Quebec, the backdrop to the referendum in Alberta on equalization

After a largely ignored campaign, Alberta is seeking the support of its people on Monday in the hope of obtaining a mandate to renegotiate the Canadian Constitution and thus review equalization. In this referendum, however directly inspired by recent Quebec experiences, aversion to Quebec is one of the main motivations of voters, polls indicate.



Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is seeking the support of his people on Monday in the hope of obtaining a mandate to renegotiate the Canadian Constitution and thus review equalization.


© Jeff McIntosh The Canadian Press
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is seeking the support of his people on Monday in the hope of obtaining a mandate to renegotiate the Canadian Constitution and thus review equalization.

“The question is, ‘should Alberta push harder to get a better deal? [dans la fédération]”, Summarized the Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, questioned Wednesday on the direction to be given to the referendum which he promises since his election and which will be held Monday in the province.

The question that will appear on Albertans’ ballot will actually be a little more complex: “Section 36 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 – the commitment of the Parliament and the Government of Canada to the principle of equalization – should it be removed from the constitution? “

“We Albertans are generous. We are proud to share our good fortune when the situation is good here and bad elsewhere, but we insist on the fact that we must be able to develop our resources, ”reasoned Premier Kenney.

In the absence of an educational effort on the meaning of the federal equalization program, without real camp of the “yes” or the “no”, occurring between a federal election and a municipal election in a province in full fourth wave of COVID -19, and organized by a premier unpopular both in his province and elsewhere in the country, the Alberta referendum is not really likely to change the federation, agree all the experts consulted by The duty.

Quebec as a backdrop

What motivates the opposition to this system of sharing enshrined in the Constitution of 1982? Supporting opinion surveys, a study by the Institute for Research in Public Policy (IRPP) found that this position is linked to resentment with regard to the status of Quebec within the federation.

“The variable that stands out the most is not whether you are rich or whether you are poor, whether you are educated or not. It is: do you think that Quebec is favored? summarizes researcher Olivier Jacques. This is not surprising, because politicians like [Jason] Kenney politicizes equalization and talks about Quebec all the time. Equalization in the minds of Canadians [du reste du pays], it has to do with Quebec. “

In Alberta and in the other provinces that do not benefit from the equalization program, public opinion on this issue also has to do with a sense of identity: those who identify more with their province than with Canada are less likely to view equalization favorably.

Disinformation

Even though Albertans are consulted on the future of Equalization, few understand how it all works, reported on Toronto Star Wednesday. This leaves the field open to questionable interpretations presented for partisan purposes, according to Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and an expert on the issue. “There are a lot of people who still think that equalization is about rich provinces sending money to poor provinces! “

In fact, equalization is one of the transfers that the federal government sends to the provinces. Calculated on a per capita basis, this amount is taken from the Ottawa budget, and therefore from federal taxes. It aims to allow the financing of public services to residents of the less prosperous provinces, “comparable to those of other provinces, at substantially comparable tax rates”, specifies the website from the Government of Canada.

“Often politicians, in Alberta but also elsewhere, tend to simplify the way the program works a little, or even to caricature it. There is a lot of misinformation on equalization, ”believes Mr. Béland, also co-author of the IRPP study. The premier of Alberta, for example, is mixing up the issue of pipeline resistance.

Due to its size, Quebec will once again receive a large portion of equalization this year, approximately 13 of the $ 21 billion. planned in programme. However, some provinces receive more money per capita, such as Manitoba or New Brunswick, underlines Daniel Béland. It is not thanks to equalization that Quebec can provide more generous social programs, but because taxes are higher.

“The problem right now in Alberta is that its oil revenues have dropped a lot, and at the same time the fiscal capacity of the province is underutilized. For example, there is no provincial tax. […] Instead of telling Albertans that we are going to clean up and raise taxes and create a provincial sales tax, which obviously, politically speaking, is not popular, we prefer to blame the Quebec, or other provinces, for equalization. “

It would even have effects on the perception of Francophones in the country, believes Charles Breton, director of the IRPP’s Center of Excellence on the Canadian Federation. “The resentment towards Quebec, and towards Francophones, if it was there before, is seen increased by the way the campaign on the referendum in Alberta is going,” says the researcher who measures this data each year.

Quebec inspiration

Quebec is not just the bad guy in history. He is also the inspiration for the referendum process, whose avowed strategy is to improve its balance of power vis-à-vis Ottawa. “It’s not for nothing that it’s a referendum. It is a bit like the idea that Quebec holds referendums and that, politically, it has served it well, believes Professor Daniel Béland. It is the idea that with its referendums, by threatening to leave the federation, Quebec has obtained gains. “

“It’s a bit of the paradox of all that: we criticize Quebec, but we are inspired by Quebec”, summarizes Frédéric Boily, professor of political science at the Saint-Jean campus of the University of Alberta. .

Prime Minister Jason Kenney constantly cites the Supreme Court’s reference relating to the secession of Quebec, which fell in 1998 after the last referendum on independence, to argue that Ottawa would be obliged to negotiate with him after a result. favorable to the referendum. The experts interviewed doubt that it is that simple.

Especially since the referendum arouses no passion in Alberta, testifies Professor Boily, who qualifies the discussion as “incomparable with the referendum of 1995”. There has been virtually no campaigning on the issue, and most of the media attention is devoted to the municipal elections which will be held on the same day. Albertans will also be able to vote on the end of the time change on Monday. Weak in the polls and contested within his own party, Premier Kenney is accused by the opposition of creating a diversion to make people forget his mismanagement of COVID-19.

As to whether the Trudeau government would agree to reopen the Constitution in the event of a “yes” victory in Monday’s referendum, its Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Dominic LeBlanc, declined to comment on the subject.

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