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Who's behind the social media campaign calling for Alberta separation?

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Welcome to Alberta? (Photo: Magalie L’Abbe, Creative Commons).

Are Russian bots behind the recent busy social media campaign to persuade Albertans they want to separate from Canada, a la Brexit?

Or is this just the work of right-wing Canadian agitators using well-tested digital agitprop techniques to undermine the Liberal Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

You can't rule out Russian bots entirely, or Chinese ones either. For good or ill, the Government of Canada has managed of late to seriously annoy the leaders of those two powerful states.

But the suggestion, made by some writers in the National Post, the foundering right-wing sheet established by Conrad Black 20 years ago, that alienation felt by Western Canadians in general and Albertans in particular is vastly on the rise simply defies credulity, especially if you happen to live in this place and talk to your neighbours.

"One-quarter of Albertans now believe the province 'would be better off if it separated from Canada,' a number that may well rise if the provincial economy founders, and would certainly rise if Albertans realized that they need Canada a lot less than Canada needs them," Lawrence Solomon wrote breathlessly in the Post last week about a recent public opinion poll.

On Wednesday, the Postmedia-owned Calgary Herald's Don Braid jumped on the bandwagon, describing Alberta separatism as "boiling to the surface."

Braid devoted a significant percentage of his virtual ink to the social media activities of W. Brett Wilson, the oilpatch billionaire and reality TV personality whom the columnist nonchalantly passed off as "the poster boy of Alberta alienation."

Wilson is nowadays a popular guest on right-wing talk shows like the one hosted by Danielle Smith, late of the Wildrose leadership. This is true despite the fact that, as Braid put it, he has "tweeted that environmental 'traitors' should be hanged … a repeated theme over several tweets."

As an aside, can you imagine the brouhaha that would erupt in conservative circles in this province if some environmentalist started openly tweeting about hanging oil company executives?

Wilson's musings, by contrast, appear to be perceived as perfectly respectable by mainstream media in Alberta -- including the CBC.

Also Wednesday, Edmonton Postmedia columnist David Staples weighed in with an overwrought screed making many of the same points. Funny the way that so frequently happens at Postmedia.

Getting back to the poll Solomon cited, done by Ipsos Public Affairs in October, it really did include the hard-to-believe statement that 25 per cent of respondents thought Alberta would be better off single. But its actual findings were nevertheless considerably less alarming.

"Western Canadians are every bit as committed to Canada as they were 20 years ago," wrote Ipsos Vice-President Kyle Braid in the explanatory commentary accompanying the results. "Albertans are a little angrier at the moment, but across the west there is little interest in separation and most measures of connection to Canada are consistent with prior polls taken conducted as long ago as 1997." (Emphasis added.)

I can't speak for the good people of places like Manyberries, Sundre, Cardston or the headquarters of foreign-owned oil corporations in Calgary, but I'd say even mild interest in separation in Alberta's big cities is under one per cent, so how Ipsos came up with that number is a topic for interesting speculation.

My guess is the self-selecting nature of the panel used by the pollster tells us plenty. A much larger percentage than among the general population is bound to be made up of ideological conservatives who would like to sink Trudeau, whatever the cost to the country.

Moreover, such panels are notorious for being joined in disproportionate numbers by people who get their news from social media. This gets us back to our neighbours over the Pole or some of the other bad actors closer to home who are familiar with the same techniques.

As someone who lives in Alberta, I can tell you there is essentially zero talk about Alberta separation among ordinary folk. Other than streams of pro-separation comments on social media that originate from Facebook and Twitter accounts owned by people with names but no faces or identities, that is, and in the last two weeks, their media echo chamber.

Whether the authors turn out to reside at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg, the Pudong District of Shanghai, or a University of Calgary dorm room doesn't really change much. Alberta separation is about the dumbest idea anyone could come up with, ever.

Seriously? You'd be willing to put your pension in the hands of the people who ran Alberta through two oil booms and couldn't save a dime?

Are you prepared to trust people who apparently think it's reasonable to chatter about hanging environmentalists to come up with a new version of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would satisfy the moral bugbears and ideological superstitions of the folks who now dominate the political right in Canada?

Then there's the oft-repeated observation that we have no coastline. And if you're one of those naïve idealists who wants to bring up the Convention on Transit Trade of Land-Locked States, don't forget that Canada hasn't signed it and the guy who runs the United States ignores things like laws and treaties.

And remember that Alberta may soon be saddled with $260 billion in oilpatch cleanup costs. You can be confident the public-spirited foreign oil giants that control our industry will sashay away from that liability at the first opportunity with what's left of our jingle in their jeans. So we just might want to share some of that risk with those taxpayers we've been disparaging for accepting "our" equalization payments, don't you think?

And speaking of Brexit, as we just were, remind us all how that worked out!

On the bright side, of course, there is the inconvenient reality for the people ginning up this nonsense that essentially no one thinks it's a good idea -- even most of the people who are saying they do.

That's because, whoever is behind it, this is mainly an effort to attack the Trudeau Liberals and effect a political shift even farther to the right in Ottawa.

Still, whoever they are, there are people involved who do intend real harm to Canada and Canadians, not just a single political party.

If this internet deluge keeps up, I'd seriously suggest the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment do what we pay them well over a billion dollars a year to do and start looking into who's behind this campaign, and who is paying their bills.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Magalie L’Abbe/Creative Commons

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