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The West Wants Out: Alberta separatist group Wexit Canada seeking federal political party status

WATCH ABOVE: The group behind the political movement "Wexit" applied to become a registered party, but as Jill Croteau reports, the reality of Alberta breaking away from Canada may be nothing more than a pipe dream.

“The West Wants In” was the founding slogan of the Reform Party — a political movement in Western Canada that grew out of voter dissatisfaction with Ottawa and the perceived lack of attention that was being paid to the west in the late 1980s.

But in 2019, “The West Wants Out” — so much so, a group that wants to separate from Canada is working to become a federal political party.

Can Wexit actually happen?
Can Wexit actually happen?

Wexit Canada, which has adopted the reversed slogan, has applied with Elections Canada to becoming a federal political party, according to the government agency, which said it received the application on Monday.

“We have started the first part of the verification process, which is to check to make sure the application is complete and contains all the mandatory information,” Elections Canada spokesperson Ghislain Desjardins said.

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Albertan Peter Downing is the founder of the western separatist movement that wants a referendum on separation, and Elections Canada said he is listed on the application as the Wexit Canada’s leader.

“If anything is missing, parties are given the opportunity to supply it. Once this initial phase is complete, we would move on to verifying the 250 signatures required by the Canada Elections Act,” Desjardins said.

Idea of separating from Canada growing in Alberta
Idea of separating from Canada growing in Alberta

Elections Canada said Wexit Canada’s membership list would be released once validation is over and the party is deemed eligible, adding a party only becomes registered once it runs a candidate in a by-election or at the general election.

The move for federal party status comes as a new Ipsos poll shows separatist sentiment in Alberta and Saskatchewan is at “historic highs.”

READ MORE: Separatist sentiment in Alberta, Saskatchewan at ‘historic’ highs: Ipsos poll

“This is really a story of two oil provinces that feel that they made a substantial contribution to the Canadian economy during the boom years and now feel when things are not going as well, they feel isolated, underappreciated, misunderstood by the rest of the country,” Ipsos senior vice-president Kyle Braid said about the results released Tuesday morning.

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Conducted exclusively for Global News, the poll surveyed 1,516 voting-age Canadians online between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, 2019.

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When asked if Canada is “more divided than ever,” 79 per cent of respondents in Alberta agreed. In Saskatchewan, it was 77 per cent.

The poll also found increasing support for separation from Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with 33 per cent of Alberta respondents indicating their province would be better off splitting from the rest of the country. That figure was only slightly lower in Saskatchewan, where 27 per cent of respondents indicated they felt this way.

COMMENTARY: Separation sentiment soars in Alta. and Sask. — but there may be more smoke than fire

The sentiment reflected in the new results echoed that in similar polling released in early 2019 by Vancouver-based Angus Reid Institute, which showed an increasing number of Western Canadians said anger at Ottawa has grown over the past 27 years.

That poll asked respondents: “Based on what you have seen, heard or read, do you feel that the number of western Canadians who are angry about Ottawa’s treatment of the West is increasing, decreasing, or remaining the same?”

Angus Reid Institute asked the same question in 1991 and in 2018.

The feeling increased in every western province save for Manitoba in that time, and was most pronounced in Alberta — in 1991, 63 per cent of respondents there said it was increasing. In 2018, it was 86 per cent.

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READ MORE: A Western Canada party once worked to win a place in Ottawa. Today, voters might back another

Back in September, Reform Party founder Preston Manning issued a warning to politicians about rising western separatist sentiment, saying, “There’s real reasons for why people are angry and disillusioned.”

Manning said problems with the energy sector and the inability to get resources to tidewater and world markets were all fueling the feeling of Western alienation. Manning himself rode a populist wave into power in the 1980s, going on to become leader of the Opposition.

Shutting people up is not the way to deal with populism: Preston Manning
Shutting people up is not the way to deal with populism: Preston Manning

Wexit’s Peter Downing is a former RCMP officer who ran for the Christian Heritage Party in the 2015 Alberta provincial election.

Downing is behind both the Wexit Alberta Facebook page that currently has about 31,000 members, and the VoteWexit.com Facebook page —  which aims to encompass all of the western provinces — and has more than 263,000.

Earlier this month, Downing released a letter directed at Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, calling for a referendum on Alberta’s separation from Canada.

The letter also called for a series of what the group calls requirements, including the end of Alberta’s contract with the RCMP, prohibiting federal payroll deductions, and the withdrawing from the federal Employment Insurance program.

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READ MORE: Hundreds gather for Wexit rally in Edmonton as group’s leader pens letter to Jason Kenney

During last spring’s provincial election, Downing was also the executive director of a third-party group calling on Alberta to separate from confederation, and even put up billboards in Calgary and Edmonton saying, “Should Alberta ditch Canada?”

Downing says Alberta has helped prop up Canada’s economy for years and now when the province needs help, “Canada has turned its back on us.”

READ MORE: Should Alberta ‘ditch’ Canada? Billboard campaign poses bold question

Downing has said an independent country in the middle of the Prairies could leverage the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to gain coastal pipeline access.

But how realistic are the chances of Western Canada seceding from confederation?

International trade experts say it’s a pipe dream to think the landlocked oil-producing western provinces would have an easier time getting their product to international markets if they were to split from Canada.

READ MORE: Landlocked oil problem would not be solved by Wexit, say international experts

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Wexit” is a play on the word “Brexit” used to describe the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union, and was trending on social media after the Liberals secured a minority government in Octobers federal election, but were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Global News reached out to Downing on Tuesday for more information on applying to become a federal party, but as of publishing had not received a reply.

— With files from Allison Bench, Rachel Browne and Silvana Benolich, Global News, Laurel Krugel, The Canadian Press, and Jesse Ferreras