Alberta is Aching to Share the Secrets of its Success
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 28, 2004

Calgary’s Kyle Shewfelt and Edmonton’s Lori-Ann Muenzer won gold medals at this year’s Olympic Games. Not that Alberta is bragging, the medals are for Canada, after all. Still, they are the latest in a winning streak for the oil-rich can-do province that’s seen high OECD scores in education and the economic power of the Edmonton-Calgary corridor grow to match Ontario’s Golden Triangle. With debt free status and a budgetary surplus in the billions, the province is also working to remove interprovincial trade barriers, to find new tax tools for its cities and has doctors migrating to the province for its superior pay and facilities.

Little wonder then Albertans are enjoying a sense of accomplishment, a feeling unabashedly reflected in its government Committee report on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation. “Alberta is in a unique leadership position because we have the fiscal capacity and social cohesion to bring positive ideas to the national table …” said chair Ian McClelland.

Assembled in November last year, the McClelland Committee was Ralph Klein’s response to the Alberta Agenda or, the firewall proposals. Published in an open letter in January of 2001, these called for Alberta’s withdrawal from the Canada pension plan, collection of its own income taxes and creation of its own police force. Other proposals included replacing federal transfer payments with tax points and reducing the financial drain caused by Canada’s tax-and-transfer system. “The same federal politicians who accuse us of not sharing their ‘Canadian values’ have no compunction about appropriating our ($9 billion) to buy votes elsewhere in the country,” the Alberta Agenda letter accused in return.

How did Albertans respond? After 13 public forums and over 700 submissions on a variety of federal-provincial issues from the firewall proposals to Employment Insurance and the Gun Registry, the Committee highlighted its recommendations: Alberta, it said, should establish an office in Ottawa and a legal action fund to safeguard its constitutional jurisdiction, undertake a comprehensive review of policing alternatives and negotiate a more flexible tax collection agreement with Ottawa. Tax points and Senate reform were punted to the Council of the Federation where strength is available in numbers and where, next year, Ralph Klein will be chair.

Of all the firewall proposals, only the pension plan withdrawal was rejected as being too expensive and an intergenerational, not intergovernmental problem, while other proposals were incorporated in one form or another. Even so, Alberta political hawks pounced. “Neither Ralph Klein or his committee has the stomach for a serious dust up,” Calgary professor Barry Cooper huffed.

Reaching beyond confederation’s usual housekeeping issues, McClelland counters by saying we need to address the challenges created since Canada moved from being a collection of co-equal interdependent provinces contributing to the whole and became a unitary state with a federal government providing for individual Canadians often through arbitrary use of the spending power. “Albertans must act in the common interest and convince partners in Confederation of needed changes”, he says, “not threaten or attack.”

Ever wary, though, commentators like Calgary’s Paul Jackson are reminding readers of a federal government that pulled $100 billion from Alberta’s economy through its National Energy Policy. With today’s soaring oil revenues, it is only a matter of time before Ottawa makes another grab, they say. Then there are the farmers, devastated by drought, grasshoppers and BSE who watch as Ottawa squanders their tax dollars on scandals and boondoggles. Like crops, goodwill can also wither and become dust in the wind.

For the most part, McClelland heard from Albertans who see a federal government as distant and out of touch with the process surrounding Canada’s agreement to the Kyoto Protocol a perfect example. “It’s not because we didn’t get our way;” said one participant, “it’s because we never had our say.”

It is all in keeping with the dawning renaissance that defines a part of Canada aching to bring the good news, in whatever manner, to the rest of the country. “Alberta gets it – good sense, discipline have made province debt free and vital,” Diane Francis beamed in the National Post. And for now, nothing deters the gold medalist of Canadian provinces from chomping at the bit. “The winner (at Olympia) was the example by whom society set its standards,” writes Peter Stothard of The Times Literary Supplement. The Edmontonian who told the McClelland Committee that Alberta has the power to change this country would certainly agree.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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