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Is a Wexit in Alberta’s future?

Is a Wexit in Alberta’s future?
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EDMONTON — Peter Downing, former soldier, ex-RCMP officer and creator of right-wing agitprop, has a new mission — the champion of Alberta separatism.

Western separatism has a long history in Albertan politics, and it has seen a resurgence in popularity — not that that translates into political power — in the years since Justin Trudeau was elected, and as the energy-rich province faces difficulty getting resources to market and pipelines built.

While there’s already an independence party, Downing, who has started Wexit Alberta , is hoping to bring together the disparate elements, the frustration, and combine them to create a functioning party apparatus. Downing, who has done his time as a creator of inflammatory right-wing political advertising, has been on a speaking tour of Alberta, discussing Wexit — as in Brexit, not We-Exit — and its quest for party status. 

Great turn-out for #WEXIT in Lloydminster! pic.twitter.com/AeIXHnkmTU

Separation, whether Alberta alone or in tandem with other Western provinces — there’s a Wexit Saskatchewan wing, too — requires a few things, Downing says. A party and a leader, for starters. But he says it also requires voters to put Trudeau back into the prime minister’s office on Oct. 21.

It’s a catalyst, of sorts, at a time when there is terrific frustration in Alberta, limping along in a prolonged recession, but when there are no avowed separatists in the Alberta legislature, and certainly not among the major party leaders.

Downing is carefully spoken in his interview with the Post, adroitly avoiding the unglued rhetoric and bigotry that often accompanies talk of separation online. He dismisses a query about racism; his wife isn’t white and English isn’t her first language, he says. And part of his agenda is to support Indigenous groups in Alberta fighting lawsuits, say, against the federal government over historical treatment.

Downing may, or may not, be the leader; he says the movement is bigger than him. If he’s not the guy out talking about it, he says, someone else will be doing it.

The cries for separation, and a credible separation option have been ramping up

He’s come to the separation movement after a stint in other roles. He was an RCMP officer, but left the force in the years following a conditional discharge for uttering threats against his ex-wife in a December 2009 confrontation. Court documents say his ex-wife alleged he cut his hand punching a fan and wrote “bitch” or “something like that” on the bedspread in blood, before threatening to throw her out the window; Downing denied the accusations at the time.

“Sometimes females lie, and sometimes judges believe it,” Downing told the Post.

He went on to join the Canadian Forces and upgrade his education. He’s also, in recent months, been involved in other projects, including the third-party advertiser, Alberta Fights Back. That was the group behind the billboards asking “Is Trudeau leading us to civil war?” and claiming the Liberal government was “normalizing pedophilia.” The group was also behind anti-NDP billboards and separatist billboards in the winter.

Wexit Alberta, too, promises to “Kick Ottawa to the curb” and “elect MLAs loyal to Alberta.”

“The cries for separation, and a credible separation option have been ramping up,” Downing says.

There is some hard evidence the separatist movement has some popularity. Angus Reid Institute polling from over the winter found that 50 per cent of Albertans believed separation was a real possibility and 60 per cent would either strongly or moderately support the province joining a Western separatist movement.

Then again, that’s tough to reconcile with the even harder numbers: the current separatist party, the Alberta Independence Party, got only 13,531 votes — 0.7 per cent of the vote — in the 2019 provincial election. Still, that’s more than most other minor parties, including the Freedom Conservative Party — and its then-leader, Derek Fildebrandt, was actually an MLA — and the Green party, and is only a few hundred votes behind the Alberta Liberals.

Faron Ellis, a political scientist and pollster at Lethbridge College, said people tend to overstate their enthusiasm to pollsters, but usually back down when pressed.

“It’s really easy to tell a pollster that you’re mad as hell and want to think about separating; when it comes to the details and what it’s going to cost you and the effort it’s going to take … it’s quite another matter,” Ellis said.

Premier Jason Kenney has been paying attention; he understands the frustration, he says, but is trying to “isolate” it.

Albertans have been rightfully frustrated by the unfair deal we are getting in the Federation going as far as to even express support for separation

I’d rather focus on separating him from the Prime Minister’s office pic.twitter.com/AEMq22BrXt

Kenney, whose office said when asked for an interview that he won’t be commenting further, has staked out the federalist position, describing himself as a proud Canadian patriot — he’s done so repeatedly over the past year or more.

Over the decades, the election of conservative political parties, explained Ellis — who at one point considered himself a separatist — has tended to be a “release valve” for separatist discontent, either because leaders have shut it down flat-out, or separatists felt their concerns were being addressed.

“Kenney’s gone out of his way to use that sentiment as a political club to continue to beat central Canadian politicians,” said Ellis. “That tends to just egg people on.”

When people are mad about their place within confederation, Ellis said, and they work their way through the options — regional parties, such as the Reform party, for example — and finally arrive at the last option, separation, the “overwhelming majority of Albertans, even when they’re at their maddest, say ‘well that’s too far for me.’ ”

Notably, Wexit Alberta says it will oppose Kenney’s UCP if “Jason Kenney’s not able to deliver on what Albertans have given him the mandate to deliver on,” said Downing.

Downing’s undeterred: “I’ll tell you right now, the 2023 general election is going to be Alberta’s referendum on separation.”

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