EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney is sharply rebuking those who believe the best way for Alberta to get a better deal out of Confederation is to threaten to quit it.
"I am an unqualified Canadian patriot, and I don't believe you can qualify your patriotism," Kenney said Friday.
"Either you love your country or you don't."
Kenney added that Alberta's separation threat is an empty one, because there's no evidence anything close to a majority of Albertans want it. And such a move would further hinder Alberta's economy as it tries to dig out from COVID-related unemployment and a cratered oil and natural gas sector, he said.
"I completely understand and sympathize with the profound frustration that so many Albertans have with the way that Canada has worked, particularly in recent years," said Kenney.
"But I fundamentally believe (separation) is the wrong path for Alberta.
"You don't make a threat that you're not prepared to keep, and I've not seen a single public opinion poll which indicates we're anywhere close to a majority of Albertans voting to leave Canada. And so I regard it as an empty threat."
Kenney said on a pragmatic level, separation is a fool's errand given that Alberta would only further landlock itself at a time it is trying to get more of its oil to the west coast to ship abroad.
He pointed to Quebec in the late 1970s, which stirrings of separatism lead to businesses leaving en masse for provinces with more secure political climates.
"We're certainly not going to get investment to create jobs back in Alberta if we create a crisis of confidence by having a vote on separation," said Kenney.
"Let's keep our eye on the ball."
The premier was responding to public comments made this week by Drew Barnes, one of his United Conservative caucus members who sat on a "fair deal" panel that gathered input on ways that Alberta could assert itself more in the federation.
Barnes, in a public letter to Kenney, urged him to take a harder line with Ottawa on a range of issues to ensure fairness for Alberta.
"If this is not possible, the majority of my constituents in Cypress-Medicine Hat and from across our land have made clear that we must seek another relationship as a sovereign people," wrote Barnes.
Barnes could not be immediately reached for comment.
Asked about Barnes, Kenney said his caucus members are urged to speak their minds and reflect the concerns of their constituents.
The panel was struck by Kenney and polled Albertans' opinions though surveys and meetings that wrapped up just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada with full force in March.
The panel's recommendations and findings were made public this week. They call for Alberta to explore a stand-alone pension plan and police force. Chairwoman Oryssia Lennie said the panel did not hear an overwhelming demand for the province to separate.
NDP critic Joe Ceci said Kenney needs to "squash" any separatist talk in his caucus.
"It's absurd that people are talking about separation in Alberta," said Ceci. "We need to get people back to work in this province. We need to make sure we're investing in this province.
"Continuing to give space and oxygen to that kind of talk is not helpful."
Kenney has stressed that he believes Alberta is not getting a fair deal in Confederation. He has noted that Alberta has delivered billions of dollars to the rest of the country through equalization payments, yet faces resistance from provinces like Quebec to help grow Alberta's economy by resisting construction of pipelines.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press