Day 688: The True North Strong And Split

originally published November 18, 2013

Every so often in Canadian history, a certain chunk of land decides they might want to pull a Peter Gabriel and leave the progressive Genesis of our nation, possibly to collaborate with Robert Fripp. Of course I’m talking about Quebec, the province that has twice sent its people to the polls to vote on whether or not they’d slap a national border around their perimeter. I’ve often wondered how they’d fare without the relatively battleship-steady Canadian economy and the geyser of cash-flow from Alberta’s oil production. But I assumed somebody somewhere had a plan.

Actually there have been a lot of plans out there for provinces who have wanted to bank a hard turn out of this friendly little country. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Are they too polite to ask for permission to be excused? Has NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stepped in and nixed it? Why hasn’t this country fallen to pieces like a cheap set of wood beaded curtains?

Well, I’m glad I asked. Here’s how it could have all gone down.

There is no great movement afoot in Newfoundland to kick their island free from the mainland, politically-speaking. They’re the newest guests at our little national fiesta, province-wise, having flown the maple leaf since 1949. There was a skirmish in 2004 when the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador yanked all the Canadian flags from provincial buildings, but as far as gasp-inducing scandals go, it wasn’t much.

Nova Scotia is the only other maritime province that tried to make a leap from Canada’s clutches, and it all went down right around the time the once-independent colony signed on to make our nation a thing. The year was 1867 and the ink wasn’t yet dry on Canada’s new-nation nametags. The province’s Anti-Confederation Party won 36 out of 38 seats in the Nova Scotian legislature, which should have been a guaranteed ticket stamp back to dominionhood. But it didn’t happen.

How did secession not go down? With their political boot-heels deeply entrenched in the desire to leap over the proverbial Canadian wall (actually to hook up with the US, or at least that was the plan), why didn’t they? It might have had something to do with the movement’s leader, Joseph Howe, ditching the fight to join the national Cabinet and become one of the new nation’s biggest cheerleaders as it expanded westward. Way to stick to the cause, Joe.

It would come as a surprise to no one who lives out here in the western provinces to learn that there has been a perpetual undertone of non-separation anxiety for the past century or so. In 1980 a political party known as the Western Canada Concept was formed with the intent of running a clean line along the Manitoba-Ontario border like a frustrated roommate in a wacky sitcom. Also, they wanted the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. You know, for seal blubber and stuff.

This was not some understated fringe group living in a prairie compound and stockpiling weaponry. These people were organized, they were financed and they were pissed off. Pierre Trudeau’s October 1980 announcement of the National Energy Program cranked up the fire of separatism here in Alberta; we have the oil, and we didn’t want all those profits getting passed around like cooties on a hotel bedspread. It was time to take action.

Or so claimed Gordon Kesler. Gordon was a dues-paying member of the Western Canada Concept when he was elected to the provincial legislature in a 1982 by-election, the first non-Quebec separatist to score such a win. This was over a decade into Alberta’s on-going Progressive Conservative reign, so the win was national news.

Unfortunately for Gordon, he also gained notoriety for the shortest ever window between election and defeat in the province’s history, as nine months later he was blasted in the general election.

A piece of Manitoba actually produced its own short-lived secessionist gang right around the time of impending confederacy. At this time the land was known as Rupert’s Land and it was owned by the Hudson Bay Company. I’m not sure if my American readers know this (or if you’ve even read this far into today’s article), but an unfathomably massive piece of Canadian soil – the equivalent of about four and a half Australias – was once owned by a department store chain. A guy named Thomas Spence, based out of the town of Portage la Prairie, was not a fan of joining the nation.

The town had no organized government at the time, so Spence wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking to be recognized as the Republic of Caledonia. The Queen’s letter-handling people probably passed Spence’s plea around for a good office laugh, then tossed it out with the old crumpets. Spence wasn’t deterred. He and his supporters maintained their assertion of statehood and tried to figure out how to govern with no real established borders and absolutely no one else acknowledging that they exist. They renamed themselves the Republic of Manitobah, after a local lake.

The residents may have been on board, but none of the traders passing through were willing to pay taxes to the Republic. The Colonial Office back in London wrote to Spence, advising him that he had no power and he’d best quit being a pain in their royal asses. Tack on some internal tax-fund misappropriation and a very public botched treason trial, and the Republic was toast.

Thomas Spence stuck around in politics, serving in the provisional government that would lead to the establishment of the province, so it was a bit of a win.

I suppose I’m most intrigued by separatism movements at home, if only out of raw curiosity. A Conservative named Mark Norris, in whose riding I once lived, said in 2006 while he was seeking the leadership of the province’s Progressive Conservative party (and by default the premier’s job) that he wouldn’t rule out secession. This was 2006, and this guy was legitimately considered for our province’s throne.

Then 2008 came along and the Conservatives took over the driver’s seat on a national level. Just like that, the separatist movement in Alberta seemed to dwindle to a speck.

“We could do it,” I’ve heard people say. “We’ve got the oil, and if we hook up with B.C. we’ll all just legalize weed, tax it, and we’ll be self-sufficient,” I’ve heard argued by grubby strangers in the mall food court. So when will it happen?

Easy. It won’t. Deep down there is a monstrous majority who actually dig Canada and you’ll find them all over the country. It’s a quiet pride, but it’s there. Maybe it’s our collective identity, forged subconsciously by our shared spirit and approach to the world. Or maybe it’s Tim Hortons. I’m blaming Tim Hortons.

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