Time's running out!
A sinister drumbeat plays in the background as a globe spins across the screen, with Canada in clear focus.
A map of the country then cracks into pieces. “Canada could actually split up after the next election,” a voiceover on the video says. The narrator goes on to suggest that many westerners in particular, “see no other choice” than to separate from Canada.
The video seems to base this idea on a poll released in February by the Angus Reid Institute, which found that 50 per cent of Albertans see separation from Canada as a “real possibility," and 60 per cent would support (either strongly or moderately) the province joining a separatist movement.
However, the claim is misleading — opinion polls are far less serious than a vote and might not represent what Albertans are actually willing to do, said Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
"It's very difficult to read very much into a public opinion survey that has no consequence," she said.
The video was posted to social media on July 14 by Canada Proud, an influential conservative group aimed at defeating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in this year’s federal election. It racked up 400,000 views in five days on Facebook, and more than 32,000 on Twitter. It also urged viewers to take up the hashtag #SaveCanada.
A recent video by Canada Proud claimed Canada could split up after the federal election. That's a "remote possibility," experts say. Fact check by @EmmaMci #cdnpoli #ableg
“It speaks to the fact that in today's social media politics, you don't really need facts as much as you need ominous music... to get some take-up on some pretty illogical, irrational ideas,” said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, adding that there’s no indication Canada is anywhere near the point of splitting up.
“This type of politics plays on fear, anxiety and emotion. It's proven to be very effective in other countries. This fall’s federal election will be the latest test.”
In reality, support in the province for separating from Canada is actually far lower than the video claims, he added. “Our research shows that fewer than one in five Albertans actually want to leave the country.”
Canada Proud founder Jeff Ballingall, who also started Ontario Proud — a similar group that played a significant role in the defeat of the Ontario Liberals in the 2018 provincial election — told National Observer he doesn’t think the video is misleading. Canada Proud is trying to discuss the issue before it becomes a mainstream problem, he added, and anything could happen if frustrated westerners don’t get the outcomes they’re asking for.
“A lot of things can happen in the political discourse that no one thought could ever happen now,” Ballingall said. “I think we’re seeing that across the western world, where people are shocked. So I think you need to make sure that people feel listened to, or else they’re going to start going to extremes.”
According to Facebook’s ad library, Canada Proud has spent between $1,000 and $5,000 to promote the video on that platform, reaching 200,000 to 500,000 viewers. The page has promoted two versions — one targeted only at Alberta and Saskatchewan, and another that targeted all provinces and territories, with a focus on Ontario.
"Separation is a remote possibility"
Though Albertans certainly are frustrated with the province’s lagging economy, it’s in no danger of splitting off from the rest of the country any time soon, Williams said. The legal and logistical complexities of separating would take years, she added — that is, if Albertans voted for it in a referendum, a process that could be equally fraught with challenges.
For one thing, most of Alberta is covered by treaties between First Nations and the federal government. If Alberta were to separate, the First Nations’ legal claims to that land would have to factor into the discussion. Alberta would also have to create its own military, currency, tax system, pension plan and national police.
Negotiations for building a pipeline across a different, sovereign country, rather than a federation of provinces, would also be more complicated.
“There are probably some people in Alberta who, just because they're angry, don't want to be Canada,” Williams said. “But they probably haven't seriously thought through what the consequences would be."
The idea of Alberta separatism has been in the news a lot this year — new Premier Jason Kenney has warned that it’s possible, and as the video cites, six premiers wrote to the prime minister last month to warn that Trudeau’s policies are threatening national unity.
However, these moves are more about bargaining to get a better deal out of Confederation by capitalizing on existing frustrations, Williams said.
“(Separation) is a remote possibility, I suppose,” she said. “It's more an emotional expression of frustration... The imminent need for separation isn't widely felt, even among those who are angry."
Wesley said a lot of these feelings are related to Alberta’s economic conditions. Though joblessness has worsened amid the latest slump in oil prices, and the province’s economy isn’t as healthy as it once was, Albertans still have the highest average incomes in the country, Wesley said.
"It's a perceived loss of status," he said. "There's a sense that Alberta is being left behind by the rest of Canada, when that's not true. They just feel like they're not moving as quickly as they used to be."
Ballingall said although people might want to dismiss the video’s contents because they're inconvenient, he said it’s clear the video is resonating. (It’s also worth noting that social media platforms’ algorithms favour polarizing and extreme content.)
“It is a stark message,” Ballingall said. “It should shock Canadians.”