Moment of Truth: How to Think About Alberta’s Future

By Eric Strikwerda

Edited by Jack M. Mintz, Ted Morton and Tom Flanagan Sutherland House 2020/$22.95/300 pp.

This book offers some radical points of view—if the year were 1980. Sadly for the editors of this collection of grievance-filled essays, that was more than 40 years ago. In 2021 Jack Mintz, Ted Morton and Tom Flanagan, conservative academics from the University of Calgary, are urging Albertans to choose a future that looks like an angry past.

Back in 1980 many Albertans (and westerners caught up in the hoopla around the idea of western separation) were furious. Alberta’s oil and gas sector had had an amazing run through most of the 1970s. In 1973 the OPEC oil embargo spiked the price of oil worldwide by nearly 300 per cent, and continued instability in the Middle East kept it high.

Wary of the seemingly constant oil price shocks, Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberal government introduced as part of its 1980 budget a national energy program (NEP) meant to institute a “made-in-Canada” price for oil that was well below world prices. To many Albertans this was a blatant incursion into provincial affairs and an outrageous federal cash-grab of Alberta’s riches. Talk of western alienation and even separation raged. The nascent separatist Western Canada Concept party held rallies in Edmonton and Calgary that attracted thousands. Cars and trucks proudly displayed bumper stickers that read, “Eastern bastards can freeze in the dark.”

Alas, Alberta, like most of the western world, entered a deep and prolonged recession, the price of oil fell steadily, and the anger that had fuelled Alberta’s separation aspirations dissolved into the political fringe.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. Alberta’s oil and gas sector was again the beneficiary of rising oil prices. By 2014, however, the world was awash in oil, the price had fallen dramatically and Alberta producers contracted their operations. Another deep recession set in and talk of western alienation and even western separation raged once more across the prairies.

Which brings us to the contents of Moment of Truth, a book trying to make the case that because the West produces oil wealth, it deserves a bigger voice in Ottawa. And if it doesn’t get that bigger voice, then it ought to threaten separation. Or it needs to actually separate. Or join the US. Or something.

In 1980 many Albertans blamed the NEP and Pierre Trudeau for the emerging recession. Forty years later, Moment of Truth argues westerners need to blame the federal government, Pierre Trudeau’s son, Laurentian elites, Indigenous groups opposed to pipelines, Quebeckers opposed to pipelines, environmentalists opposed to pipelines, anyone opposed to pipelines, for the current recession.

Hot take: the NEP didn’t drive Alberta into recession in the 1980s. Falling oil demand during a sharp global capitalist recession and declining oil and gas prices did. And Moment of Truth’s cast of villains supposedly trying to steal Alberta’s wealth and power today didn’t drive Alberta into recession. A legitimate and growing global concern about the devastating effects of climate change, coupled with a falling worldwide demand for Alberta’s oil did. Only a myopic parochialism can explain the inability of Alberta’s aspiring sovereigntists to see that global phenomena dwarf federal policies in explaining the fate of the black gold they fetishize.

Perhaps most troubling about Moment of Truth is its argument that the West ought to be accorded greater power within Confederation because it has produced more wealth than other provinces. That’s like saying a person who earns $250,000 per year ought to have a greater say at the polls than someone who earns, say, $70,000 per year. Conflating wealth with power is dangerous, and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how democracy works.

Eric Strikwerda is an associate professor of history at Athabasca University.

 

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