – the rest of us are not even close. It also boasts the lowest taxes and relatively high per-capita spending, in particular when compared with a province like Quebec, with its significantly greater population.

There is no case for the Canadian posture of moral superiority in this scenario. We are the ones being covetous and petty. And it makes no sense. For the wealth of one province can only benefit the rest of the country. And not simply by following the schoolyard dictum of being “fair” and “sharing,” as in divvying up Alberta’s oil revenues and handing equal portions out to each corner of Canada.

As though Albertans did not share already. The province has sent billions to Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and its Prairie sisters in equalization payments over the past decades.

Think also of job opportunities. In 2005, Alberta literally could not find enough warm bodies to fill all of its employment vacancies. Go west, young Quebecer! Go west, young Newfoundlander! You’ll make a living – you might even prosper – you’ll learn about another part of this country, and you can bring that wealth back to your neck of the woods. Of course, you will have to reach for this yourself; you will not have it handed to you. But as a result, you will gain valuable experience. It is not only about money.

And Albertans themselves are not simply acting in a vacuum. Alberta’s affirming business climate attracts investors from around the world. This will, by extension, put other parts of Canada on the radar of those same investors. We can snipe about Alberta’s windfall, or we can take full advantage of what it offers.

Ultimately, Alberta’s thriving economy will also make its way to the rest of the country, in the form of products, investments, endowments, businesses and overall encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit – something at times lacking in the rest of Canada. Corporations operating in Alberta will (and do) export initiatives elsewhere. It is not as though the province is sealed off. In many ways, it has a more open market than other Canadian provinces.

It is revealing to see where the covetous sentiments in Canada are most concentrated. A December Ipsos Reid/CanWest Global survey, asking Canadian voters whether Alberta should share its oil wealth with the rest of the country, shows, not surprisingly perhaps, an east-west split. A majority in the four western provinces says Alberta should do as it sees fit with its boon. (This includes Saskatchewan, experiencing a drain of talent toward its western neighbour these days.) More than 60% in the eastern provinces, including Ontario, say otherwise.

Regarding national unity, it is Quebecers who, ironically, were most likely to say Alberta’s wealth posed a threat. Happily, though, a majority of Canadians overall (68%) don’t think Alberta’s wealth poses a threat to national unity. In other words, there may be wallet envy going on, but most of us are keeping it in perspective.

Let’s hope that trend continues, for the great stacks of money piled up in Calgary and Edmonton now may one day no longer be there. These things are fluid. Who knows what the world will be paying a pretty penny for in 10 years? Montreal was, until not that long ago, Canada’s industrial and financial capital. Fluctuating fortunes are, to a degree, the natural state of any country as large and diverse as ours. A cursory look at the history of the United States, or Australia, or indeed, our own history, should show us that.

It does not say much for our vision of a free and dynamic country if the wealth of one region can fracture us. Bribing Canadians into loving the flag and wanting to remain together by redistributing wealth will not do. We have to be stronger than that and happier for each other’s successes, if Canadian unity is to have any meaning.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is president of the Montreal Economic Institute.

Back to top