2012: Alberta’s U-Turn

Aritha van Herk depicts Alberta after five years of liberal rule.

By Aritha van Herk

There’s a quiet sigh of almost-relief in the obstreperous province of Alberta. We’ve survived our latest political tornado, although the most recent was hardly the sweep-out-everyone-in-sight election that our history is famous for.

Albertans should have seen the funnel cloud on the horizon. We’ve witnessed this before, when the UFA ousted the Liberals in 1921, when Social Credit blew the UFA off the map in 1935, and again in 1971 when Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives flattened Harry Strom like the straw man in The Wizard of Oz. Ed Stelmach looked a lot like Strom, and the rumblings on the hustings were building up to change, although no one in Canada would have guessed that Alberta would actually vote Liberal. Not when we hadn’t had a Liberal government since the earliest days of the province.

But the Stelmach leadership win bequeathed to three million Albertans a murky future. In the wine bars and restaurants frequented by Alberta’s urban cognoscenti, there were mutters of annoyed disbelief when Steady Eddie, everybody’s second choice, took charge. His first cabinet was the final straw. Only four cabinet posts for the two major centres. Only two women. No visible minorities. No Aboriginals.

“Another turd kicker,” muttered the hustlers on Stephen Avenue.

“I’m waiting to be impressed,” huffed the government workers on Jasper Avenue.

Even Fort McMurray, puffing oil sands breath into the dark of winter, scowled. Stelmach came from “northern” Alberta? Vegreville, they muttered, is not north. And would Highway 63 ever be improved?

Meanwhile, Steady Eddie bestowed the order of Alberta on all his friends. A $500 donation and pin on lapel—honours for sale! He held soirees in community halls, promising to subsidize grain and grass and hail crops. Choirs went on cultural missions to London, England, but nobody went to the concerts.

And he kept a “no change” hand on the tiller of resources, which was fine with the oil and gas industry, but not so fine with the water lobby, the ranching lobby, the environmentalists or the urbanites. The cabinet’s punishing “anything and anywhere but Calgary” attitude won cranky approval in Edmonton, but seriously irritated Calgarians.

When Stelmach finally called the election for a gloomy October day in 2007, bookies gave the Liberals no chance. They were watching Ipsos Reid polls, calling up farmers and talking to ordinary folks who thought Stelmach a “nice” man.

But by the eve of the election, it began to dawn on everyone that the contest was not about the past but the future. Albertans were sick of cartoons depicting them with pitchforks, sick and tired of being mocked as the rich but ill-mannered hayseeds of the nation. Albertans wanted some sass, some zip, some cultural currency. They wanted a telescope to gaze at the stars, not at the road directly in front of a muddy Nissan Pathfinder. It was a vote to oust rather than a vote in favour. Women voted against Stelmach. Young people voted against Stelmach. Aboriginals voted against Stelmach. Artists, sick of being at the bottom of the tourism, parks, recreation and culture ladder, voted against Stelmach. Calgary voted against Stelmach. And the increasingly diverse and sophisticated multicultural population of Alberta voted against Stelmach.

The Liberals declared, loud and clear, that there would be no bowing to the feds on energy matters, that they would fight to retain control over natural resources, and that they were a different party with a different rap sheet from the centralist national crew. They squeaked in, with a bare majority.

At first, stunned by their success, the new government sputtered and seemed to stall. The press had a field day with Kevin Taft’s first move—changing the podium in the media room. Designed for Klein and Stelmach, it was a foot too short for Taft, who was ebullient at his first press conference, at last able to read his notes without hunching over.

“No more short men!” shouted the headlines.

After that quotidian start, the Liberals got to work. Taft gave the order of Alberta to k.d. lang and Ian Tyson. Tyson muttered that he already had it and he was getting too damned old, and k.d. wrote a satiric song about marching orders and Alberta. But Albertans nodded. Okay, they seemed to say.

Taft’s first serious move was to strike a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. “oh no,” groaned the pundits, “not another ‘assembly.’” But unlike Ralph’s citizens’ forums, these were open to the public, widely advertised, with serious secretaries tapping notes at laptops. And people came out in droves. urban folk were fed up with their vote counting for only a fraction of the rural vote. The youth blasted hoary politicians, women blasted sexist politicians, and immigrants blasted racist politicians. The surprise of the election had startled everyone, and they all wanted a say. Result? The electoral boundaries have changed. The next election will be very interesting.

Four years later, that initial electricity still tingles, as if debate and disagreement have woken from a long slumber. Polls chart a new phenomenon: Albertans now sit in cafés and argue, get into shouting matches, diehard conservatives arguing for the good old days and new urbanites arguing for change.

Growth is still a pressure, a steady stream of people flowing into Alberta. Newcomers still have trouble finding adequate housing, although leaping property values have levelled off and overpriced houses take the usual three months to sell. The building trades have stabilized, with SAIT and NAIT tripling their number of graduates under a Liberal initiative that enabled exponentially expanded programs.
For once, the increase in funding to post-secondary institutions didn’t just vanish into administrative pockets and glass-sided buildings. A flood of new professors and instructors from all over the world have added to the texture of the province, not only in Edmonton and Calgary, but in Medicine Hat and Cold Lake and Camrose and Lethbridge. At last Albertans have figured out that education is an invest- ment, an industry, an economic engine.

The official opposition wails about out-of-control spending, but the Liberals smile blithely and announce a preventive health care program giving a tax break to citizens who use a gym three times a week. Right after they announce plans for a whole new transportation infrastructure, high-speed trains linking cities, intra-urban systems within cities. Edmonton is building the “Brain Train,” a rail connector between NAIT, Grant MacEwan and the University. Calgary wants one too.

Albertans, sick of cutbacks and inadequacy, have started to relax. “Investing in the future,” the Liberals call it, and slice another ribbon. So far, they’ve even kept their promise of plowing a percentage of resource revenues into the Heritage Fund, now likely to hit $120-billion by 2021.

“Investing in the future,” the liberals call it, and slice another ribbon. so far, they’ve even kept their promise of plowing resources into the Heritage fund, now likely to hit $120-billion by 2021.

The Liberal dialogue with the resource industry has been low key, with both parties nervously second-guessing the future. The boom still resonates, oil and gas prices moving up and down. The big question—Are the people of Alberta getting a fair price?—led to a review of the royalty structure. American companies objected, but the Canadian side of the industry quietly agreed that a review was necessary, Albertans had to get a fair deal for our product. Once it was clear there would be no cloaked NEP, and that the Libs weren’t out to demonize resources, the industry went back to doing what they do best: exploration and extraction, the stock market and pipelines.
The loudest controversy was over the $1-billion East Balzac development. The moment the Liberals were elected, they overturned the previous Alberta Environment Board’s approval for transfer of water from the Red deer River basin, despite the screams of Alberta shopaholics, the Rocky View Municipality and the Quebec developers, Ivanhoe Cambridge, who were already well in the ground.
“No water, no mall!” the developers howled. Not to mention the casino, the thoroughbred track, the standardbred track, the vet college and the hotel—surrounding the mall with a collar of spendthrift energy, sending strobes into the night air and distracting planes bound for the international airport.

For once, Calgary applauded. The city had refused to allow the development to draw from the Bow River basin, and the last thing they wanted was a replica of West Edmonton Mall murdering the fragile energy of Stephen Avenue, the Red Mile and Kensington.
“No Quebec malls here!” read the headlines, and “No room for 5,000 parking spaces.”

That brave move brought down fire and brimstone, but the Liberals simply refused to approve the water application. “No way,” said the Minister of Environment. “We won’t be permitting the transfer of water from one basin to another.” of course, the mall, somewhat modified, has gone ahead, despite being years past its initial completion date. The racetrack trucks in water from BC for the horses and the casino, leaving the retail stores to fend for themselves. No fountains have been installed, and the toilets are low-flush. But Albertans are now aware that their most fragile resource, water, needs as much attention as oil and gas.

The racetrack controversy was perfect. The Liberals announced double funding for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, a cultural readjustment to the Tories’ budgeting three and one half times as much money to horse racing as to the arts. “But Albertans like horse racing and hate art,” screamed the Tories. “Is that so?” said the premier.

We are still bursting at the seams, our growth outstripping our designer overalls. But the questions are clearer, more pertinent. We’re living in an Alberta less retrograde, our bitter defensiveness sweetened. There’s a smell of confidence in the air. We’ve become worldly, sophisticated, knowledgeable. Now, in 2012, we’re less rural, less oily, more creative. We’re actually starting to look well groomed.
Alberta House has reopened in London, topped by a huge billboard advertising Alberta beef. In Milan our operas play to packed houses. Writers and painters are moving in, eager to be part of the burgeoning cultural scene. In New York, we taste the new Absolut Saskatoon and know we have begun to make our mark, no longer willing to settle for being red- neck, gas-guzzling Albertans. We’ve decided to become something else.

We save our suspicion for Ottawa. It seems as if the political tables have reversed. The Conservatives rule Ottawa, and the Liberals rule Alberta. How crazy is that?

Aritha van Herk is the author of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, on which a new permanent exhibition at the Glenbow is based.


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