Western Superprovince is Closer Than You Think
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 31, 2004

By appointing several MPs from British Columbia to cabinet, the Liberals have consolidated their beachhead in that province. In the political game of getting and keeping power, their cabinet lineup is designed to win the next election: since there is little hope in Alberta, the campaign to win the other western provinces is being launched in B.C.

More particularly, by appointing former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh Minister of Health, the Martin strategists subsume the NDP position. Together, the combined Liberal/NDP vote in the recent federal election exceeded that of the Conservatives not only in B.C. but also in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. By co-opting New Democrats Liberals will be closer to the numbers they need to win a majority next time.

Still, there’s much work ahead if they want to exploit the unpopularity of Premier Gordon Campbell’s government, force his hand on healthcare and pre-empt his ‘superprovince’ dealings with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein before next May’s provincial election.

Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail called it ‘Columberta’ but the full take on this latest manifestation of western uppityness belongs to journalist Ric Dolphin. First published in 2002 as an Edmonton Journal April Fool’s Day item, the (only slightly) tongue-in-cheek Albumbia Files (Alberta + British Columbia = Albumbia) now appears in the bi weekly Calgary publication The Western Standard.

Demonstrating how fact can imitate fiction, Dolphin argues that since the election of the B.C. Liberals in 2001 Albumbia has become inevitable. Following the Alberta model, British Columbia has eliminated its deficit, reversed its population decline and improved its revenue position so “have” status appears attainable and imminent.

“The relationship between Alberta and B.C. (i.e. the evolution of Albumbia) has now moved to the next level”, he says. Two joint cabinet meetings, one in Calgary last November and the second in Prince Rupert on May 26, produced ten Memorandums of Understanding on initiatives ranging from child welfare to learning and tourism to public health emergencies.

Premiers Klein and Campbell, however, spoke ‘tantalizingly’ of the substantial joint economic initiatives possible. “Most notably,” writes Dolphin, “these would include the harmonization of Alberta’s mature oil and gas industry and B.C.’s nascent one.”

Standardized regulations and a combined effort on transportation and distributions systems would benefit everyone, they suggested. An oil pipeline from Fort McMurray through the Yellowhead Pass and on to the deep-water port of Prince Rupert gives Alberta a conduit to the Far East and helps Prince Rupert which is depressed by set backs in the fishing and lumber industries. Even more notably, Prince Rupert would also benefit from development of the offshore oil reserves from which the B.C. government stands to make $110 billion in royalties - an initiative blocked by David Anderson, the former Environment Minister and B.C. member of Parliament now conspicuously absent from Cabinet.

“When Alberta and British Columbia speak with one voice, it’s a louder voice, it’s a stronger voice,” Campbell told reporters.

“We are creating here an economic force of something like 7.3 million people. And that economic force can only come through collaboration and cooperation,” Klein added.

An Albumbia economic union?

The West can do a lot better than just wanting “in”, says Dolphin. Never mind their combined clout in Parliament, together Alberta and British Columbia are financially independent. By withholding the $12 billion paid annually to Ottawa for redistribution to have-not provinces, Alberta can pay the $6.2 billion B.C. receives from Ottawa in CHST and equalization payments and still be billions ahead.

However farfetched, the B.C./Alberta superprovince now enjoys de facto existence if thanks only to all those signed memos . And the battle for the hearts and minds of British Columbians has been joined – a battle that’s likely to escalate once Klein has been re-elected this fall. Will Campbell side with Dosanjh or Klein on healthcare reform? Will Ottawa release B.C.’s off shore oil resources for development?

As developments around Albumbia suggest, even a joke can assume a life of its own and in the game of getting and keeping power, strategy without substance can be similarly unpredictable. Paul Martin will need more than a cabinet full of B.C.’s brightest to avoid that.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century