Chris Pecora

Once Were Mountains

The premier’s vision.

By Fred Stenson

The democracy thing. Here in 2021 the Alberta premier was having trouble getting his mind around it. In his Ottawa days he’d been taught to forget the concept of government by the people. His political master (then and now) advised him to ignore voters or thrash them. Even when functioning in a minority government, the old master had said: “If for an instant they think you’ve lost faith in your superiority and mastery over them, they’ll come at you like a pack of dogs. Best to take the stick to them early and often.”

Good advice. And yet here he was, a provincial premier with a large majority, and the dogs were all around him. Growling. Baring their teeth. At the first sign, he had done as the master said and took a stick to them. “You don’t like your healthcare? I’ll cut it, and we’ll see if you like it any better.” But it didn’t stop them. If dogs realize they have taken your heftiest blows and are still standing, what then? Put them down? But the days when you could simply lop off the moaning percentage of the population had passed. Some believed those days would return, but the premier was stuck in the here-and-now: 30 per cent support and dropping.

And what stupid things riled modern Albertans! Last year, it was a brouhaha over the premier and the health minister driving doctors away during a pandemic. All they’d done was throw out the doctors’ contract while imposing a more frugal one. No consultation, of course. The premier did not enjoy the voters’ clamour over that, but at least he could understand it—in a distant, unconnected, unsympathetic way. Let’s say you live in a small town with lots of old people. You’re probably an old person yourself. The doctors start leaving. That could be unsettling, if you’re fond of your stupid small town and want to stay there. He’d heard of such a thing.

But this latest hue and cry about mountains? All the premier had done was make a deal with Australian coal corporations to come and strip mine Alberta coal, which happened to be under and inside some Rocky Mountains. To clear the way for the deal, he’d had to chuck out some disco-era legislation about protecting headwaters. This 1976 Coal Policy had been passed by Alberta premier Peter Lougheed: the very strangest of all political beings, a charismatic conservative. Now, half a century later, the premier had dared touch St. Lougheed’s coal bill (touched it out of existence) and Albertans were chewing off their legs.

The premier admitted that dealing with the Aussies had been difficult. Closed room; bare knuckles. They hadn’t wanted to give him a thing. The coal being under and inside mountains meant a lot of smashing and burrowing: costs. Before he knew it, he’d agreed to a 1 per cent royalty. 1 per cent! Less than a billion bucks in revenue spread over 23 years. It had been the premier’s weakest, most trembling moment. A terrible deal, and there was nothing for it now but to brass it out. Jobs! Contracts! Bulldozers a-snortin’ under Alberta’s blue skies! Huzzah! Huzzah!

The premier had been training for this ever since he was a boy-politician, ramming plastic Wall Street market bulls into a toy town’s hospital.

But Albertans’ stupid sentimentality about it all was only getting worse. Whenever the premier tuned in to the voters (about once a week), it was: “Our Rockies! Our wilderness playgrounds! Our tourism!” For gosh sakes, people, get a grip! They’re just big hunks of rock. They used to lie flat, until a bunch of squeezing on both sides popped them up. Why couldn’t Albertans see that the premier was functioning as a force of geological evolution? What had once been flat slabs would be flat slabs again.

Of course, when the premier was in front of the Albertans (on television or YouTube, that is; it was no longer safe to speak to them in person), he said none of this. He spoke only in pieties. What good, hard-working, God-fearing folks Albertans are; how hard he is working in their best interests. But what he really saw with his mind’s eye was the pantheon of those he truly worked for: the Master, and Mr. Trump; the ghosts of Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan; the splendidly secret International Democrat Union. Reading Machiavelli had taught the premier to exploit every crisis, and COVID was just that: a big, unparalleled crisis that ruled the airwaves and provided cover for his privatization of everything from healthcare to schools—and, yes, mountains. It was for this that the premier had been training ever since he was a boy-politician, ramming plastic Wall Street market bulls into a toy town’s hospital; colouring supply and demand curves in his Free-Market colouring book.

With regret, he shook this idyll from his mind and stomped from his office in search of his environment minister. “Get online, damn you! Crank out some tweets about how much I love mountains! Tell them I ski and drink a litre of glacier water each morning. Tell them Mt. Lougheed will never be strip-mined—unless I get re-elected.”

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday).Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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