When George Monbiot wrote his searing judgment of Canada's recent descent into what he claimed is a "petro-state," he was talking about Canada's global reputation. But what he was actually addressing is a long history of domestic inter-governmental and inter-regional strife, currently embodied by Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister. Monbiot's article left many Canadian heads spinning: how did we get to this point?
Highway 22 in southern Alberta skirts along the barrier between flat prairie to the east and rolling foothills that quickly give way to the towering front range of the Rocky Mountains to the west. And on that highway, somewhere between Longview and Millarville, is a large white sign displaying a message in tall blue letters: "More Alberta, Less Ottawa."
The slogan is that of the Alberta Residents League, a fringe advocacy group devoted to giving the province greater autonomy from Canada's federal government in Ottawa. On its website, the league states its allegiance to the Alberta Agenda, a 2001 "open letter to [then] premier Ralph Klein by six prominent Albertans," urging Klein to, among other things, "take all possible political and legal measures to reduce the financial drain on Alberta caused by Canada's tax-and-transfer system … Albertans transfer $2,600 per capita annually to other Canadians". Among the original six signatories of the Alberta Agenda was Stephen Harper.
Part of that transfer system involves equalisation payments, which "enable less prosperous provincial governments to provide their residents with public services that are reasonably comparable to those in other provinces, at reasonably comparable levels of taxation," and are part of Canada's constitution. In other words, there are "have" and "have-not" provinces – and Alberta is in the first category.
The transfer payments policy is the most tangible piece of federal legislation that highlights the annoyance Albertans have historically held for the rest of the country. Alberta has an energy industry that is actually profitable, and it wants to keep it that way. Early in his political career, Harper adopted the "Alberta first" mentality of pro-Western Reform leader Preston Manning, and his political base comes overwhelmingly from that province. Needless to say, Harper's success depends on Alberta's prosperity. As it stands, even after two federal elections, Harper has only managed to take power in minority governments. Harper can't afford to lose Alberta's votes.
That doesn't mean that a new Liberal government would shut down the oil sands oil extraction on their first day in office – far from it. In her reply to Monbiot earlier this week, Heather Mallick admits that Canada has reached political stasis. That's partly due to a lack of good alternative options, but also because Canadians (like many others) just want our jobs back, and Harper has promised to deliver them. For Ontario's beleaguered manufacturing or British Columbia's forestry or tourism industries, that promise hinges largely on a healthy US economy, which for all the promises of green energy is still a petro-monster fuelled by Alberta.
There is no way to defend the most disgusting practices of the oil sands development in northern Alberta, or Canada's attempts to scuttle international climate change reduction goals. Mallick was quick to acknowledge her shame of being a Canadian in the face of such accusations. And it is shameful. Foreign corporations are exploiting our natural resources, and our landscape is being altered in shocking ways. And because of things like Nafta and Harper's economy-first mantra, and because we all enjoy our lifestyles, it will most likely continue.
Colin Horgan, a Vancouver-based freelance writer.