When I was a boy growing up in Alberta, I knew that where I came from was better than the rest of the country. How could it not be? I was from there. Also we had the prairies and the mountains and all that sweet, sweet oil. Plus, the people in Alberta were so much better than people in the rest of the country. That fact was obvious to my young self. Canada, outside of Alberta, was a bunch of government-teat-sucking, dole-line-waiting losers satisfied with whatever spoils their corrupt officials could plunder. Albertans built their lives; they didn’t take what was given to them. 2015 has more or less collapsed that sense of difference I remember from my childhood, however. This was the year that Alberta, for better or worse, became just another province.
When I was growing up in Edmonton, “politics” didn’t feel like the right word for what Alberta had. The same party had ruled from well before I was born and continued to rule well after the birth of my children, and no matter which party was in power in Ottawa, they always betrayed us. Peter Lougheed and his increasingly dim successors were more like appointed stewards than ideological factions; their Conservatism was a unique blend of ferocious belief in personal independence with an equally ferocious belief in government service for the public good. It was a glorious mixture.
The national parties—accepted everywhere else in the country like old sports loyalties—never quite fit Alberta either. The Liberals gave us the National Energy Program. And Mulroney was Mulroney. Their contempt for us was at least as real as our contempt for them. The Reform Party, born when I was still a kid, grew out of a grand dissatisfaction with the status quo but also out of a sense of mission. What Canada needed was more of the common sense and grit and just plain decency that Alberta had.
The erosion of Alberta’s distinction has come both from the inside and from the outside. After the 2000 election, Stephen Harper penned his now infamous “firewall letter.” “It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta,” he wrote to Ralph Klein, the premier at the time, “to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.” They say that all political careers end in defeat, but few in Canadian history have been as complete as Stephen Harper’s in his desire to hive Alberta off from the rest of the country. For one thing, having an Albertan Prime Minister for nearly ten years has taken some of the shine off Alberta’s renegade bluster. For another, Stephen Harper has proven, beyond any doubt, that once in power Albertans turn out to be just like people from anywhere else in the country. Harper appointed nearly half of the Senate after opposing its existence right up to the point when it was to his advantage. His rule was marked by allegations of election fraud and influence peddling, making it impossible to reckon up a moral calling from Alberta’s advantages like Lougheed did.
Meanwhile Alberta itself has changed, from a conservative bedrock to progressive bastion. Rachel Notley’s election turned Alberta from an environmental disgrace to a national leader. Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, who won an award for being the World’s Best Mayor this year, is a figure of truly national importance. Ontarians and Quebecers listen to him on national issues much more than they listen to the mayors of Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. Alberta has become more prominent outside its borders as it has become more like other provinces.
With that gain of national influence has come a slight sense of loss, at least to me. Being an outsider can be fun. Alberta’s politics now will be like politics anywhere else in Canada: stuck in a perpetual struggle between parties nobody really likes and which represent citizens’ interests only partially.
Some differences won’t go away. Alberta remains a more open place than elsewhere in Canada—a frontier where it is okay to be unabashedly ambitious, and where the polite post-colonial codes that so afflict the rest of Canada don’t apply. Alberta still has Canada’s most dynamic population. On average, the province is four years younger than the rest of the country, with the highest level of employment and the highest birth rate—a great place to start a family if you don’t want to sit around all day just taking what you’ve been given.
That frankness and vibrancy mean that you just never know what Alberta’s going to do next. The sharp break of the recent past has been entirely in keeping with the province’s traditional unconventionality. The election of the NDP and the aftermath of the Harper years have taken Alberta from one of the most predictable political cultures in the country to one of the least. This is perfectly Albertan in its way: As the place becomes more normal, it also gets weirder.
Stephen Marche is a columnist for Esquire magazine and the author of five books.