It certainly says something about a country when equalization payments are regularly a matter of national obsession. Exactly why the transfer of tax revenue from one part of the country to another, a topic about as sexy as unbuttered toast, is something worthy of excitement and outrage should be subject of another national obsession: the Royal Commission, chaired by “not that” Charles Taylor, perhaps, or maybe the lovely Jian Ghomeshi. (You know, for the kids.) Or maybe a CBC miniseries starring Sonja Smits, Brent Butt and a Québécois actor you’ve never heard of, with a special guest appearance of Bruce Gray as Don Cherry. Think of the ratings!
It usually goes like this: Quebec, home to rude separatists, $7-a-day daycare and millions of upturned noses, gets $8.5 billion (an increase of 2.5 percent from last year and, as this Canadian Press story helpfully points out, enough to fund the province’s daycare system for five years) , thanks in large part to the Alberta’s messy, dirty, filthy rich oil sands. Inevitably, the ensuing outrage was framed in those other uniquely Canadian obsessions: the national unity debate, the environment, and the west versus everyone else. “Frosty Front Splits Canada,” declares the National Post. “Time for Alberta to talk back”, wrote Calgary Sun columnist Dave Breakenridge, deriding what he called the “ridiculousness spewing forth from the leaders of Ontario and Quebec.” Alberta Preem Ed Stelmach even took a question about extracting the Albertan teat from confederation. “Can Alberta separate?” asked one hopeful soul, via Twitter.
“I recognize from the question and other comments that are being made that there is some dissatisfaction in terms of Alberta’s role in the country of Canada,” Ed said. (Not if you keep sending those cheques, Uncle Ed!)
Seriously, though, there are some bizarre parallels between Alberta circa 2010 and Quebec circa the last 40 years: both are perpetually unhappy with everyone else. Both feel their way of life is being compromised by outside forces. And both have a unique (if inflated) sense of their own value to the rest of the country. In Quebec, the reigning belief is that the French fact is the only thing keeping Canada from being America with crappier roads, while Albertans seem to believe that without its oil, the country would, er, freeze in the dark. (Apparently forgetting that most of its oil is sent to the States, and the subsequent tax-revenue-generated increase in the Canadian dollar actually hinders exports in the rest of the country.)
So, here’s to a Free Alberta. By all means. We’ve tried it here in Quebec, so I offer a game plan: make a lot of noise, come up with a convoluted question, put it to a vote, fail miserably, threaten the rest of the country, try again and fail less miserably, then pout, whine but ultimately stick around, all sour and grumpy, for more noise and self-obsession.