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ANALYSIS | Anger, anxiety and the ‘deep story’ behind Wexit

If the Wexit gathering in Calgary this weekend is anything like what happened in Edmonton, hundreds will pack into a room and cheer as the would-be separatist party’s leader talks about excising the “parasite of Eastern Canada.”

He will speak about enemies and he will speak about how Wexit will make everything better for First Nations, for oil and gas workers — for everyone in the province. 

The speech will be a sales pitch, filled with appeals to democracy and the right to choose one’s own path. But the entirety of the message will be based on an election that didn’t produce the results those in the movement wanted. It will carry the subtext that there is only one true path to follow in order to achieve the Alberta dream. 

“Anybody who stands in the way of western self-determination, Alberta self-determination, you’re our enemy and we’re going to run you over,” said Wexit founder Peter Downing during his Edmonton speech. 

He will have to convince a lot of people. There has been limited polling on separatist sentiment in Alberta, but one by ThinkHQ prior to the federal election showed support for secession among 25 per cent of respondents. A post-election poll by Ipsos showed support at 33 per cent. 

There is anecdotal evidence of support through the explosion of followers for the Wexit Facebook page after Justin Trudeau was re-elected in late October, but nothing to indicate the movement has broken through to the mainstream beyond coffee shop conversations and an abundance of media coverage. 

Even Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has attempted to quell separatist sentiment with a panel to examine more independence for the province, calls full separation “irrational.” 

But the rhetoric is not the product of a vacuum. It stems from the belief that wealthy and oil-rich Alberta is being left behind by the rest of the country and the rest of the world. It’s a sense of loss that can produce anger and anxiety far more powerful than a yearning in those who’ve never tasted riches. 

And it stems from a Canadian version of what famed sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the deep story. 

The deep story from the deep south

Hochschild noticed something was wrong in the United States and she wanted to figure out what it was. She noticed that areas of the country that were most dependent on the federal government were hotbeds for right-wing, anti-government sentiment and she wanted to understand what she saw as a great paradox. 

So she went to Louisiana and spent five years listening to those in the Tea Party movement who felt their country had forgotten them and forgotten itself 

She saw embedded in their collective psyche a story that was outside the realm of reason, one based on emotion and perception that formed an almost-unbreakable conviction in their worldview. 

Supporters react to U.S. President Donald Trump during a ‘Keep America Great’ campaign rally. (Brandon Dill/Getty Images)

“I came to speak about a deep story that people felt was true. And the story is you take facts out of it, you take out moral precepts, it’s just what feels true, and for them it’s like you’re standing in line for the American dream and these line cutters keep cutting ahead of you — black women, immigrants who seem to be favoured by then-President Obama,” said Hochschild in an interview with CBC News. 

She says there was a deep feeling that others were being favoured over the “real Americans” and they felt underappreciated or ridiculed as rednecks. 

“What’s on our mind is this deep story and this marginalization of us in the national culture,” her subjects told her. 

That feeling of being left behind is real in Alberta. 

Jared Wesley, a political scientist from the University of Alberta, says he’s starting to see that sense of being passed over in his focus groups.

It’s not that the country is holding the province back so much as it’s just moving on without Alberta. 

You can see it when Wexit’s Peter Downing says people in the East are taking money from Albertans so they can retire in comfort. You can see it in the pro-oil and gas protests. You can see it in the rise of anti-immigrant groups and those labelling Trudeau a traitor. 

That sort of fear and anxiety, when combined with politics, can be powerful. But that power, like the story which feeds it, does not necessarily trade in facts. 

The man behind the movement

Downing, the man who is the face of Wexit in Alberta, has a history of courting controversy, both in his private life and in his more recent public forays. 

An ex-RMCP officer who spent almost two years on leave after serving a probationary period for uttering threats against his now ex-wife, Downing then enlisted in the military reserves in Edmonton before delving into the world of political advocacy. 

He was the man behind the billboards that asked if Trudeau was leading us to civil war. Billboards that also featured background text like “normalizing pedophilia.”

In an interview with CBC News, Downing maintains the judge made a mistake in finding against him for uttering threats. He’s combative about his leave of absence from the RCMP, a job he left voluntarily in 2015. 

As for those billboards, he says the intent was satire, and to calm down the conversation, rather than ratchet up emotions, despite the giant ominous letters asking about civil war. 

And the pedophilia thing? He says the FBI released a memo that showed symbols supposedly used by sex offenders to communicate their preferences to one another. The Trudeau foundation, he says, had a similar triangular logo on one of its annual reports.

“If you want to call me a kook, that’s fine, I don’t care,” he said.

Wexit Alberta leader Peter Downing at the group’s rally in Edmonton earlier this month. (Gabriel Brown/CBC)

When it comes to Wexit’s policies, posted on its website, Downing is heavy on appeals to self-determination, but light on the way that would play out. 

When asked about subjecting all treaties to referenda, he says more democracy is what’s needed and the new state should protect its sovereignty, but he skirted the impact on trade agreements. When asked about landlocking resources, he says Alberta has already been landlocked by its neighbours. When pressed on tying a new currency to the wild price swings of Alberta’s natural resources, he says “having paper that’s backed up by nothing creates uncertainty, too.” 

When pressed about what the group means by removing funding from special interests, he gets combative, and without answering the question directly, says most of what gets called racism in the world isn’t racism and that everyone should just be treated equally as long as they’re an Albertan first. 

He says the only racism that actually exists is against First Nations people. He gets angry when asked if personal motivations were behind Wexit’s proposal to “de-regulate marriage” in order to free up court time and remove “judicial prejudice against men in family court.”

Immigration would be for a “specific purpose” in a new Alberta nation and in “accordance with the values of Western Canadians.”

He did not say what those values are and who determines them. 

It’s the kind of thing that Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman finds troubling. 

The problem with democracy

“So we are talking about a movement that essentially doesn’t like the result of the recent election, and so what they’re saying is we’re going to create our own jurisdiction,” said Holman.  

“We’re going to get the electoral result that we want because we’re going to have an electorate that for the most part will simply support the opinions that we agree with regardless of how the minority may feel. And that’s not democratic.”

Holman thinks the rise of Wexit and the incorporation of a more independent Alberta into the rhetoric of the United Conservative government of Jason Kenney is the result of what’s known as the spiral of silence. 

Essentially, when something is deemed to be taboo, or at least unpopular within a culture, people who harbour those views remain silent. Their silence then further contributes to the spiral until it appears no one thinks a certain way. 

Think climate change in Alberta. 

The inverse is also true. Once someone breaks the silence, and particularly if it’s amplified in the media, those ideas can take hold and spread. 

Think independence and separation in Alberta. 

Sean Holman is a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University. (Laura Balanko-Dickson)

Downing rejects the argument that his movement is somehow anti-democratic, and there’s no doubt the policies lean heavily on direct democracy ideals — referendum and recall legislation among them. 

But in making his argument, Downing highlights the very tension at the core of the movement to remove Alberta from Canada through a referendum.

“All advanced democracies, whether it be Australia, Germany, the United States or even Russia, realize that you have to have regional checks and balances so that there isn’t a tyranny of the masses against the lower-populated, resource-rich areas,” he said. 

“Same kind of concept that you have within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that the tyranny of the majority doesn’t overrule the rights, the individual rights and freedoms.” 

Holman sees the issue as something bigger than a separatist movement within Alberta, considering things like the government’s public inquiry into what Kenney refers to as “foreign-funded environmental radicals.” 

“We’re seeing, I think, a really troubling situation in Alberta, and we’re seeing it with this government, where those on the right in this province are actively creating in and out groups in society — people who are scapegoats, people who are enemies, and people who are part of society,” he said.

“That is dangerous and Wexit is part of that.”

What’s unclear is just what’s coming. 

The path ahead

Since the re-election of the Liberals in October, Alberta has convulsed. That convulsion has been reflected in Kenney. 

Just over six months after taking office, Kenney’s government has founded a public inquiry into environmental groups and started a panel to examine pulling Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan and establishing its own police force, to name just two big moves.

Its recent budget set the stage for a fight with almost all of its public employees, and cabinet ministers have publicly sparred with the mayors of Edmonton and Calgary for suggesting police cuts are, in fact, real. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants a new panel to review suggestions to give Alberta more autonomy. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

It’s not the path Hochschild would suggest for healing wounds. For her, the focus should be on finding common ground, even amongst those on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“We have a whole history of people who were good at that,” she said, referring to the United States, and citing a recent alliance of the left-wing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the right-wing Ted Cruz on a lobbying bill. 

“And I think today those are the people who we really need, their leadership in doing that.” 

She also points to the fact that most Americans are in the middle of the political spectrum but are drowned out by the national conversation. Data suggests the same holds true in Alberta. 

When the CBC commissioned a poll into the political attitudes of Albertans, it found the vast majority clumped into the middle of the spectrum, with low numbers at either extreme. But are their voices heard, or will their views change with the loud calls for separatism and a new deal for a more independent Alberta?

“We have a situation where the oil and gas industry is failing, we have a situation where people in Alberta feel that their voices are not being heard and that change is going to happen regardless of whether they want it or not,” said Holman. 

“And in that kind of environment, people will look for other forms of certainty and control, and creating one’s own country to ensure that everything that goes on in that country is something you would agree with is an example of that.”