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Western Alienation

Western alienation refers to the longstanding regional discontent in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Since the early settlement of the prairies, western Canadians have expressed dissatisfaction with the geographic distribution of power and influence across Canada. Western Canadians feel that their provinces are not given their fair share of federal transfer dollars, and that western interests are poorly represented in the federal government. These feelings have been relatively consistent over time, despite considerable changes in the western Canadian demography, economy, political landscape and global environment.

Western alienation’s roots lie in the quasi-colonial nature of the region’s development. The west was in many ways the creation of the federal government and its policies. It was a debtor region, with debt largely held by central Canadian financial institutions; and western Canadians confronted a national government that was geographically and psychologically distant from their own region and concerns.

Numerous policy decisions inflamed western alienation over the 20th century, as western Canadians viewed national policies as corrosive to western interests and aspirations. For example, from 1879 to the end of World War II, a large source of regional discontent was the National Policy, a tariff policy that was seen to benefit central Canada alone, while increasing costs for goods across Canada. In 1980, the National Energy Program was seen to have damaged the Alberta and Saskatchewan economies for the benefit of central Canada. However, specific policy grievances are matched by an equally large grievance that western Canada is not treated equitably: many western Canadians feel that western interests are seen as “regional” rather than “national,” and that people outside the west are not concerned with the interests of western Canada.

Over the decades, western Canadian efforts to improve the representation of western interests in the federal government have included protest parties, populism, as well as calls for decentralization and for electoral and Senate reform. To date, none of these efforts has been successful at creating systematic change in the distribution of power in Canada, and western alienation remains high after more than a century.

Overall, western alienation is deeply rooted in the west and is an integral part of the west’s political culture. While residents in all four western provinces express regional discontent, Saskatchewan and British Columbia residents are found to be the most aggrieved, while Manitoba residents are the least dissatisfied. Albertans, despite their longstanding outspokenness on regional issues, tend to fall between their highly discontented (Saskatchewan and British Columbia) and less discontented (Manitoba) neighbours.

Loleen Berdahl

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