ILLUSTRATIONS BY GERRY RASMUSSEN

Our Other Fringe Festival

Alberta's progressive movement and the pursuit of relevance.

By Chris Koentges

I’ll assume you were at the G8 protests five years ago, the first time Alberta’s “progressive movement” gathered in one place. If you weren’t, you saw the edited version on TV. Revolutionary Anarchists marched beside bisexual teachers, who knitted in protest while grandmothers stripped and the scent of Aveda peach hair conditioner hung above dreadlocked circles of Greenpeacers. Until then, nobody knew which disparate factions of “progressive” existed in Alberta. You’ll argue it was the beginning of something, that the world changes gradually, then suddenly—all these little progressive alternative pockets of fear and loathing only had to keep knitting and stripping and teaching and stinking. And every other week before that one, I’d have agreed with you. Before that G8 week, I wrote exclusively for “the alternative press.” By the time it was over, I did not.

Though I didn’t cancel my subscription to Utne, I did stop reading Lewis Lapham. I was quick to write off Jack Layton (though not quick enough). In the confusion of my lament—which had to do with fear and loathing as an end in itself—I came up with one rule. The rule was: find common ground. It dictated that I go work for inflight magazines and CanWest publications, where fear and loathing could gently simmer but never bubble up in a way that would scare anybody.

And thus it went, with neither excessive pleasure nor excessive angst, until last fall, when the publisher of the magazine in your hands suggested I write a story about the Parkland Institute’s annual conference at the University of Alberta. I tried to explain the futility of such a story. She mentioned that she was a supporter. “That’s what I mean!” I said. Why do groups of like-minded people need to get together to so thoroughly agree?

As we spoke, I googled “Parkland Institute,” and now skimmed a story about a Conservative MP who walked out of a Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) hearing after the Parkland’s Gordon Laxer testified. An unprecedented event in such hearings.

“Just go as an observer,” she continued. I recall something to the effect of an agreement. Or maybe I just really wanted to break my rule and write one last fear and loathing story. About the fearful and the loathers.

I began asking anyone who had been to the conference, “What do people mean by ‘The Parkland Crowd’?”

“You’ll see,” they’d say.

“Is it a group sex thing?”

“Have you seen these people?”

“Are they radicals?”

“I don’t want to influence your observations.”

“Know-it-alls?”

“Well… some are. Some are like peaceniks.”

“Are the Q&A sessions painful?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Is a peacenik like a hippie?”

“Good question.”

“Am I a peacenik?”

“Do you think you’re a peacenik?”

“Would it help me into the group sex if I was a peacenik?”

In the back of my mind, of course, I did have some very specific ideas about who would be at the conference. It wasn’t going to be the front-line social workers or field naturalists, who are too busy and poor to attend such conferences. It would be the privileged progressives. The purists who turned on Dylan at Newport. The righteous who romanticize tyrants such as Castro and Chavez. Activists for whom activism is nothing more than an expression of identity. (And, if I was lucky, peak oil theorists.) It would be a weekend of competitive monologue devoid of the sorts of conversations that lead to common ground.

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For narrative value, I was careful not to confirm too much about The Parkland Crowd in advance, so as to keep the eventual culture shock as sincere as possible. It was only on the Red Arrow from Calgary that I considered the conference’s title: “From Crisis to Hope: Building Sustainable Communities.” Given what I did know about the crowd, I knew you could call the conference “Community” and everyone there would know the kind of community you meant. Why insist on defining it as something alternative? Why not define the term for the mainstream?

Maybe I misread the circumstances, but it sure felt like that’s what the 400 people who showed up for the opening night’s keynote address came to discuss. And it almost happened. “Nine years ago we were the only voice in Alberta willing to discuss royalties,” Ricardo Acuña, the Parkland’s executive director, told the crowd. He talked about how we’d all been smashing our heads against the wall for so long. Then Laxer himself came onstage and said: “This conference is not another attempt to depress the hell out of you.” He even went so far as to say “Albertans are starting to break.” He said: “We’re realizing that what’s good for big oil isn’t good for Albertans. Now is the time to make connections between Our Fair Share and larger systems.” If there was any moment in the weekend when one of those church/choir applause/standing ovations should have broken out, it should have been at this exact instant.

Except Laxer pulled the bottom out: he assigned the earth a gender and invoked Eva Morales (“Capitalism is the worst enemy to humanity”). Then he introduced the keynote speaker, South Africa’s Patrick Bond, as something like “the Parkland Institute times 10.”

The purpose of the keynote address is to energize The Parkland Crowd. When all’s said and done, that’s the basic point of the whole conference. And so “Amandla means ‘power’” was then uttered. “Awethu means ‘to the people!’” There were attempts get a back-and-forth chant, but the audience muttered half-heartedly. (A crowd conscious enough to understand that privileged white liberals could do nothing but trivialize a Zulu rallying cry against apartheid, I felt, was a crowd that had hope.)

Bond’s failure to energize the crowd cast a shadow over the rest of the weekend. He had talked about nothing that would immediately capitalize on Alberta’s transformation. He rhymed “leave the oil” with “in the soil” before ending with some more amandla/awethu. If the Q&A would just stay a little bit on track, soon we’d all be in the pub discussing what those years of smashing heads against walls would now lead to. And then I heard it. It came from just over my left shoulder. The exact Q I’d been waiting for but hadn’t expected to hear the first night. “The Globe and Mail is mainstream media, but with credible writers and reporters,” it went. “Can I trust Stephanie Nolen?”

I don’t suggest—not for a second—that The Globe is anything but a badly neutered account of the world. But no daily outlet in Canada, “alternative” or otherwise, depicts a more complex portrait of that world. Which is not the point, anyway. The point, as we waited for an A to the Q, is that this was the one moment in the whole evening when people stopped yawning. As if the room’s perception of the world rested on this single answer.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time,” Bond said. He reasoned that this had something to do with Nolen’s husband. John Ralston Saul was mentioned. And then Naomi Klein.

The logical followup Q would have been: how can a crowd that dismisses a mainstream paper, which they acknowledge has been partially hijacked by trustworthy intentions, ever hope to communicate with the mainstream? And do they actually care, deep down, about reaching the mainstream?

I ask because at some point between the 10th and 11th Parkland Conference, the mainstream changed. Not only is Ralph Klein long gone, there is a rapid unravelling of his ball of lies. Now is not the time to say I told you so. There is a confused premier in Klein’s place, already scrambling to position his party as far away from his predecessor’s version as possible. Above all, he is a premier who has proven to be consistently malleable.

In its rush to condemn Alberta as a bunch of cold-hearted rednecks—to propagate the Us v. Them story and consequent self-fulfilling prophecy of Them—The Parkland Crowd missed the fact that Harper’s “green” plan went over like a lead balloon. In the last federal election, the Greens did better in central Calgary than in any other set of urban ridings in Canada. Preston Manning now has an environmental agenda (and also freelances for the public broadcaster). And as the party’s Craig Chandlers are exorcised, the new crop of Calgary provincial Conservatives have bona fide green credentials and are pushing out whatever remained of Klein. Trust me, I’m not trying to sell you on a dirty, stale, out-of-touch party that is all but begging for an opposition with real teeth. It’s more that the DNA of Alberta has mutated.

Or, as a friend of mine likes to say right now, “Good is not the enemy of perfect.” Especially when it has been not so good for so long here. There is a moment to be seized right now. It didn’t dawn on me until later in the conference why The Parkland Crowd hadn’t jumped to seize it.

If there is anything I know for certain about The Parkland Crowd, it’s that not a single person in it believes oil is an infinite resource. I read the Calgary Herald, and even for me this is old news. If you took Grade 4 social studies, this is old news.

Considering the makeup of this conference audience, I expected we would be exposed to the most cutting-edge ideas about community that had been presented anywhere in the world. And so the most absurd thing about the conference—I mean, nothing’s even a close second—is that peak oil theorists aren’t just presenting peak oil theories, they’re given the plenary spaces. They’re foisted on the conference as the stars.

 

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They pepper over-rehearsed PowerPoint presentations with lines like “this should scare you,” “there will be dire consequences,” and “we are fucked.” People who stress urgency shouldn’t, by definition, be allowed to waste a breath on that stressing. We’d be better off running on human-size hamster wheels for the 75 minutes the presentations take, to pay back the energy the peak oil theorists consumed just to get here. Which wouldn’t begin to neutralize the damage they do to such a conference. One peak oiler kept repeating that “our terror is better than their terror,” which, in a nutshell, is why the mainstream doesn’t take The Parkland Crowd seriously.

As the conference progressed, I found myself glomming onto a whole different crowd within The Parkland Crowd: people who were there for only the first or second time. We tossed around more cynical theories for why, after all those years of smashing heads against the wall, nobody knew what to do now that the wall had actually broken. Rather than flooding through the smashed hole, why was the emphasis this weekend still on smashing? The “your favourite band going mainstream” theory was constructed. It’s hard to accept that what has been yours for so long now also belongs to some yuppie who just bought a Prius and an Oxfam donkey. And I don’t begrudge your resentment, either. You’re the one who always smashes your head against the wall while everyone else coasts. That is, alas, the nature of change. You can’t be pissed off for having been successful.

When Gordon Laxer shuts down an SPP hearing, it’s seen by the older guard of The Parkland Crowd as a twisted kind of triumph. If an oil and gas lobbyist gets shunned by MPs, that lobbyist gets fired. That there are these different measures of success is what fundamentally stifles the potential of this crowd. It’s stating the obvious to say the achievement is when you can keep the evil MP in the room. To get them to consider your idea. To beguile and mobilize and coax them into action. Because now that they have shut down the hearing, you’re left with—well, what’s supposed to happen?

 

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At the end of a nuclear power session, one Q speculated that fundamentalist Christian evangelists wanted war to justify some kind of apocalypse. Leaving aside the fact that the evangelical community is as big and diverse and perplexing and annoying as the progressive community, nuclear activist Paul Gunter—who also let fly the line of the weekend (“You’re sitting on the Saudi Arabia of wind power”)—said something curious. He said: “We’re working to organize with evangelical communities because there is a strong sense of stewardship in those communities.”

And it was in the conference’s smaller sessions that such suggestions grew legs. Noel Kenough, who presented a Citizens’ Agenda for mitigating Calgary’s ecological footprint, talked about opportunities for church groups to get involved. “Churches are where people go to contemplate,” he said.

The 12-point Citizens’ Agenda was so skull-crushingly obvious and unthreatening and easy to sell to pragmatic, fiscally conservative Alberta. “What’s the single biggest impediment to getting this done?” someone asked him in amazement. “I anticipated that question,” Kenough replied. And then he started into a long multi-impediment answer. “It takes a lot of energy at a particular point in time to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle.” He recounted presenting the Citizens’ Agenda at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, where many people shared his opinion.

“How is it that the private sector has built up a mythology that houses can triple in price and people won’t flinch, but they’re outraged by a small change in tax?” His session was ending now—way too soon. It always felt like the conference kept ending at the exact spot it should have been beginning. But before it did end, Kenough said: “It’s up to the people in the room to change things, to create arguments and stories. To tell a different story.”

The years pass quickly. The 12th annual conference will be upon us soon.

Chris Koentges has written for The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve and, long ago, some left-leaning publications. He lives in Calgary.

 

 

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