Painting the Province Green

We're slowly coming around to sustainability. What would it take for Albertans to change how they vote?

By Evan Osenton

A young Green politician is being interviewed by QR77 radio in Calgary. It’s November 2000, a week into a federal election. The program host’s questions are of the meatball variety, maybe due to kindness—the kid’s obviously inexperienced with media—or maybe because the Greens aren’t a threat. In 2000, the environment is just one issue, and not a particularly urgent one. Oil is $28 a barrel. The tar sands are draped in forest. Kyoto is just a city in Japan.

That kid? He’s me. I ran for the Greens with the best of intentions. Scientists were saying that global warming was a threat to life on earth, but the public hadn’t bought in. People such as Conservative MP Rob Anders—not coincidentally my electoral opponent—were touting something called “Global Cooling.” Much of the public still viewed the environment as a moral issue. With critical issues bogged down in confusion if not ignored, the movement needed alarmists. The Greens needed candidates.

I didn’t expect to win. But I grew doubts about even running (and not simply because someone kept driving over my lawn signs). Could I have any impact in a province geared to old parties, old ideas and big money? The toughest part was the incongruity between Albertans’ thoughts and Albertans’ actions. Green ideas made sense on the doorstep—sustainability: people admitted the beautiful simplicity. It sounded more intelligent than “limitless growth.” But the Green Party wasn’t taken seriously. It was like I was six years old, telling people I was going to be a spaceman when I grew up. People nodded. Agreed. And then voted for Global Cooling.

Thankfully, public consciousness has grown. In 2008, the environment is “the” political issue. Formerly competing concerns—the economy, energy, agriculture—are now understood to be similarly affected by resource scarcity and climate uncertainty. Science has vanquished ideology in the “Is climate changing?” debate. Skepticism is passé. Action is trendy. Companies so tout their conversions that “greenwashing”—rather than a lack of options—is the biggest challenge facing eco-consumers. The word “sustainability” is everywhere, and is now understood, in the words of Small Is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher, as “a lifestyle designed for permanence.” Can we attain this lifestyle before the planet’s life support systems give out? I don’t know. But at least we’re talking.

More and more voters are looking for politicians with environmental credibility. For the most part—especially in Alberta—the old parties fall short, either because their record is poor or their policies fail to inspire hope. If there’s a disconnect between growing public concern for the environment and the traditional parties, we’d see it in low voter turnout and rising support for Greens—and we’re seeing both. Alberta, in fact, can boast the lowest voter turnout and the highest Green Party support in Canada. 

Are Albertans ready to elect a Green MP or MLA? The idea was unfathomable in 2000. But eight years on, I’m ready to reexamine the party’s chances.

Reached by phone at his day job (he’s a purchaser for a manufacturing company), Alberta Green Party leader George Read speaks passionately about the environment. But he knows his audience. Albertans are employed in resource extraction, whether it’s pulling wheat from the ground or oil from the tar sands. He argues we’re on the cusp of our second major economic shift, from oil to clean energy (following agriculture to oil) and that it’s not “whether” we change, but “how soon.” He believes Alberta should move “from being an oil province to an energy province,” should diversify into everything from solar to geothermal energy. He says Greens would best manage the transition.

“Support for the Green agenda is increasing,” Read says. “You can’t open a newspaper or a magazine or watch television without something coming on about green issues. And the media responds to what people want to hear about, right?” 

An April 2008 Canada West Foundation report appears to corroborate him. According to “Hot Topics: Western Canadian Attitudes Towards Climate Change,” the percentage of Albertans who consider “environmental protection” a high priority rose from 63.6 to 74.5 in the past five years. The same survey reveals that 90 per cent of Albertans believe the government should subsidize renewable energy production, and that 46.4 per cent believe “business and industry” can do the most to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (27.9 per cent said “individuals”—so much for our vaunted rugged individualism).

Read believes Albertans are starting to think long-term. “I’m aware of a lot of people who’ve come to the party from a… how do I put it…” he pauses. “It’s like atonement for sins. People who’ve been in the EUB, people from the oilfield who say to me, ‘I need this job, but couldn’t somebody just enforce environmental regulations?’… What do all those people who’re working on drilling rigs today do for work when there’s no conventional oil to drill for? We’re the only party that has a long-range plan.”

Measured in the immediate term, of course—by votes—Green support is modest. In 2006, the federal Greens got 6.5 per cent of the vote in Alberta, their highest showing nationwide. Provincially the Greens polled as high as 9 per cent this year, equal to and even ahead of the NDP and WRAP, and won 4.58 per cent of the popular vote. The Conservatives aren’t panicking yet. But Read notes that in 2001 the party was a non-starter, with only 10 candidates and little organization. In 2008, they ran 79 candidates (four short of a full slate). He notes other trends: Greens are growing while Alberta’s traditional parties are losing support and voter turnout is plummeting. Young voters prioritize the environment more than their parents do. The Greens are also the only party whose support is growing across the rural/urban Albertan divide.

“We’re seeing our strongest results come from the rural,” Read says. “We really connect with the land. I mean, people who are out on the land and have a well go dry or have issues with drought… see that Green issues connect with them.” The Greens especially seem to have struck a chord with landowners upset about EUB spying, government closure on Bill 46 and the oil industry’s continuing denial of problems stemming from sour gas. In the 2008 election, the Greens came as close to winning a provincial seat as they’ve come in Canada, finishing second in Lacombe-Ponoka (22.9 per cent) and Drayton Valley-Calmar (19.3 per cent).

In Calgary, the Greens finished ahead of the NDP in 18 of 23 ridings, which Read attributes to young voters. “Our strongest demographic, really, is the 18 to 30 year-old group,” Read says. It’s a demographic that requires patience. “Since we haven’t been around for 40 years, we don’t have a lot of members who are, say, 60 and joined the party 40 years ago.”

Their biggest challenge? Funding. Alberta has the laxest electoral finance laws in the country. Personal donations to parties of up to $15,000 per year are permitted (up to $30,000 during elections); by comparison, Ontario has a $7,500 limit and federal donations are limited to $1,000. We’re also the only province with no limit on party spending. The Greens—and the Liberals and NDP, for that matter—can’t count on much support from oil companies (whose interest is to have as little regulation as possible), and no other Alberta industry can match Big Oil’s support. The Greens received donations totalling $17,387 in 2006—not quite enough for one prime-time TV commercial. The Alberta Conservatives raised $1.9-million the same year. “Caps on donations would be reasonable,” says Read, suggesting $2,000–$5,000 as a new limit.

Green Party of Alberta leader George Read.

Green Party of Alberta leader George Read. Carolyn Fisher)

Other changes would help. Under a mixed-member proportional system, with legislative seats tied to vote percentage, the Greens’ 43,563 votes in 2008 would’ve translated into four seats. By contrast, the Conservatives’ 501,028 votes would’ve meant just 44 seats (instead of 72)—a razor-thin majority, and a more accurate portrayal of voters’ wishes. Such a change would hardly be radical; Alberta had a mixed system until Social Credit nixed it in 1959. And a 2005 referendum saw 58 per cent of BC’s voters support a change to proportional representation; the change needed a 60 per cent “supermajority” to pass. It’s projected to pass when voted on again in 2009—at which point BC’s Greens, if their support holds, will elect seven members. 

But it won’t be that easy to fix the system in Alberta, given that the same party has held power for 40 years. “The cold hard fact about electoral reform is that the powers that be don’t support it,” Read says. Change, if it comes, will come from the grassroots.

If anyone can appreciate what the Greens are up against in Alberta, it’s Preston Manning. With Manning at the helm, Reform went from grassroots coalition to federal opposition party in all of 10 years. Like the Greens, Reform set out to change the very political culture of the land, concerned that government was spending resources (in this case, revenue) faster than could be sustained. Like the Greens, they had to overcome the perception that they were a one-issue fringe party.

Manning and Read may have still more in common. For months I’d been hearing that Manning—inspired by his son and grandson—had become one of Alberta’s most passionate environmental advocates. Recalling Reform/Alliance’s environmental non-platform in the 2000 election, this sounded to me like no less than a conversion. Could it be true, and if so, what hope could Manning offer local Greens?

From his office at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, Manning tells me he’s been busy studying the “disturbing” 2008 provincial election turnout. “But I have become more interested in environmental issues,” he says. “[I’ve become] anxious to advocate public policies and business practices that enhance environmental conservation.” 

In a post-election press release, Manning listed “environmental conservation” as one of the top challenges facing Albertans, and outlined the urgent need for a citizens assembly to find out what’s causing low voter turnout. He notes a link.

“Probably my most basic political philosophy is that I’m a small ‘d’ democrat ahead of being Conservative, Reform or whatever,” says Manning. “Anytime I see the public genuinely concerned about something, I think that’s a signal—if you profess to be a democrat—that you’d better be interested in it. And I’ve seen this growing concern about the environment.” 

Manning spends a lot of time on campuses and has nine grandkids. “You want to be particularly sensitive to what their interests are,” he says of young people. “It’s one of the few interests that engage them politically… that’s what prompts me, rather than just some philosophical or scientific interest in the [environment].”

Alberta can boast the lowest voter turnout and the highest Green Party support in Canada.

Unlike the Greens, of course, the Reform Party was able to absorb some political remnants of Ernest Manning’s Social Credit party. As Read notes, the Greens are growing their supporters from seed. Still, Manning paints a cautiously optimistic picture for the Greens. 

“I see their accomplishments as part of a bigger picture,” he says, quoting the same CWF research showing the environment at the top of Albertans’ priorities. “Albertans [care] about conserving the environment, and it manifests itself in a number of ways—one of which is increased support for the Green Party.”

But Manning doesn’t foresee a Green MLA in the Alberta legislature anytime soon. For starters, he agrees with Read that money determines whose ideas get taken seriously. “They have to decide if they’re a political party or an interest group acting like a political party,” he says. “I mean, there’s been election after election where they’ve been chronically underfunded, and they wring their hands about it. Well, go and learn how to raise political capital!… We [Reform] started with absolutely nothing, and got up to where we could raise $15-million during an election year, so it can be done.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do before they’re seen as credible,” he adds. “The challenges to the Greens are twofold: they’re divided between the left and the right; the left traditionally believes [that] when there’s a problem, the government’s got to solve it… The bigger challenge in Alberta is how to harness market mechanisms themselves to environmental conservation. Some in the Green Party are sympathetic to that, and others are completely opposed.”

Manning and Read both suggest that oil companies or environmental interests alone shouldn’t dictate the path forward. “The reality is you have to balance the economic, the social and the environmental,” says Read. “If you just look at it as right/left, you ignore the environmental component entirely.” 

“It’s not either/or,” agrees Manning. “There’s a role for enlightened government regulation, particularly setting the overall framework. You want to harness as many horses to the environmental cart as you can: enlightened regulation, market mechanisms, science and technology, democratic interest from the ground up. Conservatives ought to be able to bring that… approach, but actually, I don’t see that being done.” 

“Conservatives, philosophically, this ought to be their contribution to the environmental debate,” he says. “Conservatives profess to believe in market mechanisms and they profess to understand them. Well, if that’s the case, why don’t they lead?”

The Greens might also accuse our current government of not being conservative enough—conservative à la Edmund Burke, meaning a good steward of natural resources, not running up debts and passing them off on future taxpayers. Indeed, Alberta’s boom is fed by the sale of our collective inheritance (oil). Proceeds of this sale pay for the huge costs of the boom. The profits amass at the top of the oil patch food chain and in out-of-province investors’ pockets. When the bust inevitably comes, and companies who failed to diversify into alternative energies close up shop, Albertan citizens—those who stick around—will be stuck with the bill.

Manning offers a hopeful piece of Alberta trivia. “The way political change has occurred in Alberta has been through third parties—it’s a consistent pattern right from 1905,” he says. “You have long periods of one-party government, and the time comes to change, and either that government gets a new lease on life by saying ‘we’re prepared to lead by changing ourselves,’ and if they do that, they tend to get these long tenures. If they don’t do that, then the track record in this province is that change will come from outside the traditional parties… no [Alberta] government’s ever been replaced by its traditional opposition. I think that’s still probably as viable a pattern for Alberta as any.”

The longer I spoke with Manning and Read, the more I became convinced that the Greens aren’t challenging Albertans to vote for a new party so much as they’re challenging the provincial narrative. Successive dynasties have cemented the enduring mythology of Albertans as united in stubbornness and self-reliance. The Klein government’s contributions to the mythology include the ideas that Albertans are inherently Progressive Conservative, rabidly laissez-faire, and defiantly unconcerned about the environment. The Greens reveal cracks in the foundation. If they can reclaim the word “conservative” to its original meaning—“to use or manage (natural resources) wisely; to preserve; to save”—they may yet pry the mask off the whole charade.

I’ve never been convinced that Albertans are inherently anti-environment. But it’s a myth believed across Canada. When Montreal journalist William Marsden can name his book about Alberta energy policies Stupid to the Last Drop, you know our reputation is scraping the bottom. 

Albertans are demonstrating “resurgent” rather than “growing” eco-consciousness. Historically speaking, we weren’t oblivious to resource scarcity; we might have the most innate grasp of sustainability of anyone in Canada.

Marsden shows that our reputation owes much to Ralph Klein. It doesn’t get much more damning than a good old-fashioned hidden report. Well before Kyoto, ordinary Albertans—bureaucrats in the Energy Efficiency Branch of the Department of Energy—studied the likely effects of climate change and concluded we were in big trouble. They crafted a report showing how to reduce CO2 emissions in Alberta by 2005 to 20 per cent of 1988 levels, well below levels later set by Kyoto. Their report proposed some 300 conservation measures that would’ve saved Albertan industry and citizens money. The report was buried in 1990—under the watch of environment minister Klein. And when he became premier, Klein gutted the EEB, ensuring no further reports would be forthcoming. He then led “our” opposition to Kyoto.

It gets better. The Lougheed government set up Alberta Energy Company in 1975 as a Crown corporation so that more profits from the sale of oil would stay in the province. In 1995, Klein sold our remaining 25 million shares in AEC for a song: $19 a share (the price tripled to $62 by 2002). Today, the new company (EnCana) fights to keep royalties—i.e., government revenue—low, and ships bitumen to the US to be upgraded and sold back to Albertans at a higher price. Lougheed tells Marsden that Klein’s “free-market” ideology combined with NAFTA have left us with essentially no control over our oil. If we tried to sell it at a better price to another buyer (or wished not to sell it at all), “there would be a hell of a reaction,” Lougheed says. “The Americans [would] act very vigorously if we start[ed] shipping significant quantities of oil to China.” Of course, this means it would be difficult to curb oil sands production—and lower our carbon emissions—even if we wanted to.

Premier Ed Stelmach threatens to preserve the myth. Unlike Ralph, Ed doesn’t blame climate change on “dinosaur farts.” But in January he announced the weakest GHG emission reduction plan in Canada: a 14 percent reduction of 2005 levels by 2050. His plan actually allows emissions to increase for another 12 years. Other provinces’ targets reflect urgency: BC’s plan, for example, is an 80 per cent reduction of 2007 levels by 2050.

“It would be very difficult to bring in real reductions, immediate reductions, without devastating the economy and the quality of life of Albertans,” Stelmach told reporters in January. How to define his party’s ideology? I’m not sure. It certainly expresses no confidence in the free market’s ability to respond to changing conditions and to fulfill people’s needs.

As our government stalls, Albertans’ demands for smarter environmental policy grow louder. More accurately, this is “resurgent” rather than “growing” eco-consciousness. Historically speaking, Albertans were neither oblivious to resource scarcity nor contemptuous of risk; we may have the most innate grasp of sustainability of anyone in Canada. We live in a precarious climate. Pre-settlement prairie aboriginals were nomadic, moving where scarce resources took them. During the settlement era, Albertans had to carefully manage water resources; the Depression nearly wiped Albertan agriculture off the map. Receding glaciers and low river flows seem to be rekindling that awareness of sustainability in rural Alberta. The cities are coming around—slowly. All new homes in Calgary now must come with water meters.

Where did our innate understanding of sustainability go? The discovery of oil at Leduc in 1947 saw it quickly replace agriculture as our most important economic driver. Oil companies’ influence was held at bay by successive royalty increases, including those under Lougheed. Big Oil’s influence over our government rapidly expanded under Klein. Environmental voices in Alberta have largely been stifled by our broken electoral system and by our having grown comfortable during an extended resource boom. Until 2008. In our burgeoning environmental awareness and slow growth of the Green Party is evidence that an inherently Albertan spirit has been reawakened.

Perhaps forward-thinking Albertans need not worry. Our government will either adapt or be voted out. Support from Big Oil is, in the long run, an electoral millstone. Their chief product is finite. So will their influence be. 

Provincial Green Party candidate Joe Anglin is captivating his audience at the Alberta Social Forum. It’s February 2008; he’s speaking to a packed auditorium at Red Deer College with one week to go in the provincial election. Anglin, a landowner from near Rimbey, is an investment consultant and—get ready—a former US marine, police officer and NCAA basketball player. For his tireless work leading opposition to the Alberta government’s plan to expropriate rural property and hike electric rates, he was named one of Alberta’s ten most influential people of 2007. 

It’s not hard to see why Anglin finished second in Lacombe-Ponoka in 2008. It’s not hard to believe his support will only grow. This is the kind of candidate the Greens can attract in 2008. He’s confident at the lectern, even aggressive, and he knows what he’s talking about. He talks about sustainability like it’s the most normal thing in the world. He makes the future sound exciting. The crowd, Albertan and mostly rural, is eating it up. 

Growing support for green politics may have come too late to save my nascent political career, but the timing—as the oil sands threaten to single-handedly undo Canadians’ best efforts to reduce emissions, and the nuclear industry whispers sweet nothings in our government’s ear—may not be too late to save our species. Or at least for us to make a valiant effort. Albertans have an inordinate responsibility on this issue. Maybe—just maybe—we’re hesitating at the edge of the abyss. I give us credit for being far more intelligent than we’ve been acting lately.

George Read refuses to peg the exact year Alberta will elect its first Green politician, arguing that forward motion is enough for now. Every vote the party gets puts heat on the government. Every seat won will chip another hole in the façade. “Look at where we’re at compared to 2001,” he says. “Imagine where we’ll be after the next election, and the next election after that… if we do the right things, the votes should follow. That’s the logic.”

Who will vote Green? Such a voter is tricky to define using current political terms. Read seems to be building something new, an unprecedented Albertan political alliance—energy company employees, landowners, university students and good old-fashioned hippies: Albertans, from all walks of life, sharing common concerns, eschewing ideology and seeing themselves as part of nature rather than merely as individuals or members of a society. The future of Alberta politics, one way or another.

“They’re post-cold-war,” says Read of Green voters. “They haven’t grown up with the economic right or left, with ‘you’re either with the communists or the capitalists.’ For a lot of them it’s either green or it’s grey: ‘are you part of the industrialist, materialist culture or are you part of the new era of sustainability?’”

In truth, I don’t know how we Albertans will answer this question. The only thing I do know about the future is that it will be different.

Evan Osenton retired from federal politicking in 2000 and is now associate editor of Alberta Views.


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