A story of western alienation

"prairie grass" by **** j a z z z i *** is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It wasn’t a surprise that the prairies went predominantly blue in this federal election. Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have remained fairly steady in their voting patterns for decades. What has been significant is the sensationalization of western alienation as something new and newsworthy – this expression of frustration has been happening in some form or another for longer than the prairies have been voting conservative. 

This new, more extreme wave of western alienation has been the subject of endless articles, op-eds, and social media posts that paint it as the dominant conversation happening across the region. 

Many Albertans, Saskatchewinians and Manitobans are still feeling the impacts of the economic downturn in 2015, and are turning to conservative governments that claim they can make life better. In the absence of narratives that effectively connect the impact of corporate subsidies and influence to the human cost of austerity and capitalism, folks have internalized the pervasive narratives of conservative governments and pundits. Placing the blame for the hurt on progressive organizations or the federal government has long been an easier sell than blaming corporate greed and a broken system.

Communities on the prairies are upset, and have reason to be – we feel the negative impacts of an undiversified economy every day. Many people have lost their jobs and are still struggling to find work that enables them to support their families. Even when it’s possible to access re-training money, the renewable energy sector and concerns about climate change are seen as a direct challenge to prosperity. This tension is visible in the lives and stories of many people.

However, these voices are not the ones being amplified in media coverage. As Vice News revealed last week, the voices that the media are legitimizing are far-right conspiracy theorists in the separatist movement. The media is making a choice in covering these voices: this is especially apparent when you consider the extensive coverage of 100 United We Roll counter-protestors in Edmonton during Greta Thunberg’s visit to Alberta, or the attention that was paid to a recent separatist rally of 700 people in Edmonton, versus the almost 20,000 people who attended the Global Climate Strike across the region. 

We saw the normalization of xenophobia, racism and far-right ideas throughout the federal campaign as Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada were given a platform to spew their hateful rhetoric. This focus on western alienation’s more extreme voices moving out of the election is a continuation of this attempt to seem unbiased while providing an opportunity for the right to spread ideas that undermine what this country purports to stand for. The media is choosing to amplify the voices of a minority, which contributes to the breakdown of public dialogue on topics we desperately need to be talking about together on the prairies.

Activists and supporters of the Council of Canadians live in communities across the prairies that are shaped by these conversations and their repercussions. This begs the question – what is the role of the Council of Canadians in hearing and addressing the root causes of western alienation, and shifting from divisive politics to a narrative that includes everyone? The strength of the Council has always been bringing people together through campaigns that envision something better for all of us, not just an elite few. In this post-election landscape, people across the country are looking to our progressive movement for analysis, for leadership, and for action. 

For a better, fairer world, we must play our part in creating a landscape that supports the organizing of Indigenous communities and land and water defenders. We must hear the concerns and challenges of workers across the prairies, and push for system change that will provide tangible solutions for all of us, and the planet. We must endeavor to bring people together from across social movements, to build communities and a common understanding of how to move forward, together. This is work that is already being done, but we must continue in pushing for electoral reform, pharmacare, and a just transition.

An important part of this work is questioning what narratives we give credence to. The Council of Canadians is a grassroots-based organization, 150,000 people strong. We have a tremendous opportunity to shift the cultural narrative away from western alienation, towards narratives of hope and resistance that respect and reflect the diversity of our experiences and our dreams of a fairer, more just country.

In this minority government, the people are the balance of power. As the balance of power we have the chance to ask questions of and put pressure on our media, in regards to who they are featuring and what voices they give space to. We can craft new stories, and topple the dominant destructive stories that tell us that we must prioritize profit over people.

The prairies went blue this past federal election - but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t members of our movement, and of many other movements pushing for change within the context of the prairies. 

Those of us involved with the Council of Canadians have a role to play in challenging simplistic and right-leaning interpretations of the election results. 

We can provide alternative narratives to those that are destructive. With the strength of a grassroots movement behind the work of the Council, we have the opportunity to build narratives of hope and resistance that reflect the experiences and dreams of people across this land. The building of this new social identity is crucial for the adoption of the policies and actions that will be crucial to our work.

We have a role to play in sharing the stories of resistance and hope that reflect the experiences of people working for justice in the west. We can hold our media responsible for the divisive voices that they choose to amplify, and encourage them to share instead the voices of those whose land was stolen and whose righteous anger needs to be listened to. We can change the narrative, if we choose to – let’s make that decision together.