A spectre is haunting Western Canada. The spectre of right-wing populism.
The sudden surge of support for Wexit, an exit of Alberta and Saskatchewan from Canada, after the federal election on Oct. 21 has been notable. Almost immediately after the election results were in, the hashtag #Wexit was trending on Twitter, and Facebook groups in support of Wexit saw impressive growth in membership, with the official Wexit group jumping from 4,000 members to over 113,000 overnight.
Wexit’s rapid climb into the spotlight of national political discourse is part of the emergence of what can be considered right-wing populism. In recent years, it was seen with the election of Premier Doug Ford in Ontario, the Yellow Vest movement and most recently with the emergence of the People’s Party of Canada. It is now reappearing in the emergence of Wexit.
Though the idea of separation from Canada is nothing new in Alberta, — a surge of support came in the early 1970s — these new lamentations come on the brink of a new right-wing populist movement.
Right-wing populism is a style of politics often defined by the channeling of people’s frustrations towards an identifiable group of elites by placing blame for society’s problems on them. Populists aim to mobilize “the people” against “elites” who work directly against the interests of the people. Its right-wing variants usually target groups that can be identified as those under the influence of elites — in the case of Wexit, it is the Ottawa government, though traditionally these types of movements also tend to target minority groups and immigrants.
What this can look like in practice is the blaming of poor economic performance on anti-oil, environmentalist Liberals in Ottawa who are hell-bent on destroying the way of life of Albertans for their own gain rather than questioning the underlying dependency on oil.
Right-wing populism typically leaves current political and economic systems unquestioned and largely intact, instead focusing on some bad apples that are ruining an otherwise fine system that only needs to be tweaked from time to time.
On the other hand, left-wing populism features the similar pitting of “the people” versus an “elite,” but along the lines of class.
In the past week, the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan have publicly spoken out against the idea of Wexit. Though at present this movement is being viewed as fringe and extreme, it is important not to write it off on that basis.
Fueling the frustrations that are a driving force behind Wexit are two main problems. First, the relatively poor economic performance of the Wexit provinces in recent years — Alberta, mainly — and second are growing concerns about the unfairness of equalization payments.
Between 2014 and 2016, commodity prices collapsed, which put Alberta’s oil-dependent economy into a crisis it still has yet to fully recover from. Even this year, the Albertan economy has been in a recession. Blame for the slow recovery is being placed on the anti-pipeline attitudes of other provinces and the stalled construction of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline.
Further compounding frustrations with the recession is the fact that Alberta has not received any equalization payments to ease the crisis.
Equalization payments are payments made by the federal government directly to provincial governments to maintain a comparable level of provincial government revenues across the country. Even during the economic downturn of the last few years in Alberta, the province maintained comparably high revenues which means they did not qualify for the payments.
Much of the frustration with equalization comes from a lack of understanding of how these payments work. It seems many people believe these payments are made directly by provincial governments to other governments.
In reality, these payments are funded through collecting income taxes from individuals and corporations. These payments do not represent any additional tax burden on Albertans, who already enjoy some of the lowest personal tax burdens in the country. Because Albertans generally make more money than those in other provinces, they tend to pay more in income taxes and therefore pay more into equalization.
If Canadians want to contend with a rising right-wing populism in coming years, they will need to acknowledge the underlying factors that created it in the first place. This means grassroots movements — like those of Occupy Wall Street or the campaign of U.S. senator Bernie Sanders — organizing for a better life, seeking legitimacy through the parliamentary system.
Around the world we are in the midst of a populist moment. Continuing with business as usual in politics is simply a recipe for disaster.