Ottawa and the West — it’s déjà vu all over again

All the warning signs were apparent after the 2000 election. So were at least some of the solutions.

Just months after a closely fought federal election, the threat of western alienation was again on the minds of Canadians. The Liberals had managed to hold on to power while being reduced to just a handful of seats in the West.

In the media, pundits were talking about an entire region’s deep feelings of frustration, futility and anger.

To be clear, we’re talking about the election in 2000 now, not the one last month — but the parallels are still remarkable. Back then, Jean Chrétien had won a third majority by calling an early election and soundly crushing the Canadian Alliance. But his Liberals ended up with just nine seats west of Manitoba. The Canadian Alliance won only two seats in Ontario, nothing east of there.

It was Canada’s last election without a successfully united right-of-centre party, and the last big majority for the federal Liberals until Justin Trudeau’s sweep in 2015.

It also happens to be when CBC’s The National debuted its popular At Issue panel. For that first panel discussion on Feb. 8, 2001, one of the topics up for debate was western alienation.

Peter Mansbridge was moderator. His guests were Calgary Sun editor Licia Corbella, Calgary political scientist Lisa Young and Western Canadian-born pollster Allan Gregg.

A breaking point

That panel discussion — both the questions asked and the answers offered — matters now less because it tells us how things have changed, and more because it tells us how many things have not changed.

The results of the November 2000 election, the panel suggested, were being viewed by the West as a rejection by Eastern Canada of new ideas for governing the country. Corbella said that, for Alberta — a province that had been pushing for an elected Senate since 1978, a province desperate to see a minority government in Ottawa and to finally wield some real clout in the nation’s capital — the election looked like a breaking point.

Gregg weighed in with his assessment of Western Canadians’ political self-image: they don’t see themselves as trouble-makers but they believe they work harder than anyone else and never get their fair share of federal power.

The point is this: nothing in the current debate about western alienation is particularly novel or surprising. We’ve been here before. Only the players have changed.

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