WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- They're at it again -- Canada's awkward province, the "distinct society" that thinks and speaks differently from all the rest. Those eternal constitutional troublemakers are once again defying Ottawa, while secessionist sentiments, previously fading, heat up again.
Some may be puzzled by this report. After all, we haven't heard anything much about Quebec separatism since the secession referendum failed seven years ago.
But it's not Quebec we're talking about here. It's four provinces west to Alberta, where the top issue on the agenda is not Francophone nationalism, but Kyoto. Or "Ki-ota," as it's pronounced in Canada's cowboy country. (As I said, they speak differently out that way.)
I have written previously about the curious post-colonial cringe that infects the intellectual and political classes of certain of Britain's former colonies of settlement. This cringe leads to a rejection of the most obvious interpretation of the cultural identity of the nations they inhabit -- that they are, for the most part, distinct nations, but ones that share a great deal in common with the cultures of other English-speaking nations.
The Canadian form of this cringe is particularly colored by their proximity to the United States and the fact that the Canadian confederation also includes a province that is primarily, but not monolithically, a French-speaking society. Previously, Canadians thought about this situation in a perfectly reasonable and commonsensical manner: that Canada included two quite distinct cultural nations sharing a single confederal state.
In the past, English-speaking Canadians didn't worry much about proving they were distinct from Americans, since it seemed obvious that they were. The original settlers came from similar but not identical British Isles source areas, had a political culture and tradition that was somewhere between British and American models, and included a strain of traditional Tory paternalism in their political temperament that was virtually absent in America.
If, by some unlikely political happenstance, the English-speaking provinces of Canada were to become states of America, it is not at all unlikely that a century later, the distinctly Canadian features of that society would still color everyday life and politics, just as the American South still remains palpably Dixie.
However, the demands of the cultural cringe produced a curious dogma: that Canada was "distinct" only because it was more "multicultural" and "compassionate" than America. The former was demonstrated by government policies designed to blunt the innate assimilative characteristics of Anglosphere cultures. It also provided an alternate formula to address Francophone concerns in Canada.
The latter was demonstrated by exaggerated devotion to the emotional successor (for Canada's intellectual-government class) to the British Empire, the United Nations. As in Imperial days, Canada's peacetime military was not sized to the actual demands of defending the nation; it was sized to permit a demonstration of loyalty to the Imperial center. Today, this translates into being able to provide peacekeeping forces for U.N. operations.
One result of this peculiar political culture is a need to endorse the transnational progressive project of global governance through U.N. treaties. This has led Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to sign the Kyoto treaty on limitation of carbon monoxide production. Unlike many transnational progressive treaties, which merely erode the national cultures of signatories, Kyoto carries an immediate and significant price tag for Canadian industries, farms and, ultimately, consumers. Meanwhile, its benefits, if any, are problematic and widely debated.
Furthermore, the pain will be spread unevenly throughout Canada, and energy-producing Alberta with its wide-open Western pattern of population will suffer disproportionately. Normally, such a high-impact treaty would require substantial negotiation in Canada's more consensus-oriented political system. However, Canada has also developed a particularly unchecked executive power in the prime minister's position, a power Chrétien has used to the fullest.
By moving unilaterally to endorse Kyoto, and particularly to do so without disclosing what the all-important implementation plan for the treaty would be, infuriated not only the Albertans, but many other provincial leaders as well. However, Alberta's populace and political establishment buys into the standard intellectual-government consensus less than any other Canadian province. Their customary position as the outermost province in the Canadian political crack-the-whip game has generated growing frustration.
Canada's confederal system contains built-in frustration for the Western provinces. Western Canadians are distinct in outlook and economics from Eastern Canada, permanently outnumbered in representation, and disproportionately taxed by Ottawa to fund lavish social welfare schemes. They (and Albertans in particular, to whom all the previous descriptors apply in spades) have time after time floated political initiatives to redress their concerns, always to end in frustration.
The latest attempt to bridge the gap, the Western-based, but eastward-appealing Canadian Alliance, is foundering for want of a leader who can appeal in the East. Mike Harris, former highly successful premier of Ontario and veteran tax cutter, might fit the bill, but he has declined the job to date.
Secession is a word that overly fascinates outside observers of Canadian politics, probably because it is used so frequently in Canadian political discourse for effect rather than as a real indication of intent. Its return to political discourse in Alberta, still on the fringes, is a measure of frustration with Kyoto at present, rather than an immanent possibility.
However, unlike in the past, court decisions and legislation have established a clear indication of how a secession movement might succeed in practice. Intended for the Quebec issue, it also applies to any other province.
Even if Western separatism were to advance beyond mere political positioning, it would still probably end in compromise rather than complete independence. There is an enormous amount of political inertia that weighs against the division of a civil society as strong as Canada's.
Still, an independent Alberta, or a confederation of some or all Western Canadian provinces, would not be absurd, either economically, politically, or militarily. It would be hard to be less militarily capable, for instance, than under the current Canadian government. (Presumably membership in NORAD, NAFTA and other alliances would anchor Western Canada in the continental defense and trade systems.)
Western secession, unlikely as it is, would be an ironic outcome for Canada's current political class. While preaching diversity and tolerance day and night, they risk sundering their country because of their inability to meaningfully include a genuinely different political outlook within their system.