The Next Alberta

Would You Want to Live There?

By Myrna Kostash

In the fall of 1996, Peter Gzowski announced he was stepping down as host of the long-running and much-loved CBC radio program, Morningside. Immediately, Canadian media were filled with nostalgic appreciations of his tenure and alarmed speculations about Life After Gzowski. As his final act, Gzowski returned to the scene of his early broadcasting life, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and in Spring 1997 hosted a national love-in about ourselves (us English-Canadians that is). As his final topic of conversation with “us,” Gzowski brought together a gang of western writers, David Carpenter, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Sharon Butala among others, handsome writers all, to talk about who had influenced them more: W.O. Mitchell or Sinclair Ross. And then it sank in: my generation of middle-aged boomers was the youngest representation to that Gzowskian last waltz. If I had been asked to reminisce about the impact of Sinclair Ross in my life, for example, I would have talked about the year 1972, the year I first read him. That was a full quarter-century ago. In 1972, half this country wasn’t even born and another quarter hadn’t immigrated yet.

This is equally true of Alberta. Yet, we who have been around for Bill Mitchell and Sinclair Ross, not to mention Peter Lougheed and Grant Notley and Mel Hurtig, are sharing the same space and time, breathing the same geo-periodical air, as it were, with Albertans, who have totally different data clattering about in their brains. For the past year I have been spending time with “the next Albertans,” interviewing 25 to 35 year olds, researching the Canada that is being configured and dreamed about in the minds of the generation opportunistically referred to in Pepsi ads as Generation Next. Rather than moan and groan about what we Sixties people have lost politically and socially over the stretch of our middle age, I have decided to investigate the Canada, and Alberta, that is taking shape in the imagination and subcultures and arguments of the generation on my heels.

In Calgary, 27-year-old Stephen Cassidy and his business partner Robin Thompson, 34, co-edit and co-publish an e-zine [electronic magazine] on the Internet called Spank! (as in “spanking new”). Addressing what they consider “the most literate and thinking generation in history” – the under-28s – at home with the ubiquity of the new media, with interactivity, instant data processing and electronic formats, Cassidy and Thompson are clearly excited by the possibilities inherent in the new technologies. They are thinking not just in terms of finding readers on the Net but in assisting them in building “community.”

Community. It’s an old-fashioned buzzword that keeps cropping up in the discourse of the techno-literates, like Cassidy who observes that “everybody’s looking for community – in gangs, schools, churches, clubs. The new media create a new sense of community.” He means the Net surfers who visit Spank! on a daily basis, sending in material from Alaska, Ireland and Singapore, as well as from Calgary, spilling out their fears and hopes in chat groups. When I object, over clanking cutlery in a diner just below Spank!’s offices, that “community” used to mean taking responsibility for the daily lives of people who lived next door or in the neighbourhood, actual not virtual, Thompson explains that there is “computer community” in just this sense – a “caring” about who you’re communicating with, a “worrying” about their troubles, an agreement that “jerks and racists can be forced out.” Cassidy roots his optimism in the “inalienable trends” of Canadian society that are part of our history, namely public education and healthcare, without which Canada is “toast” in the global struggle for market survival. I am touched by this optimism, if a little exasperated, that, for Cassidy’s and Thompson’s generation, the social safety net is something that just dropped from the sky and was not struggled for. And touched that, for them, the public investment in social spending is part of Canadian bedrock.

Even a right-winger like 27-year-old Craig Chandler, whom I interviewed in his home/office in Calgary where he conducts his business as lobbyist for his own Progressive Group of Independent Business, does not believe that social spending – that bugaboo of neo-conservatives – ever brought Alberta to the brink of crisis. Rather, “it’s that forty cents of every dollar go to servicing debt.” The biggest threat to “free” medicare in his estimation, is the “irresponsibility” of raising taxes to pay for an indebted social safety net carrying far too many clients. Yet he also claims that “most conservatives of my generation still believe that those who can’t take care of themselves should be cared for; compared to American conservatives, we’re still left-wing.”

“Everybody’s looking for community – in gangs, clubs, schools and churches. New media create a sense of community.”

Chandler is not a sentimentalist about his generation; if anything, he argues, any tax-paying individual of his age is “forced” into small-c conservatism out of simple fear of the future in which “we’re going to be left holding a tremendous amount of debt,” whether student loans or depleting pension plans or government arrears. Thus, Generation Tax. In 1993, when he ran federally for Reform in Hamilton and came second in every poll, he felt he had fought a fight for his generation. “God bless the young,” he sloganeered, “for we shall inherit the debt.” As a student at McMaster University in the early 1990s, Chandler was an unflagging worker for Reform Party interests in Ontario, dedicated to a politics that promised “no more politics as usual.” From where he stood, the “usual” was unrepresentative democracy in which governments were “unaccountable” financially. (By the same token, he is now a disillusioned ex-Reformer for whom Reform is just another party, sliding spinelessly over into “liberalism,” the lust for power and promoting the careers of the so-called Snack Pack of new MP’s in Ottawa while the true believer, “the guy who had been there from Day One,” Craig Chandler himself, did the grunt work and was overlooked.)

That the Reform party-the antithesis of all my own political values formed in the 1960s and 1970s – was attractive to a twenty-something in the 1990s, says something, I’m afraid, about the failure of left liberalism to sustain its message. But the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Next Albertans has a new front, as I discovered at the Alternative Growth Summit in Edmonton last fall where I met a cluster of activists from STORM [Student Resistance Movement]. Where do they come from, I was wondering, these “Generation Next” radicals for whom everyday politics has been articulated by Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and framed by the language of free trade and transnational capitalism?

“God bless the young, for we shall inherit the debt.”

They come, in fact, out of their own experience, as 27-year-old Pradeep Pillai, student, explained to me over coffee at the deliciously-named Café Manifesto in downtown Edmonton: “I was one of the people who founded STORM as part of rebuilding a student movement by linking student issues like tuition hikes to the attack on welfare and medicare.” Activists like him understand that education cutbacks are part of a broad rollback on the “social wage,” that is, spending in the public interest. “The question is: can people make the link on their own? It’s been a very depoliticized period.”

Canadian cultural nationalism refocussed on my generation’s attention to the Coca-Colonization of Canada, our home and native land. Pillai’s brand of anarcho-socialism, I thought, would probably militate against such local patriotism, and I was right. Any sort of nationalism makes Pillai “cringe” – but neither does he want to live outside Canada. If you think about it, he says, it’s a kind of privilege, living so close to the USA, in a country that is not so “horribly business-dominated. It’s not much better here,” he argues, “but I think Canadians have a role as left-wing catalyst” for American society. “We are part of the imperial system, we extract the world’s surplus and live off it, we cover for the United States.” And any “progressive” person who believes, as did my generation, that because the Canadian nation state and Canadian capital are “ours” they must be defended, is making very bad politics.

Against the ideological steamroller of Coke and Pepsi interests, STORM can marshal some 30 people to its meetings (up from five two years ago) and 150 to a demonstration “storming” the Legislature to protest tuition hikes. Forgive the individual demonstrator’s feeling of utter marginality: the long view is needed here. (I think of the thin line of placard-bearing stragglers crossing the High Level Bridge in 1964 to demand the war in Vietnam end NOW! And eventually it did.) “Every generation’s politicization carries with it the accumulated victories of the past generation,” Pradeep affirms with appropriate modesty. “So the issues of feminism and gay rights, for example, are almost second nature to the movement right now. They’re a given. We’re trying to extend them but the thing is they’re a legacy.”

Perhaps he has in mind the work of someone like 34-year-old Dr. Lise Gotell, a professor of political science and women’s studies whose research area is sexuality and in whose classes, she explains to me in her office at the University of Alberta, “I spend a lot of time on bodies and sexuality because this is a way for the students really to connect with feminism and its ideas and theories. We spend a huge amount of time on the debate, ‘Can a feminist be a heterosexual?’”

I’m not exactly shocked, but I do wonder how it happened that the agenda of 1970s feminism (I’m thinking of wages for housework, abortion rights, sexist advertising), which was so broadly social and economic, seems almost entirely absent from the young feminists’ concern (obsession?) with sexuality. Gotell mentions topics like “sex resistance” and bisexuality and “transgressive sexual identity” and it occurs to me that sexuality has become the site where many other forms of identity, class and race and ethnicity, have been collapsed, as though socio-economic feminism no longer speaks to the new generation.

What does speak is the commodification of sexuality and its pervasiveness through the media. Gotell just “naturally” grew up a feminist with a mother who said she could do anything she wanted, but she understands that the struggle for a liberating politics has to take place at the structural level. Because “queer” politics and in-your-face-gender “performance” all have the ability to “completely disrupt the sexual order of society,” Gotell thinks feminism’s ability to address the complexity of sexuality is of the first importance in speaking to the young. The “dominant view” has been that “sex is danger” and that “pleasure is erased.” Young women know the statistics on violence and the frequency of abuse in intimate relations. Nonetheless the new politics of the young has to be and will be “pro-sex.”

“We spend a huge amount of time on the debate, ‘Can a feminist be a heterosexual?’”

There are other adaptations to the “next Alberta” that are primarily cultural, in the sense of strategies around identity, both personal and collective. Edmonton high school teacher, 28-year-old Malcolm Azania, finds his way into the evolving multiculturalism of Alberta and the charged debates around “core identity” by taking, as his last name, the African word for South Africa. In this way, he publicly identifies himself with the “renewal” of Black Africa, adding it on to his identity as “Minister of Defence” of a hip hop group called the Militant Rap Party, and hyphenating the whole thing with “Canadian” because “it’s important for me to be involved in the creation of political consciousness and literature and arts that are uniquely our [Canadian] own.”

Passionate about teaching in the public system (Azania’s mother was “absolutely fantastic, magnificent” Nadine Thomas, a teacher-militant herself), Azania has found ways to approach his own students’ various “specificities” – a word he prefers to “difference.” He talks about cultural archetypes (as in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Masks) and has students teach him words from their language. They view documentaries together that feature the “N” word (“nigger”) – all of this to create a “safe zone” in his class where issues around race and class and sex can be discussed. And poetry.

As an English graduate and published writer himself, under the pen name Minister Faust, Anzania uses poetry as one of his pedagogical tools, to reach kids not just with messages about oppression and exploitation and abuse but also about “love and the moon and sweet things,” yes, even in the exploiter’s language, English.

From where I sit at his living room table, I see walls covered by bookshelves housing row upon row of history, politics, spiritual instruction, cultural criticism: Azania loves the English language and its works. “I think,” he says, in response to my question about his pedagogical toolbox, “that a true Afrocentricity must never become the equivalent of the white supremacy it opposes. I wouldn’t want kids to leave my class and think that I was saying that only Black people have done worthwhile things.” The whole point of much pain and suffering is, in fact, that it can lead us to the arts like poetry and there be healed. This emphasis on the healing and restorative rather than the confrontational and angry caught me a bit by surprise – used as I am to the more aggressive rhetoric of classic “identity politics.”

It came up again with Sherry Fowler, a childcare worker in Edmonton’s Bent Arrow Healing Society. Dedicated to helping aboriginal children learn who they are – children who often live with addicted and abusive parents, bereft of cultural self-awareness – here in this quiet, bright facility decorated with First Nations motifs and inspirational slogans of aboriginal identity, Fowler begins her day with a sweetgrass burning ceremony and prayers to the Creator, to the mothers and the fathers, “to take care of loved ones.” There is no rancour in her, only the belief that “honesty and trust” lie at the heart of her work, which she calls “passing it on,” this sense of stitching the children into the weave of First Nations’ being and doing. She has been angry and she has been bereaved, but resentment and bitterness are not the point. Love is the point. Children are the point.

So what can we say about generation next? The first salient observation about them is that the socio-economic and cultural context in which they have grown up is radically different in many respects from that which formed the “boomers.” We know that trends in the workplace are altering the culture of work and that huge numbers of young Albertans will know only the downsized enterprise, the “telecommute” from home-based computers, short-term contracted employment and longer work weeks, and McJobs, when they are working at all. If my generation is the first to have been exposed full-time to television, Generation Next, at the end of the 1990s, is playing computer-based games and surfing the Internet instead. (The Globe & Mail reported on May 27, 1998, that there has been a “sharp increase” since November 1997 of Canadian household access to the Internet, and that video-game players are ageing – 42 per cent are older than 18.)

“A true Afrocentricity must never become the equivalent of the white supremacy it opposes. I wouldn’t want kids to think that only Black people have done worthwhile things.”

Critics of the culture of cyberspace note the link between on-going privatization of public space and the Internet junkie’s loss of contact, while blithely cruising the cosmos, with the neighbourhood right under her/his nose. How do webheads construct community in the rubble of disintegrating public works? Think of that attack on the idea of public space – a “space” I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties that was defined, even in Alberta, as a collective consensus to invest in institutions serving the common good. Now even Liberals and Blair-ite social democrats are in retreat from such investment. With the declining public funding of education and health care; with the devaluation of civility and cooperativeness; and the marginalization of the arts, there is little I recognize in 1998 of the often exhilarating open-endedness of our youthful possibilities in the public-spirited 1960s and early 1970s. Does it matter that McDonald’s becomes a sponsor of the once-public library? After all, it is possible that more Canadians share the “McDonald’s experience” than any other.

Alberta universities are signing agreements with Coca-Cola or Pepsi as exclusive purveyors of soft drinks on campuses in exchange for something like 47 dollars per head in contributions to scholarship funds. In Edmonton, sales agents of Mars Fundraising (an offshoot of the multinational corporation that makes Mars bars and M&Ms) pitch their candy at elementary schools; pupils sell a box of candy for $3, of which $1 goes to the school, $2 back to Mars Fundraising. The issue is the cash-strapped schools’ increasingly desperate strategies for raising money – and the exhaustion of parents and teachers “volunteering” at bingos, casinos and raffles to replace a gymnasium floor. Does it matter that a public school system is moving toward corporate models of operation? It should deeply matter, this encroachment of corporate and commercial culture on “civic culture.”

“We are part of the imperial system. We extract the world’s surplus, live off it, and cover for the USA.”

So how are the next Albertans doing, in the face of such dispiriting developments? One could say, at first glance, that their adaptation has been primarily cultural, in the sense of strategies around identity, both personal and collective. I’m thinking of the almost celebratory diversity of race and colour and sexuality among young people, whether it’s Darrin Hagen, perched fetchingly on a table in Chapters bookstore in Calgary, reading to an entranced audience from his memoir as a drag queen in the 1980s; or Edmonton’s KAOS nightclub booking the star of the Canadian hip hop scene, Maestro Fresh Wes, to kick off a festival of urban music; or University of Alberta native studies student Rhonda DeLorme, co-ordinating and writing text for the contemporary section of the much-admired gallery of aboriginal culture in the Provincial Museum; or the high-tech wizardry of the young artists brought together by Banff Centre’s Media Arts program who bend and mutilate the borders between art and technology.

If Spank!’s readers are any indication of Generation Next, and if Cassidy’s enthusiasm is not misplaced, then coming on-stream we have a “highly-motivated, excited group of young people that sees change happening, whether it’s new political parties or changes in the social fabric or in technology,” who have overcome the “pervading feeling of hopelessness” that struck the so-called generation X a decade earlier. The next Albertans, passionate, engaged, cheeky, deft, alarmed, reflective: what did we do to deserve them? For all the “alternative” politics of my generation, we are passing it on to some exceedingly hopeful young people. Their Alberta? I’d love to live there with them.

Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash has authored All of Baba’s Children, Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe and The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in diverse magazines, as well as theatre cabaret, radio drama and television documentary.


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