Alberta goes mainstream. How sad.

Alberta goes mainstream. How sad.

Stephen Marche grew up loving his province’s outsider status. Now it’s just like everywhere else.

Oil dereks in a wheat field in Alberta, Canada. (Tyle McKay/Shutterstock)

Oil derricks in a wheat field in Alberta, Canada. (Tyle McKay/Shutterstock)

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.

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Alberta goes mainstream. How sad.

  1. I was born in Alberta and have always appreciated what Alberta stood for– with the exception of the odd ugliness that can happen when money flows too easily. You’re right Stephen, we are like everywhere else now and this is because people from everywhere else, are here. Secondly, influence is transferring from the Boomers to the Y’s and this makes the change in Alberta’s social-economic climate all the more dramatic. One thing I have never cared for however, is the contempt Canadians outside of Alberta often have for us. Why? Jealousy isn’t a good reason in my opinion, its childish. There is little denying that Alberta’s economic engine has improved financial well-being for millions of people in country, and this is not to say Alberta is the center of Canada, it isn’t, but neither is Ontario or BC. Its time we acted like Canadians and supported each other, and yes, its still okay to be proud of your home province, where ever that may be. I am proud of Alberta.

    • Brett, your piece is clearly meant to be thoughtful, and thought provoking. But in my opinion you have missed the mark on what it is that other Canadians may have been feeling about Alberta and Alberta for the past 40 years or so. Far from contempt or jealousy. I would characterise the feelings more as nettled. Nettled at a government and populace that chose to consider their good fortune and windfall largess from the global market manipulations of their primary resources as an entitlement. Nettled that rather than managing their provincial finances more responsibly by balancing funding for social infrastructure and social services between resource revenues, prudent levels of taxation and public borrowing, they spurned the latter two and rubbed the noses of all other Canadians in it. Nettled because the province chose to embrace American republican style politics and espouse separation from Canada as a solution to not having to share the windfall wealth, other than depending upon human resources from elsewhere to exploit the resources. And finally, nettled that your province would inflict the likes of Stephen Harper and his Northern Manifesto doctrine on the rest of Canada as if the enviable good fortune and huge wealth accumulation were the product of self-sufficiency and an industriousness that others lacked. Pride comes before a fall.

  2. OMG, Albertans may finally be growing up.

  3. You sound like you grew up in the 90’s with a bag over your head.

  4. This article seems like cowboyography. The most interesting thing about Alberta is not that it made only tepid efforts to leverage its wealth into a modern economy but how much it has let its agricultural economy slide; now it has way more hats than cattle. This leaves us folks in the east as confused as ever.

    • Let me clear up your confusion about the decline of the cattle business. Mad Cow put many producers out of business. Although the Alberta govt. provided subsidies, most of the money went to the American-owned processing plants. The ranchers said nothing because they were at the mercy of the plants if they wanted to do any business. For quite sometime, the Americans shut the border to our beef. Then they would only purchase beef under 48 months of age (when mad cow isn’t a possible diagnosis). During that time, a very powerful Montana based lobby group called RCALF lobbied against Canadian beef saying the inspections were not sufficient. Japan refused Canadian beef until their meat was radiated during the tsunami. Then Alberta had an incident with a dirty processing plant and a few cases of E-coli illness (no deaths) and the industry took another hit. Farmers got out the business. We still have a beef business and with the low Canadian dollar we are doing well, especially internationally. The US (RCALF) wants to label where the meat comes from so they can suggest Canadian supplies aren’t safe but in actuality ours are likely the safest on the planet. We have experienced drought on the prairies and that means feed prices are up. The low dollar means Ranchers and farmers have to hold off making equipment purchases but exports look good. The people who got out of the industry are coming back but it is expensive to re-invest in ranching beef. I have a relative who has about 7 million dollars in inventory. He also ranched bison.

  5. Alberta is, in fact, not open. One’s loyalty as a citizen is questioned if one doesn’t buy into the Alberta inside-the-bunker beliefs.

    • That is because a false image is eadily threatened.

    • You are mistaking citizenship for capacity for coherent thought.

    • I would completely dispute that assessment. About 1/3 of the population of the province of Alberta are not from Alberta. One is hard pressed to find a person born in Calgary. I met a couple from Montreal who told me they were overwhelmed with the friendlessness they experienced upon moving to Airdrie, a enclave outside of Calgary. They said the drivers on the roads are polite and let anybody in. Nenshi is popular but so was were his predecessors because Calgarians are for the most part very easy to please. The rate of volunteerism is through the roof. I enjoyed my visit to Ottawa last summer. I also enjoyed St. John’s Newfoundland. Canadians are not much different no matter where you go. Of course people enjoy arguing politics. I met a person at Meech Lake in Gatenau Park, Quebec who told me that we Albertans should start paying our share of the income taxes.

  6. .
    I don’t think Albertans are different, nor ever have been, from other Canadians or other people in general. For Albertans, oil was like an over-protective, over-indulgent parent. A child in such circumstances begins to believe in the myth of its own superiority. It not only forms a false self-image, it, like narcissus, falls in love with it. I used to say to my own children, “The least painful place to live is in reality”, to which my wise-beyond her-years youngest child replied “it’s not reality that’s so painful, it’s when reality hits.”

    • What drivel. The biggest believer in the myth of his own superiority, brought on by a highly sheltered existence, is the current PM.

    • I am sorry but I have never heard Edmonton nor Calgary referred to as “the centre of the universe” but I have heard Toronto called that by people from many parts of our great country including the Maritimes, BC and central Canada.

  7. I suggest the author diarize mid-2019 for a follow up piece. I am confident that, by then, the Province will look a lot more like the one he grew up in.