Recent grumblings in Alberta about breaking free of Ottawa’s shackles – which are, less face it, profoundly annoying and bad for business in their own way – brought back memories of that other separatist province to the east. And more importantly, the economic toll Quebec has paid for fostering enduring doubts about staying in Canada.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe the degree of national anxiety that surrounded the first sovereignty referendum in Quebec in May 1980. Our country held its collective breath, waiting to learn the direction citizens there would choose.
Some of us wanted Quebec to stay in; others said good riddance. But all of us knew that Canada without that province would be a very different country.
Really, the answer many of us wanted wasn’t on the ballot: that Quebecers believed in the whole country and were ready to pull together with the rest of Canada in the interests of all.
Instead, they gave us the answer you might hear from a spouse reluctant to stay in a marriage: Okay, we’ll stay for now, but only if you shower us with nice things.
Ironically, Quebecers did a lot of harm to themselves economically by playing separation brinksmanship. It’s calculated that 99,000 people left the province during the first sovereignty campaign, gutting entire regions of western Montreal.
Corporations headed en masse for the exits. Where Montreal was historically Canada’s centre of banking, insurance and finance, the balance of economic power shifted rapidly to Toronto. In the ensuing decade, head offices settled into Toronto and even to Calgary, making our city the head office capital of the West.
Albertans need to keep this in mind as we ponder the new five-letter word: Wexit. Belligerent threats to break away from Canada turn off investors faster than a day-old burger from McDonald’s.
Such chatter is reportedly already having an impact on our economy. Mary Moran, CEO of Calgary Economic Development, told a business forum at Lake Louise last week that Wexit talk was one of the key factors that cost Calgary an opportunity to attract a major technology head office and its 1,000 jobs.
“We, as an organization, just lost a 1,000-person company that didn’t come to Calgary, selected another city, because they’re concerned about Wexit,” she said.
Moran declined to name the company, and also conceded other factors came into play – including the removal of some tech-friendly tax incentives in the provincial budget of the self-proclaimed “business friendly” United Conservative Party government. (The wisdom of no-subsidy ideology is a topic for another time.)
Yet the message is clear: It’s axiomatic that businesses hate uncertainty. The more doubt we introduce into the environment in which business is asked to operate, the more likely that business is to say, “No thank you.”
When I raise the topic of separation with Calgary business people, I typically hear two responses:
- It would feel good to be maitres chez nous – making our own decisions without Ottawa’s interference.
- I would probably move my business out of the province.
Those two answers express the duality of the debate: emotional versus pragmatic. The first because we’re frustrated and angry; the second because we sense that Alberta on its own may not fare nearly as well as some Wexit advocates would like us to believe.
A landlocked nation with a hostile province to the west that doesn’t want our pipelines. How, you might ask, could that make things better for us?
I’ve heard the arguments that we would be better off by keeping all the money we send to Ottawa. I haven’t crunched the numbers but it all sounds like a bit of a fantasy.
The worst thing Alberta can do, however, is let the Wexit debate linger. It would actually be better to take the economic hit and leave the country than to engage in a never-ending debate over separatism the way Quebec has. Such a debate will only trigger a permanent loss of economic power and status, just as Montreal has seen.
It would be far smarter for Alberta to stand up and renew its fight for its rightful place within a unified Canada. We will have our victories (think of the former Conservative government led by Calgarian Stephen Harper) and we will have our setbacks.
Ultimately, we will win, however, by assuring the companies we’re courting that this province is a safe and stable place to invest.
Let’s put this debate over separation to bed and get back to business. We can’t afford to let this debate drag on.
Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief of Calgary’s Business.