Constructing Morton

As a professor, he was widely respected. As a conservative leadership candidate, he courted the redneck vote. Just who is Ted Morton?

By Suzy Thompson

He is smart, he is scary. He used to be an American. He talks more than any other Alberta politician about strengthening democracy. There was a time when his family could call Dick Cheney a friend. For 10 years running he was voted by University of Calgary students in Maclean’s magazine’s university issue their favourite professor. “I am,” he said in 1998, “every liberal’s worst nightmare—a right-winger with a PhD.”

When I was an undergrad at the U of C, Ted Morton was one of my best profs. I respected the way he answered our questions: careful to help us understand, without condescending. He had an energy that made classroom discussions feel important. We talked about precedents and constitutions.

It was the winter of 2001. US president Bill Clinton was leaving office and handing out pardons at an unprecedented rate. Morton came to class after a trip to Washington, DC, and showed us a T-shirt he’d bought there that read “I paid my fee, now pardon me.” It was easy to like someone who thought that was funny.

In the spring of 2003, I graduated and left the country; Morton took a leave of absence after 21 years of teaching to become a politician. When I returned to Canada a year later, things were different. Morton was in the news frequently then. He talked about homosexuality and religion and Ottawa. He seemed increasingly arrogant and narrow-minded. The dichotomy between the receptive academic I remembered and this politician made me wonder what I had missed in the classroom. Had he changed, or was he always such a smug redneck?

Frederick (Ted) Morton is a purebred politician. His grandfather, Robert Allen, served in the US Congress during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term. His father, Warren Morton, served six terms as a Republican senator in Wyoming.

Ted grew up in Casper, a small Wyoming city with a long history in the oil industry. “My family was quintessential small oil. A four-person office: my father, a geologist, a landman and a secretary,” he says in an e-mail. “I can certainly empathize with Alberta’s junior oil companies because we lived through the ups and downs of the industry.”

His father became a state senator in 1967, just as Ted was leaving for college in Colorado. Warren eventually became Speaker of the Senate, and was a mentor to many in the Legislature. He even supervised the internship of a certain Dick Cheney there.

In the sixties, Ted epitomized the compassionate liberal. While at Colorado College he became involved in the civil rights movement. He embraced socialism, actively opposed the Vietnam war, participated in founding the college’s first NAACP chapter and worked in voter registration for the Democrats. “I had led a book discussion for new first-year students on race relations and [the] civil rights movement. This was a catalyst for several of us to form a campus [NAACP] chapter” he explains. “Our biggest project that fall was a voter registration drive in the poorer neighbourhoods east of the college campus.”

In 1971, Morton’s fascination with social-ism reached its peak. Anxious to see the ideas of Tolstoy and Fourier in practice, he went to Kibbutz Yifat, a communal farm not far from Nazareth. He remained on the kibbutz for 10 months between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. “Quite simply, it cured me of both my socialism and my pacifism,” says Morton. “It became clear to me that 20 per cent of the people were doing 80 per cent of the work; I was in the 20 per cent. Most of the capable young Israelis our age at Yifat were leaving the kibbutz for this reason… After trips to the Golan, West Bank, southern Lebanon, Gaza and Sharm el Sheik, it became quite clear that the only thing that kept Israel from being pushed into the sea was its air force and the US Sixth Fleet. This experience simply confirmed what I’d been taught as an undergraduate poli-sci student but had been too self-absorbed in sixties subculture to accept: the first prerequisite for a sustainable nation is the ability to successfully defend its territorial borders.”

For the rest of the seventies Morton settled down at the University of Toronto, studying for his master’s and doctorate in political science, then teaching for several years at Assumption College in Massachusetts. At the U of T he met Rainer Knopff, who convinced Morton to follow him to the University of Calgary in 1981.

When Morton brought his young family here, he became truly Albertan. Asking him why brings this pat response: For the beauty of the land. For the love of all Albertans. But for whatever reason, he was home.

Morton’s office door at the University of Calgary is plastered with brittle newspaper clippings, comic strips and lecture posters, most of them more than five years old. His office remains as he left it in 2004, when he decided to enter politics—which required him to take a leave of absence from the university. “I would describe him as a good departmental citizen,” says his long-time friend professor Tom Flanagan. “He taught heavy loads—constitutional law, other judicial process courses with large enrolments. He spent a lot of time with his students… He’s a very friendly, outgoing guy and I think he was quite popular with students.”

In the nineties, a gang of professors in the political science department at U of C became known as the Calgary School. Its membership includes Tom Flanagan, Barry Cooper, Rainer Knopff, David Bercuson, Roger Gibbins and Ted Morton. David Rovinsky, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, coined the name in a 1998 paper about the ascendancy of the West. Whether because of the questions they raise or the language they use, members of the Calgary School are seen as rigidly right-wing. Flanagan has written about special treatment of First Nations, and Cooper about liberal bias in the media; together, Knopff and Morton have studied interest group involvement in judicial decisions. In 2004, the professors, along with one Stephen Harper, penned the “Alberta Agenda,” an open letter to Ralph Klein calling on Alberta to build a firewall around the province to protect it from perceived federal incursions. Quoted in a 2004 article in The Walrus, academic Radha Jhappan summed up the group as “the department of redneckology.” Former Calgary Herald reporter Brian Brennan believes the political climate of early-nineties Alberta fostered the neo-conservatism of the Calgary School. “That’s when the whole shift to the right happened for a lot of these guys.” At the same time, he says, they genuinely reflected Albertan disenchantment with the federal Liberals. That Flanagan and Morton are US-born, that most of the group take hunting trips together, and that many are involved with the neoconservative think tank the Fraser Institute do little to contradict the public perception of the Calgary School. But Morton rejects the “redneck” tag as “a standard liberal smear that shows their elitist disrespect for working class men and women.”

It is not surprising that Morton made the leap from academia into politics. Years before, he had gained some valuable experience on the campaign trail.  In 1982, the year after he arrived at the U of C, Morton returned to Wyoming. His father was running for governor and hired Ted to work on the campaign. Dick Cheney was the campaign chairman.

In federal elections, Wyoming tends to vote Republican, but Democrats are elected governor as often as Republicans are. Over the state’s 34 gubernatorial elections, the vote averages a 55/45 split. But in 1982, so many normally Republican voters supported Democratic candidate Ed Herschler that Morton lost 63-37—the widest margin in state history. Former Wyoming senator Peter Simpson, who himself ran for governor in 1986, explains: “[Morton] ran to take the place of a man …[who] had to abandon the race in the middle of the primaries mainly for a health thing, leaving the Republican party without a candidate.” As a result, Morton’s campaign battled time constraints and an “extremely popular” incumbent.

Simpson was a good friend of Warren Morton. From his home in Cody, Wyoming, he describes him fondly as a statesman, “a highly honourable, very bright, articulate man,” who was “devoted to the good of his constituency. Sounds like a fairy tale in this day and age… Sometimes he could be a little brusque, but he knew what he was doing. And even those who he might have ruffled the wrong way for the most part valued what he had to say and what he did.”

Morton Sr.—smart, proudly conservative, Yale-educated and not averse to delivering a lecture—suffered from the public perception that he was haughty. The Republican party was aware of this, so during the 1982 campaign Morton’s wife sometimes appeared on television instead. Wyoming voters, Simpson explains, “did tend to think Morton could be preachy, and [to] misinterpret that as arrogance, which wasn’t in his makeup.” But, Simpson adds, “I always valued my association with him, and I missed him when he was gone.” Warren Morton died in 2002.

Ted’s own entry into politics, if anything, seemed belated. In 1998, the federal Reform Party persuaded Ralph Klein to allow ballots to be cast for candidates for an Albertan seat in the Senate. Many had become unhappy with Jean Chrétien’s tendency to appoint senators without input from the provinces, and Albertans hoped those elected in 1998 would be appointed to the Senate when seats became available. Appointing unelected senators was a long-standing convention, so Chrétien saw no reason to take Alberta’s “nomination” seriously. Though 850,000 votes were cast, with Morton and Bert Brown winning the nomination, the prime minister considered the process a joke and ignored the results.

In the fall of 2004, speculation was already building over a possible Conservative party leadership bid by Morton. That November, Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid reported that the prof had 6 per cent support province-wide—which was something, considering his relative obscurity. Morton decided to run for the legislature seat for the riding of Foothills-Rockyview, characterized by upper-middle-class acreages west of Calgary.

Morton wasn’t the only Tory hoping for a spot in the riding. His competitor, Tim Anderson, brought a formal complaint against him, claiming the professor was selling Tory memberships to people who didn’t live there. Ralph Klein stepped in and accepted Morton’s nomination unilaterally. A judge declared the case moot, and Anderson had to give up.

Voters still found out, in a way. The night before the election, 11,000 homes in Foothills-Rockyview received an anonymous automated phone call claiming that Morton was under investigation for voter fraud. The RCMP’s attempts to trace the call failed. Morton maintains that the confusion over his nomination campaign arose because Foothills-Rockyview was a newly drawn riding. He also says he has no idea who was responsible for the calls.

Elected MLA, Morton decided to bring up the gay-marriage topic in the Legislature. New venue, old issue. Throughout his academic career he had built a reputation as an expert on Canadian constitutional law and civil rights. He often wrote about whether denying marriage to same-sex couples was a human rights issue. His arguments always began with the Charter, the authors of which, he asserts, deliberately omitted mention of sexual orientation. But he had trouble aligning his beliefs in civil rights with his other principles. He unfailingly drifted into the purpose of marriage, which he says will forever be procreation. Then he moralized.

In July 2002 he wrote in the Calgary Herald, “Most Canadians intuit a basic inconsistency between the requirements of enduring marriages/intact families and the hedonistic promiscuity celebrated by the gay ‘liberation’ movement… They cannot ask us to believe they are simultaneously straight and kinky, responsible parents and sexual libertines. Sexual promiscuity is incompatible with stable families.” This position more than any other earned Morton his “conservative’s Conservative” stripes.

He continued to flog the issue even after most of his associates realized it was dead. In 2006 he introduced Bill 208 (his first), the “Protection of Fundamental Freedoms (Marriage) Statute Amendment Act.” It proposed three amendments to the existing Marriage, School and Human Rights, Citizenship & Multiculturalism Acts, and did not comment on the legality of same-sex marriage. It stated that no one would be forced to officiate at a same-sex marriage, no one would be penalized for speaking against same-sex marriage, and no teacher would be compelled to teach nor any student compelled to learn that marriage can exist between two people of the same sex. 

It failed.

MLAs and Premier Klein distanced themselves from the bill. Klein told the press he didn’t want it to come to a vote, and it never did. Morton says filibustering by opposition and Tory MLAs kept the Legislature busy until 208’s time to be debated ran out and it died on the order paper.

On the heels of Bill 208’s rejection, and with his ideology registered in the minds of people who had heard very little else about him, Morton turned his attention to the Conservative party’s leadership campaign. He was a polarizing force: as fiercely as some people opposed him, others backed him. He was a rookie, but not such a long shot to become premier. He also had experience with leadership campaigns.

The leadership race in 2006 was a scramble. Klein had been the only imaginable premier since 1993, and his “long goodbye” left no clear successor. Eight men officially bid for the job.

Morton and fellow candidate Jim Dinning were portrayed as perfect antagonists. Dinning represented the red Conservatives. He wasn’t the only moderate, but he was the most powerful. While Dinning’s platform was widely described as upbeat but hollow and Morton’s as aggressive, their public images became more important than whatever was written in their policy brochures.

The race gained real momentum after the first round of voting on November 25. The result of that ballot dumped five candidates and brought Dinning and Morton neck and neck into first and second place, with an unsung Ed Stelmach trailing third. This degree of support for Morton (26 per cent of the vote to Dinning’s 30) came as a surprise. Obviously he had found an audience.

They then had a week and a half to conquer each other. Since the summer, Morton had been disparaging Dinning’s connection to corporate Calgary. On July 14, the Edmonton Sun had quoted him as saying, “It’s the so-called Calgary mafia that have built up around Klein. It’s the backroom boys that are so influential in the premier’s office the past 13 years—all of whom are from Calgary and a good number of whom have reattached themselves to Dinning.” All Morton had to do was ramp it up—which was easy, since much of his support came from rural conservatives who had little time for corporate Calgary.

Creating a strategy to compete against Morton, whose socially conservative pronouncements increasingly made news, was not difficult either. As Graham Thomson noted in his Edmonton Journal column three days after the first vote, “Dinning put on brass knuckles and began pounding away at Ted Morton as a scary, right-wing radical who would privatize health care, ‘fire’ the RCMP, refight same-sex marriage and remove the ‘progressive’ from Progressive Conservative… To motivate his support for the upcoming vote, Dinning is running a campaign of fear.”

Kevin Libin wrote in the National Post several days later, “It’s anyone’s guess how many left-of-centre Albertans have held their noses and forked over $5 for a Progressive Conservative membership. The reason? Fear and perhaps a dash of loathing of Ted Morton, the unapologetically right-wing poli-sci professor. But Mr. Dinning’s critics say there’s more to it. Alberta’s former treasurer, they charge, is actively recruiting non-Tories, dialing up Liberal party membership lists and warning dyed-in-the-wool Grits that if there’s one thing they need dread more than another PC premier, it’s a hard-right PC premier with a social-conservative agenda.”

Jeanette Nicholls, a consultant to the University of Calgary, was a campaign volunteer for Dinning. She asserts she knew of no widespread effort to demonize Morton. “We knew, we knew, that [Dinning] had that scope and that depth of leadership capability that this province needed… [Our focus] wasn’t all those other eight people’s names on the list, that wasn’t it at all.” Nicholls says the thousands of people working for Dinning’s campaign were only concerned with his victory, not Morton’s defeat—though she admits noticing a rush of people that were considered left-of-centre buying Conservative party memberships in order to participate in the leadership vote. “Oh, it was the topic of conversation forever. It was no surprise whatsoever, because you have to sell memberships to people for them to be able to vote. And so you must have some issue. And in fact a lot of people in our constituency bought memberships and voted who had never had a membership in the Conservative party in their entire life.”

Many others voted for “anything but Morton.” Journalist Brian Brennan makes no secret of his political ideology. He has always thrown his support behind the Liberals, yet in 2006 he bought his first membership in the PC party. He says he did it because “I didn’t want to see Morton making it… Here was an opportunity to actually vote for the person who was going to be the next premier of the province of Alberta. I’ve never voted Conservative in my life, either provincially or federally. (Well actually that’s not true… I was a ‘Liberal for Joe Clark.’) There doesn’t seem to be any room in Ted Morton’s universe for gay people or same-sex marriages—you know, for a lot of aspects of society which are part of the modern world that we live in… That’s what Ted represented and I thought ‘no.’”

While Morton and Dinning concentrated on portraying each other as threatening, the media indulged in the characterization. By the second ballot, on December 6, the voters were polarized. In the heat of the battle, Ed Stelmach came up the middle to claim the throne.

Morton has good reason to run for the leadership again. He has the support of hard-right Albertans. He is their most articulate representative.

I remember how, as my instructor, he was one of the first to really teach me about democratic principles, about the way laws develop and how courts are inevitably affected by politics. He did this without betraying his bias, if he even had one. It motivated me to try to understand him as a conservative.

In November 2007, I met Ted Morton for the first time since I left university. Almost a year had passed since the leadership race. Premier Stelmach had assigned him the Sustainable Resources portfolio. Since then he had made headlines with his ideas about logging in Kananaskis and curbing Métis hunting rights, and with his declaration of a provincial hunting day. 

Morton agreed to meet me for an interview at the Airport Radisson in Calgary. He was in town for the PC policy convention and would have time to talk before the meetings began. He was friendly and chatty one moment, aloof and uncharacteristically obtuse the next.

“Why do you say impolitic things, knowing what your image is in the media? For example, why would you declare a hunting day?”

“It doesn’t force anybody to go hunting, just recognizes a traditional activity that’s part of Alberta history and culture and Western Canadian history and culture.”

“But you still know the media’s going to love it.”

“Well, in fact, hunting is [the] new environmental craze in food, right?”

“Was Bill 208 about gay marriage or judicial activism?”

“Judicial activism, purely about our right not to be forced to condone something.”

“Then why write in the newspaper about the morality of homosexuality?”

He responded with the slightest smile.

Later, when we communicated by e-mail, I tried again. Was his ideology more Wyoming than Alberta, more Cheney than Lougheed?

“Give me a break. I left Wyoming in the fall of 1967 to go to Colorado College and have never been back except for summer holidays.” As for Cheney, “he was a good friend of my parents… I hardly knew him before my father’s campaign for governor.” If Morton is vilified in the news media, he believes he isn’t to blame. I asked him if he thought the media have a liberal bias. He offered a rhetorical answer: “Do bears shit in the woods?”

I asked Tom Flanagan these same questions about Morton. His answer was better. “It’s like, you know, a stage play. You’ve got a role to play. But of course, when you knew him as a professor, it’s not our business to be rude to students… Realize it’s all part of a dramatic production that’s all part of this game that we call politics.”

In the end I didn’t know what I thought of Ted Morton. He wasn’t definable anymore.

Suzy Thompson is an editorial assistant and photographer for Alberta Views. She lives in Calgary.



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