STEVE ARTHUR

Mythologized & Misunderstood

The real Alberta is infinitely more complex, nuanced and absurd than outsiders—or even Albertans—fathom.

By Geo Takach

Trying to define anything, let alone a place like Alberta, is complicated by the panoply of perspectives involved. Like the blind bloke approaching the elephant, each of us grasps a piece of the thing and draws conclusions about the whole. Given Alberta’s elephantine size and her variety of textures, appendages and orifices, getting to the soul of the beast is certainly no small tusk—and it’s a moving target, to boot. 

I ought to know. I spent four years seeking to define the essence of our province while producing a one-hour documentary film, a book and a migraine. (For an early battle cry, see the Dec 2005/Jan 2006 Alberta Views.) I spoke with eminent Albertans from poets, politicians and paleontologists to painters, pundits and rat patrollers—as well as severely normal folks on the street. I even made the crusade national, corralling obliging pedestrians from the wharves of Vancouver to the wilds of northern Newfoundland. I devoured enough popular and academic literature to fill a derrick. I embraced the intoxicating delights of archive dust. And the more I rooted around, the more I found that the popular stereotypes of Alberta were just the tip of the grain elevator.

Historian Tamara Palmer Seiler suggests that Alberta has an identity very distinct from people in other parts of Canada, then adds, “Whether or not that is an identity that most Albertans would say is accurate is another matter.” In the bumper crop of literature surrounding our provincial centennial, author Ray Djuff warned against even trying to define us, concluding that “a great deal of the myth and reality of what is an Albertan is wrapped up in contrariness and contradiction.” Sociologist Tami Bereska declares, “There has been contradiction throughout Alberta’s history, such as Emily Murphy being both a women’s rights advocate and a racist. I look at different parts of the province and see contrasts.”

So what are Alberta’s truths and what are her myths? Let’s start with the perceptions that others commonly express about Wild Rose Country.

Certainly the kindest observation is that we are friendly. While we may be more neighbourly than your average road-raging driver in Montreal, Alberta has also been labelled the noisiest and the angriest province in Canada. Writer Aritha van Herk calls us “rude, rambunctious and raucous.” 

Other impressions I’ve encountered include:

That the province is all bald prairie, punctuated to the west by mountains.

That we are predominantly rural in our outlook and lifestyle, collectively fixated on cows, horses and Smithbilts.

That we are archly, unflinchingly and uniformly conservative in our social, political and economic orientation.

That our necks are redder than the guests of honour at church basement suppers in Cavendish, the home jerseys of Les Glorieux or double-decker buses in Victoria.

That we thump Bibles like a pumpjack stuck in overdrive.

That we don’t give a damn about the rest of Canada.

That we are more Texan than Canadian.

That we are mavericks who do what we want, when we want, with whomever we want.

That bacteria have more culture than we have.

That we’re a stagnant place, not big on the whole education and innovation thing.

That we’re out to get even richer at the expense of our land, air, water and wildlife.

Any Albertan worth her or his bitumen salt could argue the veracity of these perceptions from here to Alpha Centauri. So if they are all myths, or at least exaggerations or doddering truths long raked over by the harrow of time, why are they still persistently thrown in our face? And why do we perpetuate them ourselves?

After Mother Nature’s construction work over the eons and then a few millennia as Aboriginal country, what we call Alberta was recast as part of the Canadian North-West. This move profoundly shaped her identity, defining her in relation to something else, something apparently greater than herself. For people like the Cree and the Blackfoot, the term “North-West” had all the significance of buffalo dung—except that the dung was actually useful for heating and for building driving lanes for (ironically) buffalo hunts. As a colony of a colony, Alberta was seen as grist for the mill of empire, providing beaver-felt hats for the haberdasheries of jolly olde England, grain for the national breadbasket, a captive market to prop up manufacturers in central Canada, the missing link in a sea-to-sea umbilical cord of steel, black gold and lumber for foreign interests. In short, by dint of geography, Alberta since colonial days has existed to serve the political and economic interests of people who don’t live here.

For two centuries, this was mostly terra incognita beyond accounts from fur traders, pictorial artists and the odd tourist like the Marquess of Lorne, an upscale remittance man married to the royal who lent our province her name. This was seen as a vast, remote, frigid wilderness, and left by imperial powers to plunderers and profiteers. The myth-making ratcheted up in late Victorian times when the bosses of the new Dominion government, bent on agricultural settlement to thwart the threat of US incursion, decided that Wild Rose Country was the second coming of Eden, wilfully ignoring expert advice to the contrary.

The result was an indelible popular image: the self-reliant, rugged individualist on the frontier who carves a life from the prairie stubble on sheer strength, wits and grit. But other realities often get lost in the folklore. For example, offsetting the rugged individualist point, settlers actually banded together to survive, through entities like communities, churches and wheat pools. (The Ferbey Four, rock stars of curling, echo this ethic today when they call Albertans “generous team players” and liken the province to a big family.) The frontier’s legendarily harsh climate and voracious insects were matched in practice by the less-cited sting of centrally based banks, railways and grain monopolies. And the persistent spotlight on cowboys, rumrunners and other trappings of the US Wild West ignores first the enormous power and influence of the ranching barons and the British-Ontarian culture they brought to southern Alberta, and second the vastly longer history of the northern fur trade, which in turn is dwarfed by at least 10,000 years of Aboriginal experience on the land—land which, the last time anyone looked, was not all bald-ass prairie. In fact, the Royal Alberta Museum’s curator of botany, Roxy Hastings, suggests that Alberta ranks among the most biogeographically diverse places on Earth.

Alberta’s vast, open, azure skies are an ideal backdrop for mythologizing. Observing that Alberta was the last in the land to establish a provincial museum or archives, one cultural historian noted the common belief that Wild Rose Country is a blank slate. This tabula rasa myth began with the North-West Mounted Police’s famous westward march and continued with the immigrant experience. Myrna Kostash, author of the iconoclastic All of Baba’s Children, observes that it was only on rereading The Temptations of Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe, that she realized how much she—and by extension, Albertan mythology as a whole—failed to account for the First Nations in the story of Western settlement. “I had swallowed hook, line and sinker the Ukrainian-Canadian myth that my ancestors were the first,” she admits, citing the pervasive “heroic narrative.”

The self-reliant, rugged individual is an indelible image. But settlers actually banded together to survive.

Those iconic settlers in sheepskin coats were not alone. Albertan communities have been named by people from 25 nations, as diverse as Yemen (whose expats coined Aden), Greece (Orion), Italy (Vulcan), Lebanon (New Sarepta), Lithuania (Vilna), South Africa (Krugerville) and Spain (Bonanza). The province hosts two of the first three mosques in North America and the largest known single-venue multicultural celebration (Edmonton’s annual Heritage Festival). “All these different peoples came together,” says filmmaker Anne Wheeler, “and everybody seemed to be levelled by the act of survival, getting through these winters, delivering the babies, bringing the weddings together—all the things that they had to create out of nothing.” As Fil Fraser, a culture maven whose public service includes human rights commission work, explains, “Because there was no overarchingly dominant group in the early days, people learned to get along and developed a much more relaxed approach to diversity, which serves us well today.” Senator Tommy Banks cites a litany of Canadian firsts achieved by Aboriginal and female leaders from our province. Yet the image of Alberta as an intolerant backwater, buffeted by scrupulously documented incidents of Holocaust-deniers and cross-burners, lingers like the scent of sour gas. “I live in Toronto and we’re multicultural,” a woman at Queen’s Park reminds me, “whereas you guys have buffalo.”

So the province remains coloured by an increasingly remote caricature of the backwater, nouveau-riche cowboy-maverick-redneck. One might attribute at least the cowboy part of the equation to the marketing geniuses at the Calgary Stampede, glorifying a tradition that reached its zenith in one region of Alberta in the 1870s before being exhumed as an exercise in frontier nostalgia in 1912 and evolving into your choice of “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”—its official motto—or a less charitable rallying cry like “Ten Days of Hee Haw.” While the Canuck and Yankee Wests may share, for example, animosity toward a federal government, a grid system for land surveying and an appreciation for the Albertan comedian/healer Don Burnstick, our West retained British traditions. So while we also banished native people to reserves, we were at least more polite about it.

But myths do more than reinvent our past. As potent means to sway human behaviour, they affect our present and future. Whether based on actual or manufactured events, myths have been used by political, economic, cultural and other interests to mobilize public support and advance their agendas.  

We saw this back when the federal government encouraged settlement in the Last Best West by misrepresenting this place as a lush, agricultural paradise. 

We saw it throughout the Lougheed era, when the provincial government sang the praises of free enterprise while subsidizing business and industrial interests to a point that critics claimed was shameless and indecent. 

We certainly see it when political and economic interests in Alberta invoke the National Energy Program every time anyone broaches introducing a tax on carbon emissions, as if Ottawa was singlehandedly responsible for falling oil prices and all of the complex factors that precipitated the last bust in the province. Dead for years, the despised NEP has become a powerful symbolic weapon to be deployed by Alberta’s government against any real or perceived incursion by the feds, just as central Canada continues to serve as bogeyman-on-demand to distract us from our own troubles, and particularly from the need for an opposition in the Legislature. “Albertans are very self-reliant, far more than the rest of the country,” a cyclist in Ottawa tells me. “But it’s odd; for self-reliant people, they always seem to be complaining about being hard done by.”

And we see individuality trumpeted to the moon, while here on the ground the sacking of the Palliser Health Authority’s chief medical officer, David Swann, for proffering pro-Kyoto pronouncements in the face of official provincial resistance to that accord shows that conformity is keenly enforced. (In another real-life maverick turn, Dr. Swann refused an offer to take his job back, ran as an opposition MLA and recently became opposition leader, surely the most thankless job in Alberta.)

Although historical revisionism and manipulation are standard tools of the political trade, they have been deployed with dazzling success in Alberta, the race-paced, come-for-the-money, attention-deficit capital of a country of citizens who surveys repeatedly show couldn’t pass an elementary-school history test. 

The diversity of the province belies its monocultural profiling. As dramaturge and filmmaker Gerry Potter observes, “It’s a wide-open place, with people with wide-open minds. It’s exciting, full of life, full of contrasts. Everything in the world is here in microcosm. There’s every kind of climate zone you want. There’s every kind of geography. We have inner-city problems and wide-open spaces. We have cowboys. We have Indians. We’re not the stereotype that people think we are.”

So here lies the grand duality that is Alberta.

We have a “roll-up-your-sleeves” spirit. Yet we also display record setting apathy at the ballot box.

Not just prairie and mountains, but a vast landscape, dizzying in its variety, with more biomes than almost any other part of Canada and more biodiversity than just about anywhere else on the planet.

No longer predominantly rural, people-wise—although harbouring nation-leading numbers of cows and horses (not to mention llamas, alpacas and ostriches)—but pretty much the most urbanized, and certainly the most rapidly urbanized, population in the country.

Home to not only chuckwagons but world-leading treatment for diabetes, the proto-feminist “Persons” Case and grandmaster puppeteer Ronnie Burkett—and, according to the Canadian Council on Learning, the best learning opportunities in Canada.

Not entirely conservative within the classical meaning of the term, with a formative history of politically non-partisan and even radical behaviour (think UFA and CCF); a latter-day bent for economic neo-liberalism under Preston Manning and Ralph Klein; and a lifelong pull to lead the charge for reform. “It’s not being right-wing,” declares architect Douglas Cardinal. “It’s just not relying on governments to solve our problems.” 

No more redneck than other parts of the nation, and not colossally divergent from other Canucks at the grassroots level on issues like the importance of immigration, women receiving equal pay for equal work, whites marrying Asians and Blacks, or keeping Quebec in Canada.

Farther from the buckle of Canada’s Bible belt than any other province in the loop except British Columbia—after which we report the lowest religious attendance and the highest number of atheists—and by far the most ardent worshippers at the altar of retail. (Then again, we also have Canada’s first permanent creation science museum.)

Proudest of our province and our communities, but still fiercely committed to our country, and a mostly uncomplaining, highest net contributor to our federation. 

Admittedly comparable to Texas in terms of oil, bravado and living large—but probably less anti-American.

Prone to calling ourselves mavericks, taking big risks and thumbing our noses at authority, but more true to our provincial mammal, a sheep, when it comes to political and business elites enforcing the status quo, and to citizens voting (or not voting) in elections.

Canada’s largest per-capita consumers of cultural products—ballet, opera, theatre, books—on which we spend twice as much as on sainted hockey and football. Home of what Senator Banks calls the two finest concert halls in Canada, plus the Edmonton Fringe, the largest theatre festival in North America.

Admittedly not the visible-minority capital of Canada, but logging the youngest population among the provinces, more racially tolerant than many and generally more interested in your progress than your pedigree.

Not a stagnant backwater, but a cauldron of rapid change with a penchant for education, innovation and self-improvement as ideals and lifestyle choices.

Still a province full of impossibly rich oil barons, but also home to the nation’s widest (and widening) gap between wealthy and impoverished; brutal on folks with low and fixed incomes; and deeply insecure after continually riding the volatile waves of boom and bust in an economy anchored singularly and overwhelmingly to primary commodities.

Holding a catastrophic record on our land, air, water and wildlife, while cultivating grassroots resistance to rampant, massive industrial development—resistance attested to in my travels by not only the late, great environmentalist Martha Kostuch, but folks like Preston Manning, Corb Lund, Tantoo Cardinal and scores of Albertans on the street. 

For many, Albertans are united by what Corb Lund calls “a very roll-up-your-sleeves, follow-your dreams, frontier kind of spirit.” On the other hand, there is record-setting apathy at the ballot box and on pressing matters of collective social, economic and environmental concern in a province where people are too affluent, disinterested or distracted to care. Albertans habitually record the lowest voter turnouts in Canada.

Perhaps Alberta is too well off or complacent to reconcile her astonishing historical—and persistent—paradoxes. Maybe that’s simply asking too much of any place or people. Maybe when you get a handle like the Last Best West, you can do this. Yet we pride ourselves on defying the status quo. As US philosopher George Santayana warned, if you can’t remember the past, you’re condemned to repeat it.

Albertans have proven adept at remembering our past, though our collective memory is selectively channelled. We have been less vigorous in framing our bigger historical picture and in questioning myths passed off as traditional beliefs or attitudes (such as the myth of Alberta’s conservative monoculture). 

Whether this is due to political manipulation by the people we elect, our busy schedules, our laziness or some cruel combination thereof makes for an interesting argument, but ultimately is not the point. As we traipse into our second century of provincehood, the latest onslaught—dare we say stampede—of incoming economic migrants could help change our cherished Albertan stereotypes, or simply entrench them deeper. As Aritha van Herk posits, “One of the strangest and probably the biggest traps for Albertans is that they believe their own mythology. They start to step into the story that has been invented about them, and they love it so much that they can’t resist dressing up in that costume.” That may be inevitable, but we must try to challenge our myths from time to time.

Undeniably, Alberta is a grand place, blessed immensely by geography, both physical and human, costume and all. No place achieves perfection. But perhaps ditching some of our rhetorical baggage and its labels—especially our semi-mythical, evil-twin stereotypes—would help. Alberta’s titanic natural and value-added advantages, channelled through our perplexing maze of contradictions to reach a heightened sense of self-awareness and purpose, just might give us a better shot at it than most.

“It’s a paradox,” concludes singer-songwriter Bill Bourne about our province. “But it’s amazing, man.” 

Geo Takach’s film, Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up? premieres June 6 at the Royal Alberta Museum and June 12 on CityTV.

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