Top News

John Ivison: Maverick Party stands alone in push for Western independence — for now

Jay Hill is an unlikely separatist. The 68-year-old former cabinet minister was a committed federalist in the Harper government.

But he said he has become so disillusioned with the political status quo under Liberal and Conservative governments that he has reluctantly come around to the idea of Western independence.

“It wouldn’t be my first choice. But the day after the election in 2019, very sadly, I came to the realization that everything I’ve worked for, doesn’t work for Western Canada. Our inherent differences are irreconcilable,” said the man who is now the interim leader and driving force behind the Maverick Party.

“I always looked on Canada as the great compromise. But I’ve come to realize that people in Eastern and Central Canada, by and large, don’t care. They hardly know where Alberta is.”

Hill said he felt he owed it to his three grandchildren to come out of political retirement and try to effect change. “My generation, I believe sadly, has completely screwed up this country and it’s incumbent on at least some of us to correct that for the next generation,” he said.

The party has adopted a twin-track approach to addressing its grievances – five constitutional amendments to give the West more autonomy and representation in Ottawa. If that track fails – and Hill acknowledges there is no prospect of getting unanimous approval in 10 provinces and both Houses of Parliament to enact representation by population – Maverick proposes a referendum on secession. Hill said he wants the party to emulate the role of the Bloc Québécois in Parliament, lobbying for the West against what he calls “the tyranny of the majority.”

One reform that Hill advocates is a re-negotiation of the equalization formula. He says he has no problem with the concept of people in “have” provinces like Alberta helping “have-not” provinces pay for reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

But he resents a formula that he says unfairly benefits Quebec and the Maritimes.

Alberta does not receive payments because, even during downtimes, the income of the average Albertan is around 30 per cent higher than the Canadian average. Alberta has a much younger age profile than a province like Quebec and is home to more high-income earners (the province has 11 per cent of Canada’s population but 21 per cent of its $100,000+ earners).

But Hill has a point when he says that the $13 billion or so that Quebec receives is boosted by a formula that excludes much of the revenue from renewable hydro-electric power (a quirk that also benefits Manitoba).

“It’s like a funnel sending millions of dollars to Quebec,” said Hill, misrepresenting a system that does not actually transfer dollars from one province to another.

That kind of resentment is helping Maverick draw support.

Hill said the embryonic party already has 11 active electoral district associations, with boards of directors and volunteers in place. Some people have defected from Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which Hill said has no traction in the West.

The uninitiated in the East might roll their eyes over a quarrel in a far-away province between people of whom they know nothing.

After all, by Hill’s own admission, his party is likely to run only a couple of dozen candidates if a general election comes this spring. He isn’t even planning to run himself.

But to discount the emergence of a populist party in the West is to disregard the political history of the region, from Social Credit in the 1930s to the Reform Party that supplanted the Conservative Party as the largest party in Western Canada after the 1993 election. Hill was elected as the Reform MP for the B.C. riding of Prince George-Peace River in that wave and proceeded to hold the seat in the next five elections, before retiring in 2010.

Just as Reform thrived because of the discontent with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, which was perceived to ignore the West and favour Central Canada, so the Maverick Party is gaining traction in light of Erin O’Toole’s attempts to woo voters in Ontario and Quebec.

“I do believe we have got some momentum,” said Hill. “Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole are our greatest allies in building this party.”

He said O’Toole started to “flip” after winning the Conservative leadership last fall. In a meeting with Quebec Premier François Legault he agreed the Energy East pipeline project was off the table, said Hill.

“If he really cared about the oil and gas industry, he would have come out and said: ‘Mr. Legault is not in favour but I am and I’m going to continue to try to convince Quebecers that Energy East is in the national interest and in their interests’,” he said.

O’Toole’s decision to agree to the Canada’s Paris climate targets and commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, albeit without a consumer carbon tax , has also riled Westerners, Hill said. “How is he going to reach those targets without something punitive like that (a carbon tax)?” he said.

“He might believe otherwise but people in Western Canada are not stupid. They can see through his façade, positioning himself as a right-wing, ultra-Conservative during the leadership race and now Liberal-lite to win voters in Toronto and Montreal.”

Hill said his party has not carried out any polling but public polls suggest there is a sizeable minority of Westerners who would back a separatist agenda – as high as 20 per cent of voters in Alberta, according to an Abacus Data survey last October.

A number of Conservative MPs in Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Manitoba are scared of Hill’s new party. “Many are convinced they will lose if O’Toole goes too far on climate,” said Michael Bernstein, executive director of Clean Prosperity, a climate policy organization which carried out its own poll in 71 Conservative-held Western ridings in November.

One MP who won more than 80 per cent of the vote at the last election said he is likely to lose if a carbon tax is introduced.

Conservative Party officials take the threat seriously and say that the opposition of Western MPs to taking economy-wide action on emissions is one of their biggest challenges.

The problem is that the people who are most susceptible to the Maverick message are among the biggest supporters and donors of the Conservative Party.

Curiously, Hill says Canada would have better government than it does presently, if O’Toole becomes prime minister. “Every time there is a Liberal government, the West gets screwed,” he said.

The irony is that the emergence of the Maverick Party may end up limiting O’Toole’s ability to win the support of suburban voters in Ontario that he needs to form government.

But the Conservative leader would be advised to battle against the gravitational pull of his party’s orthodox positions, in order to embrace new policies that might prove more marketable in close electoral battlegrounds.

Clean Prosperity’s poll on the Maverick Party’s popularity suggests the cost would be minimal.

It found support for the Maverick Party averaged three per cent. When the 2,000 respondents were asked who they would support if the Conservative Party backed a carbon tax, the level of support rose to four per cent. The one exception was a riding the Conservatives won last time by 50 percentage points, where Maverick’s support increased to six per cent.

There is always the prospect that Maverick could catch fire in an election campaign, once voters have tuned in to federal politics. In last year’s Saskatchewan provincial election, the populist Buffalo Party finished third overall, despite running against a popular premier in Scott Moe and a Saskatchewan Party that has been vocal in its advocacy for Western aspirations.

But one veteran Reformer said there seems to be little chance of a Maverick breakthrough.

“My sense is that there is anger and frustration with COVID and Trudeau and the world in general. But I see almost no evidence that it is being channeled in any effective way in support of the Maverick Party,” he said.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories