Ignore the Buffalo Declaration if you wish, but don’t ignore what’s happening in Alberta

Click to play video: 'Alberta MPs issue Buffalo Declaration to call on Ottawa to address western alienation'
Alberta MPs issue Buffalo Declaration to call on Ottawa to address western alienation
WATCH ABOVE: A document signed by four Alberta MPs is calling for action from Ottawa and changes within Confederation – Feb 21, 2020

The so-called “Buffalo Declaration” may or may not have any or all of the answers as to what’s ailing Confederation or how best to address it, but it would be dangerous to the cause of national unity to pretend as though it exists in a vacuum.

Whatever one thinks of the Buffalo Declaration, it is indeed a byproduct of genuine and growing angst and frustration in Alberta and a very palpable sense that Confederation is either broken or close to it.

The situation with the ongoing protests and blockades is only serving to reinforce that perspective.

The rest of the country is certainly free to disagree with the diagnosis or the prescriptions contained within the declaration itself, but we ignore these underlying issues at our peril.

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The declaration is the work of four Alberta Conservative MPs, and the name “Buffalo” is a reference to the proposed name of a combined Alberta-Saskatchewan province (an idea considered pre-1905 but reportedly rejected because Eastern Canada feared the clout such a province might have).

“Alberta is not, and never has been, an equal partner in Confederation,” is how they frame the problem.

Certainly, recent opinion polls reflect much of this sentiment. In that sense, the authors of this declaration are merely messengers, reflecting to the country at large what they’re hearing from their own constituents.

Reasonable people can disagree on the feasibility and wisdom of the declaration’s proposed solutions. My own opinion is that much of this is probably less workable and less impactful than its authors would have us believe.

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Recognizing Alberta (or “Buffalo”) as a “culturally distinct region within Confederation” might have some symbolic significance, but is unlikely to have any measurable impact on the lives of Albertans.

Much the same can be said of the idea of an official acknowledgement in the House of Commons of “the devastation the National Energy Program caused to the people of Alberta.”

Equalization has certainly become a dirty word in Alberta, but it’s not clear that any sort of reform to the program would positively impact Alberta’s bottom line.

The equalization program is funded through the federal budget, as is every other federal program. There are probably more effective ways of highlighting Alberta’s disproportionate contribution to federal coffers that don’t involve a constitutionally messy fight to tear down equalization.

On the other hand, there are some sensible proposals in this declaration.

Alberta certainly has a strong argument to make that it is underrepresented in the House of Commons. The average population per federal riding is much higher in Alberta than any other province. The numbers alone speak to a need to add more seats in Alberta, to say nothing of the national unity upside.

The declaration also offers a much-needed emphasis on improving free trade within Canada. If one is trying to argue that Confederation is broken, the mess that is interprovincial trade is a powerful piece of evidence. There is a staggering cost that comes with our existing internal trade barriers.

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Fixing this isn’t an Alberta-specific issue, either. All of Canada has a vested interest in getting this right.

The declaration also proposes strengthening Alberta’s economy — or keeping the rest of the country from being a barrier. Given Alberta’s disproportionate contribution to Confederation, there should be a national interest in seeing Alberta prosper.

There’s no magic solution to what’s ailing Alberta’s economy, and in fairness, Ottawa has approved both the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the LNG Canada project and its associated Coastal GasLink pipeline — not to mention continued support for the Keystone XL and Line 3 pipeline projects.

However, there are legitimate concerns around certain pieces of federal legislation and the looming decision on the Teck Frontier oilsands mine.

The Buffalo Declaration might give short shrift to some of the other concerns the federal government is trying to balance in making those decisions, but it’s an understandable perception that the concerns of Alberta are rather low on the priority list.

With the Alberta government poised to introduce voter recall and citizens’ initiative, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that an independence referendum could be triggered. As we saw with Brexit, such things can take on a life of their own.

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None of this should be framed as or taken as a threat, but certainly it’s fair to warn the rest of the country about the concerns and frustrations that exist in the west. If left unchecked, it could have broad national implications.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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