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Western alienation in Canada

Western Canada, defined politically
Political map of Canada

In Canadian politics, Western alienation is the notion that the Western provincesBritish Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – have been alienated, and in extreme cases excluded, from mainstream Canadian political affairs in favour of the central provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Western alienation claims that these latter two are politically represented, and economically favoured, more significantly than the former, which has given rise to the sentiment of alienation among many western Canadians. Dr. Roger Gibbins, author and former CEO of Canada West Foundation defines western alienation as “a political ideology of regional discontent rooted in the dissatisfaction of western Canadians with their relationship to and representation within the federal government.”[1]


  • History of alienation 1
  • Current factors of alienation 2
    • Political factors 2.1
    • Economic factors 2.2
      • Equalization payments 2.2.1
        • 2006–2007
        • 2011–2012
    • Geographic factors 2.3
  • State of affairs since 2005 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5

History of alienation

Following Confederation in 1867, the first Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, announced a "National Policy" to "broaden the base of the Canadian economy and restore the confidence of Canadians in the development of their country".[2] The policy aimed to build a transcontinental railway, to settle the prairies, and to develop a manufacturing base in Eastern Canada.

Following a rapid increase in the price of oil between 1979 and 1980, the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program (NEP), which intended to increase Canadian ownership in the oil industry, increase Canada's oil self-sufficiency and redistribute the wealth generated by oil production towards the federal government.[3] The program was extremely unpopular in the west,[3] where most of Canada's oil is produced.[4] It heightened distrust of the federal government, especially in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan. Many Albertans believed that the NEP was an unjustified intrusion of the federal government into an area of provincial jurisdiction, designed to strip their province of its natural wealth. By keeping the oil prices below world market prices, the eastern provinces were essentially being subsidized at the expense of the Western provinces.

Current factors of alienation

There are a number of factors that have fueled disgruntlement in Western Canada. Political factors include low political representation and the pronounced attention paid to the ongoing issue of Quebec sovereignty by the federal government. A more potent, but ambiguous claim, is that the political agenda is controlled predominantly by politicians from Eastern Canada; who focus more on the vote-rich central regions of Quebec and Ontario at the expense of western interests. Economic factors include a general redistribution of income from western provinces to eastern ones through taxation and equalization payments.

Political factors

One source of western alienation is the distribution of population in Canada. As of 2011, it was estimated that 23.6% and 38.4% of Canadians reside in Quebec and Ontario respectively, for a total of 62 per cent of the national population; on the other hand, 13.1%, 10.9%, 3.6%, 3.1% live in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 30.7 per cent of the overall population – all together less than half that of Ontario and Quebec.[5] Westerners who feel alienated from the rest of Canada believe that politicians favour areas with larger populations, namely Quebec and Ontario where they can win more seats, and therefore formulate policies that favour them. Such policies may not be directly detrimental to the west, or intentionally discriminatory towards the region, but such perceived "favouritism" can have the effect of alienating the Western Canadians.[6]

Because of this uneven population distribution, Western Canadians are less represented in both the House of Commons and the Senate. While Alberta and B.C. have 607,543 and 733,343 citizens per senator respectively, Quebec and Ontario have 329,292 and 535,493. Because the constitution entitles a province to at least the same number of members of the House of Commons as the province had senators in 1982,[7] some provinces, notably the Maritime Provinces, have more members in the House of Commons than their population would otherwise warrant. The average number of citizens per riding in B.C. and Alberta (124,443 and 132,285 respectively) is somewhat higher than the national average of 109,167. Nonetheless, Ontario also has disproportionately few seats (at 123,767 per riding) while Manitoba and Saskatchewan have similar levels to the Maritimes.

Another source of Western irritation can be traced to the Quebec sovereignty movement. Many Western Canadians argue that Quebec receives undue attention from the rest of the country due to concerns about its desire to separate from the rest of Canada or obtain sovereignty-association.[8] This has been the case at both domestic and international levels – as evinced by Jean Chrétien's plea to Quebec to vote no in the 1995 Quebec referendum[9] – and at the grassroots level with a pro-Canada demonstration in Montreal attended by thousands of Canadians from across the country.[10] Following the referendum the now infamous sponsorship scandal saw millions of federal dollars being funneled into Quebec in an attempt to bolster Canadian nationalism.

Bloc Québécois (BQ) have nationalist policies and their entry into federal politics in 1991 has further irritated the west, as the party strongly supports policies seen as detrimental to the west including: carbon taxes and other measures specifically aimed at the oil industry; same sex marriage; and the gun registry. During the same sex marriage debate, some Albertan Conservatives suggested that the federal law be amended to make the definition of marriage strictly a provincial issue, believing the Bloc reasonably ought be swayed to support that as opposed to a law compelling the Albertan government to recognize the change.

Economic factors

Economic factors, including equalization payments and other transfer payments, have caused great discontent, especially in Alberta. In 2005, Alberta's share of equalization payments was calculated to be approximately $1.1 billion,[11] less than that provided by, but significantly higher on a per capita basis than, Ontario. Equalization payments are made by the federal government to the six current "have-not" provinces. Unlike social and health transfers, there are no restrictions over how this money is spent at the provincial level. In 2009–2010, Quebec received $8.552 billion,[12] making it the single largest beneficiary, as it has been throughout the program's history. In the 2009–2010 fiscal year, Ontario received an equalization payment of $347 million,[12] the first time in the 51-year history of the program.

British Columbia was a "have-not" province for just over five years, ending in 2006–2007, when it received $459 million.[12]

Equalization payments

Note: Amounts are in $ millions Newfoundland Prince Edward Island Nova Scotia New Brunswick Quebec Manitoba Saskatchewan British Columbia Total
Regular 632 291 1,386 1,451 5,539 1,709 13 260 11,282
Adjustment* 54 - - - - - - 199 254
Total 687 291 1,386 1,451 5,539 1,709 13 459 11,535
Per capita (Not in millions) $1,334 $2,102 $1,475 $1,927 $725 $1,445 $13 $107 -

Notes: Totals may not add up due to rounding.

* For those provinces where there is a decline from the amount they had been advised of in November 2005, a one-time adjustment will be made to offset this decline.[13]

The Canadian Government states that payments for the 2011–2012 period will total $14.7 billion:[14]
Note: Amounts are in $ millions Prince Edward Island Nova Scotia New Brunswick Quebec Ontario Manitoba
Total 329 1,167 1,483 7,815 2,200 1,666

Geographic factors

Geographically, the densely populated areas of the four western provinces are separated from Southern Ontario by Northern Ontario, a very sparsely populated region. In particular, Northwestern Ontario borders Manitoba and is almost equal in size to Manitoba, but contains less than one fifth of Manitoba's population.

The implications of these facts were recognized as early as the 1880s, when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald attempted to make much of what is now Northwestern Ontario part of Manitoba. Although Macdonald justified this transfer on the basis that it would be easier to administer the region from Winnipeg as opposed to Toronto, Ontario fiercely protested and Macdonald was compelled to back down.

Other than by air, the "all-Canadian" travel links between Eastern and Western Canada are considered poor by modern North American standards. One option is to take The Canadian, a passenger train now operated by Via Rail two or three times weekly depending on the season. By train, it takes roughly 36 hours on average to travel from Winnipeg to Toronto. The only other options by land is to travel on Ontario Highway 17 or Ontario Highway 11, which are both two lane highway for most of their length. Most Canadians who wish to travel from East to West and/or vice versa (and for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to fly) reject the all-Canadian routes in favour of travelling through the United States, which is both shorter and less expensive. This preference has persisted even in the face of stricter border controls instituted since the September 11 attacks.

Therefore, some commentators have compared the Canadian Shield to an ocean in the way that it physically separates the peoples of Western and Eastern Canada. For the people of Western Canada, this has the potential to create the perception that the West is little more than a colony, ruled from distant Ottawa in much the same way that the British North American colonies were once ruled from distant London.

State of affairs since 2005

As of 2006, Western alienation does not appear to be a significant force in Canadian politics. Protests over equalization payments from former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and others objected to the formula the federal government used to determine the distribution of the payments. Klein had been quoted as threatening to drop out of the program, although this would have been a symbolic act with no legal weight since the program is funded from the federal government's general revenues.

There were also calls for the separation of at least Alberta from Canada, most notably from University of Alberta professor emeritus Leon Craig; however, such arguments were rare, while not necessarily new, and were not expected to materialize into a significant political movement in the near future.

Later decisions of the minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper – on issues such as income trusts and the recognition of the Québécois as a "nation within a united Canada" – caused some dissent amongst a segment of Western Canadians who traditionally supported the Tories. These feelings fostered only a small ripple in the Tories' popularity in Alberta.

See also


  1. ^ Gibbins, Roger. 1980. Prairie Politics & Society: Regionalism in Decline. Toronto: Butterworths
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^
  5. ^ Statistics Canada
  6. ^ The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. (March 26, 2012).
  7. ^ Constitutional Act, 1982
  8. ^ The Economist – Alienating the West
  9. ^ CBC Digital Archives.
  10. ^ CNN – The Unity Rally. (October 28, 1995).
  11. ^ Bouquets of Gray: Equalization math. (July 18, 2005).
  12. ^ a b c
  13. ^ Canadian Department of Finance, accessed 11 August 2006
  14. ^
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