Chris Pecora

Alberta Rebirth

Let’s take inspiration from 1972.

By Paula Simons

In 1972—50 years ago this year—Alberta passed its first-ever Bill of Rights.

In 1972—50 years ago this year—the Alberta government introduced its first Individual’s Rights Protection Act.

In 1972—50 years ago this year—Alberta outlawed eugenics and repealed its infamous Sexual Sterilization Act.

In 1972—50 years ago this year—Alberta repealed its Communal Property Act, which had discriminated against Hutterite farm colonies.

In 1972—50 years ago this year—Alberta passed a new Mental Health Act, designed to close down large asylums and to protect the legal rights of people with mental illness.

You might say that first session of Alberta’s 17th legislature was one for the ages. In one session, the new government of Peter Lougheed passed 127 different bills. It was a legislative revolution, a radical series of reforms that catapulted Alberta into the modern age.

The legislature passed bills that addressed human rights. Bills that improved environmental protection. A law creating both the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the Alberta Opportunity Company, which provided credit and capital to emerging businesses.

In the same year, the Lougheed government raised oil and gas royalties from a minimum of 5 per cent to a robust 25 per cent.

It adopted Alberta’s official policy of multiculturalism.

And the government allowed Albertans to buy yellow-tinted margarine. (Previously banned for its resemblance to butter.)

Also? This revolution was televised. Albertans could watch it all unfold from their living rooms, because 1972 was also when Alberta first allowed sittings of the legislature, including Question Period, to be broadcast. (This was five years before House of Commons proceedings were televised, 14 years before sittings of the Ontario legislature were first broadcast, and 47 years before the Senate started live-streaming its sittings.)

With so many golden anniversaries to mark in 2022, it’s easy to look back to 1972 as a golden age for our province, our era of Camelot. Of course, Peter Lougheed wasn’t King Arthur, and his cabinet weren’t knights of the round table. They were politicians, with the usual assortment of warts and all. Over the course of the Lougheed years, they made their share of mistakes and miscalculations, as they established what amounted to a one-party state with a virtually unchecked grip on power.

And yet. Can you blame me for feeling wistful, reflecting on an era where Alberta’s Conservative politicians saw themselves as crusading reformers, champions of human rights, protectors of the environment, pioneers of multiculturalism, patrons of the arts and leaders in open government?

Peter Lougheed had a vision for this province, a progressive vision of an Alberta that was a power on the national stage, of an Alberta where we didn’t sulk or shirk, but stepped up to lead the rest of Canada. He wanted to make Alberta great—not by hoarding grievances but by seizing the moment.

I was awestruck to see a government so ambitious, so courageous and so optimistic about Alberta’s future.

I was just seven years old in 1972. So I can’t claim to have reliable recollections. My misty watercolour memories of the way we were aren’t to be trusted. But when I recently went online and read through the bills passed in 1972, I was awestruck to see the black and white evidence of a government so ambitious, so courageous and so optimistic about Alberta’s future.

Fifty years from now, what will our legacy be? We stand, once again, at a crossroads. With the world shifting beneath our feet, we have to decide how to go forward. Or are we content, instead, to go backward? To retreat to the parochial, insular, small-minded world view of the pre-Lougheed era?

It might be easy to say, “Oh, we can’t afford to be brave right now! Not with COVID, and Russia, and China, and who knows what else around the corner.” But can I tell you a secret? Apart from all the good things that happened in Alberta, 1972 was actually a pretty horrendous year. The Vietnam War was raging. The Watergate scandal was unfolding. The year saw extraordinary sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the Bloody Sunday massacre, a string of retaliatory IRA terror attacks. The Arab terrorist group Black September carried out its own massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich—just one of many terrorist attacks and hijackings around the world that year. And almost forgotten in all that other bloodshed? A genocide in Burundi that killed more than 500,000.

Somehow, Albertans and their leaders looked upon all that horror and terror, and decided to be bold and open. Instead of walling Alberta off from the world, they opted for modernity.

It’s 2022. The choice is ours. At a time of toxic polarization, we have the power to reject despair and resignation and to embrace hope and confidence. As Albertans we are the inheritors of a remarkable political legacy. It’s time for us to claim it. To reclaim it. And to prove that we’re worthy successors of those who broke trail for all the rest of us.

Paula Simons is an independent senator and the host of the podcast Alberta Unbound. She lives in Edmonton.

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