Unlike the Others

Unpacking Alberta “exceptionalism.”

By Geo Takach

Examining enduring myths typifying each Canadian province—Newfoundland as a fishery, Ontario as smug and stable, Saskatchewan as agrarian socialist, et cetera—Simon Fraser University political scientist Michael Howlett defined Alberta’s distinguishing feature as being different, “a province unlike the others.” He is not alone. A one-time provincial cabinet minister, Guy Boutilier, called us “kind of the bad boys of Confederation.” The frères Ferguson declared Alberta, their home province, as the angriest in Canada. And the literary diva Aritha van Herk grandly branded Albertans “mavericks” in a national bestseller and a permanent exhibit at the Glenbow Museum. Some clever entrepreneur could extend this to snappy souvenir castanets: imagine a massive conga line of Calgarians chanting “We’re all mavericks!” (beating the world conga record, once set in Edmonton, naturally) and you’re into the vortex of bombast, contradiction and irony swirling around this apparently singular place.

Alberta’s differences are remarkable. Economically, she is unusually dependent on a single commodity of immense and ever-increasing global interest. Environmentally, the province is singled out in growing national and global opprobrium for her stewardship of the world’s largest industrial project, that gooey, bituminous orgy up the Athabasca—stewardship debatably distillable to “C’mon in, help yourself!” Politically, Alberta is essentially a one-party state, with only three changes in government since 1905, laughably little elected opposition and an antagonistic relationship with the feds that predates her promotion to provincehood. Beyond politics, Alberta claims to be the only rat-free zone outside the tundra. All of that is certainly unique. So difference seems stitched into our provincial denim. But how do you determine exceptionality? Is Alberta truly exceptional? And why did the province gain that rep?

While “exceptionality” enjoys diverse meanings and uses, the term’s main connotation is of difference from all others. The American sociologist S. M. Lipset declared that we cannot comprehend a nation without studying how it varies from others—and not necessarily for the better. The Chilean political scientist Hernán Cuevas Valenzuela adds that exceptionality seems to serve an existential need and assume notable importance in building the identity of a place. The Berkeley-based philosopher Judith Butler tells us that exceptionality is simply a claim—one rooted more in politicking than in breaching boundaries. It’s a favoured tool for elites to justify their practices, invoked over the centuries by imperial powers bent on armed tourism. The most long-standing and pervasive claimants nowadays are our good neighbours to the south, even if American exceptionality—or “exceptionalism” as it is known there (exceptionally, of course)—is hotly debated. So if you’re pushing your own distinctiveness, it seems logical to hitch your pogo stick to Humvee Nation.

Alberta’s remarkable differenceseconomic, environmental and politicalseem to be stitched into our provincial denim.

The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald have all called Alberta the most American province, and why not? Americans have enjoyed a hefty influence in Alberta, starting with their massive migrations here after the US ran out of Western homestead land in the late 19th century and again after 1947, when Leduc No. 1 required their expertise in oil—not to mention their capital investment. Today, the US is the source of two-thirds of Alberta’s foreign investment and 60 per cent of our foreign tourists, while guzzling/gobbling 90 per cent of our exports. We sent six Sutter brothers down there and got imports Tom Flanagan (the outspoken political science prof) and Ted Morton (the outspoken ex-prof turned politician) in return. And hey, isn’t this whole tar/oil sands thing largely about American energy needs? 

So if the US is exceptional and if Alberta is American in orientation, one way to test Alberta’s exceptionality is to use criteria deployed to justify American claims. Let’s work with criteria defined by Oxford’s Godfrey Hodgson, whose analytical (if forlorn) gaze across the pond is over a half-century old. These criteria include: (1) identification, (2) individual freedom, (3) protest, (4) anti-statism, (5) equal opportunity, (6) religion and (7) ideology. Assessing claims of Alberta’s exceptionality against these criteria, we can identify who has made the claims, and why. The answers speak barrels about our province and how it has been governed.

If you’re going to claim you’re exceptional, step one is to say so. The US was identified as different from all other Western nations by the French author Alexis de Tocqueville around 1840, and generations continuing through President Obama have agreed. 

Alberta’s case for exceptionality began in 1891, just nine years after the feds created Alberta as a district of the North-West Territories. The Calgary Herald pressed the case for provincehood by booming, “There are none in Canada better prepared to assume such responsibilities and better prepared to legislate for themselves.” Notably, the paper’s Conservative sympathies were out of sync with the governing Liberals in Ottawa. Our maiden premier, Alexander Rutherford (notably a Liberal), put a smiley on it by declaring Alberta among the best in show, a place devoid of pessimism. Eons later, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (another Liberal) called Albertans “a different type.” Sure, he did so while trashing Joe Clark and Stockwell Day (notably not Liberals) in an election campaign, but it’s still a point for exceptionality. The provincial government enjoyed a successful run with its assiduously assonant “Alberta Advantage” brand to beckon business, investment and tourism before turning to less memorable sloganeering. So, inside Alberta and beyond, political agendas have been furthered by distinguishing us from other Canucks.

While Albertans are hardly alone in asserting our distinctiveness or our alienation from Ottawa, and we’re not the only mavericks in the corral, Alberta has been clearly identified as different by enough sources both here and beyond to boldly claim a point for exceptionality on this front.

A second hallmark of American exceptionalism is a devotion to freedom. Born of revolution, the US became the first colony to achieve independence, hoisting a fist for freedom and a finger to Old World pecking orders (and peckerheads).

When American settlers first poured onto the Canadian prairies seeking freedom (or at least free land), they fuelled the individualist spirit that came to characterize Alberta. This shone through when our territorial premier, Frederick Haultain, shunned political parties as “undesirable, unintelligent and unnecessary”—a beautiful thought torpedoed when the Grits and Tories nominated candidates in 1905. No wonder the anti-party, provincially based Non-Partisan League and federal Progressive movement won bigger here than anywhere else in Canada. This ethos also sparked locally inspired, grassroots movements such as the United Farmers of Alberta, Social Credit, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (conceived in Calgary, later becoming the NDP) and the Reform Party. The Yankee influence, typified in Alberta’s quixotic attempts at senate reform, still smoulders here, and our two senate elections are unparalleled in Canada. 

Alberta’s “exceptionalist” posture seems politically self-imposeddesigned for battle with external forces, real or imagined.

Expressions of Alberta as a bastion of personal freedom began with the adoption of our provincial motto, Fortis et liber (“strong and free’), and continue with the official trumpeting of free enterprise as Alberta’s creed. The provincial government lists free enterprise as its first commitment, ranking ahead of even “sustainable economic development” and “a competitive tax environment.” Yet a culture of political conformity and/or indifference has produced only four governments since 1905 and the lowest provincial electoral turnout in Canadian history in 2008—a climate of political apathy that screams “electile dysfunction!” Of course, we do have freedom-fighters here: a provincial health officer who favoured the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions (he got fired); local landowners who opposed an application for a transmission line before the Alberta Energy & Utilities Board (EUB-hired detectives spied on them); a chief electoral officer who offered 182 suggestions for improving provincial elections (his contract was not renewed); and a physician who voiced concerns about his patients’ health in Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the oil/tar sands (his credentials were attacked). 

So Alberta’s claim to exceptionality based on freedom seems honoured both in its assertion and its suppression. Even if our government’s apparent denials of individual expression—at least when such expression is in opposition to provincial government interests—are unexceptional (states such as China, Syria and Liberia have denied it much better), our signature blend of individualist rhetoric and conformist thinking still stands out. Another point scored!

The American revolutionary tradition encourages disdain for authority. This has been linked to everything from the developed world’s highest crime rate and lowest voter turnout to the US’s singular opposition to the metric system, its distinctive rights culture, its own terminology and its treaty-dodging. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Albertans are not the country’s biggest crooks, but our electile dysfunction is remarkable. Our culture of rights puts us at odds with national efforts such as gun control, the GST and perhaps even the Canada Health Act. Alberta notoriously delayed for nine years before adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child until Desmond Tutu intervened personally. Provincial elites have taken up saying “oil sands” rather than the supposedly filthier-sounding “tar sands.” And our go-it-alone stance on issues such as the Kyoto Protocol (signed by Canada over Alberta’s objections in the Chrétien era; abandoned in the Harper era) and national securities regulation has also stoked a rep for singularity.


Alberta’s tradition of protest predates her provincehood, dating back to her territorial struggles for sufficient federal funding and continuing into the 20th century in Western, agrarian protest over tariffs, freight rates and grain monopolies; into the 1920s through the lengthy battle to wrest control of public lands and natural resources in the province from Ottawa (denied to only the prairie provinces on joining Confederation); through Premier Aberhart’s ridiculed efforts toward an Albertan solution to the Great Depression; into the 1960s with Premier Manning’s resistance to official bilingualism and Medicare; peaking in the early 1980s with the Trudeau government’s imposition of the National Energy Program; and still simmering around our provincial government’s opposition to Kyoto—although all of Canada is complicit in profiting from Alberta’s energy booty.

Although Alberta formally follows America’s antipathy for authority, much of this comes from Alberta’s special disdain for Ottawa, which may stem less from natural orneriness than from our MPs sitting in opposition for longer than any others in a century of Liberal domination. On this front, Alberta is either exceptional or just exceptionally loud. A point in either case.

America’s requiring government to have consent of the governed—a first on such a scale—led to a public service more limited than in virtually every other industrialized country, lower taxes, exceptionally meagre support to the poor, a requirement for all politicians to profess mistrust of government, and the singular absence of a significant socialist movement or labour party.

Ruling Albertan pols have eagerly taken up the neoliberal mantra of less government involvement in society. However, behind Albertans’ rhetorical DIY ethos, each of her four political dynasties has intervened actively in the challenges of its era. The Liberals (1905–1921) invested so heavily in infrastructure—particularly railway bonds and the nation’s first provincially owned telephone service—that Alberta became the only province to default on its debt during the Depression. The United Farmers (1921–1935) espoused progressivism and cooperativism in supporting efforts such as the Alberta Wheat Pool. Initially, Social Credit (1935–1971) proposed radical, socialistic and ultimately unconstitutional measures such as its own financial system and a bill of rights guaranteeing education, medical care and pensions; then it turned pragmatist under Premier Manning, who talked small government while, for example, maintaining 123 agencies, boards and commissions in 1960 (compared to 86 in quadruply populated Ontario). The ruling Conservative dynasty (1971–) granted more than $5.6-billion in public subsidies to the oil, gas and mining sectors from 1986–1993 alone. Our provincial capital spending handily and consistently tops the provinces in per capita terms, and was second only to Ontario in absolute terms in 2011. The province formed an airline, an oil company and the nation’s only state-owned bank. Alberta also has more MLAs per capita than geographically larger and more populous BC, Ontario and Quebec, and looks to add still more in 2012.

Yet the right-wing, anti-statist label persists, amplified by electoral statistics indicating, for example, that the Conservatives performed better at the polls in Alberta than any other party in any other province in provincial elections from 1993–2005. If these patterns of political behaviour are not exceptional, they are at least singular. But again, the walk and the talk clash. It’s all so weird. Part marks apply.

The idea of equal opportunity for all (if imperfectly applied) grew in the US from that nation’s relative lack of class divisions, its attracting tonnes of immigrants, and Americans’ great geographic and occupational mobility relative to others (though all of this has since diminished). A further aspect of American exceptionalism is a preoccupation with gaining wealth.

Since receiving her name, Alberta has been positioned as a place for people to begin anew, to shed the shackles of officialdom and carve out a better life. So great is Canadians’ in-migration to Alberta that sociologist Harry Hiller sees it as transforming the nation. And make no mistake, that migration is all about the money. Alberta boasts Canada’s most mobile population in terms of recent arrivals; the highest average economic growth over two decades; the highest employment rates for three decades; the highest after-tax incomes; and a self-image of an entrepreneurial, “can-do” attitude. Spoilsports could counter that Alberta’s economic power has more to do with our energy-resource bonanza than our vaunted entrepreneurial flair, as the last bust might testify. More darkly, the province is notoriously harsh on the needy, recording one of Canada’s widest income gaps between rich and poor (Calgary has Canada’s fastest-growing income gap) and a reputation, documented by the provincial government’s 2009 branding research, of being “less tolerant, less compassionate and less environmentally careful.” On the economic front, Alberta is clearly exceptional as hell.

Religion is huge down south, at least partly a legacy of the founding Puritan-Protestant emphasis on a personal relationship with God and on earthly rewards and punishments, for example, in hitching hard work to divine salvation.

The Protestant work ethic rules here too: Albertans have long worked the most hours, logged the most unused vacation days and lost the least time due to illness in the country. And we are reputedly the Bible belt of Canada, likely due to the strong Mormon presence in southwestern Alberta, a Christian fundamentalist accent in central Alberta, two high-profile, radio-preaching premiers (Aberhart and Manning) and three recent avowedly Christian PM candidates (Messrs. Preston Manning, Day and Harper). The conservative icon Ted Byfield tells me that the perceived depth of religion in Alberta stems from our major industries—finding oil, growing grain, raising cattle—being industries involving risk, and “gamblers tend to believe in God because that’s basically their only hope.” Yet statistics suggest that the province is actually the second-least religious in Canada (behind BC), measured per capita by reported religious attendance and lack of religious affiliation. A street philosopher explains this to me: Albertans are too busy making money. No points here, dammit. 

Unlike most nations, the US defines itself more by ideology than by a common history. It practises evangelistic exceptionalism in its perceived God-granted destiny to share its democratic system and its particular take on capitalism as widely as possible.

Here the case for Alberta’s exceptionality hits the brick wall of pragmatism. An identity born of defensiveness, typified in Reform’s rallying cry in the 1990s—“The West wants in!”—was a regional protest movement rather than an ideological clarion call to the cosmos. Our leaders owe their success to giving voters what they want (e.g., railways, telephones, schools, hospitals, tax breaks, Fort McMoney jobs), not to appealing to some loftier purpose. (Aberhart tried that and it killed him—first politically, then physically.) Premier Lougheed once said candidly of Albertan candidates for public office, “The more non-political, the more apolitical a person is, the better chance he has of winning.” No exceptionality here, bubba.

So where does all this leave us? A comparison to seven factors identified by Hodgson as indicia of American exceptionalism suggests Alberta is indeed exceptional, at least in Canada, in her self-identification as such and in her emphasis on, and traditions of, freedom, protest and equal opportunity (if unequal wealth). Alberta is sometimes exceptional in her anti-statism, but not at all so with religion and ideology. Alberta is nothing if not pragmatic. 

True to Judith Butler’s dictum, Alberta’s exceptionalist posture appears to be politically self-imposed. For more than a century, Alberta’s political and economic elites have cultivated a sense of otherness rooted in an alienation from the federal government and the federal system—an alienation both symbolized and perpetuated by electing MPs whose political parties (e.g., Progressive, Social Credit, Conservative, Reform) have tended to be consigned to the opposition benches not only for most of our provincial history, but in greater proportions and for more time than in the case of any other province. By anchoring Alberta in a rhetorical vision of otherness from the power centres of Canada, the province’s leaders have created a figurative fortress from which they can both consolidate their hegemony inside Alberta and do battle with external forces, real or imagined.

Alberta has compelling reasons to remain alienated from the centres of political and economic power in Canada, at least from the provincial government’s perspective. In Alberta, an ongoing potential threat from Ottawa, and the defensive posture that it prescribes, provides two advantages for the sitting government.

First, it effectively kiboshes the need for an opposition in the Legislature—there’s already one on Parliament Hill, regardless of who’s in power. This may help explain why Albertans have elected monstrous-majority governments since 1905, holding, by my count, almost four out of every five seats in the Legislature over the combined course of 27 provincial elections. (The garishly outdated preponderance of rural ridings may help, too.) Second, feeling alienated and exceptional channels Albertans’ dissent about 3,500 klicks to the east rather than on internal problems for which the provincial government is responsible. This mythologizing seems singular (at least in Canada), if not outright exceptional. The latest PM’s calling Alberta home and the economic might of the bituminous elephant in the room (and Canada’s growing dependence thereon) may warrant thinking of the West as not only “in” but running the asylum. However, history shows that federalism, population concentrations and entrenched systems of power trump Albertan priorities.

So, we can root aggressive assertions of Alberta’s individuality in a defensive position, born of rapid and dramatic political, demographic, economic and social changes to which the province hasn’t had much time to adjust. Exemplified in the US, the rhetoric of exceptionality—insisting on one’s distinctiveness—is akin to nationalism. Godfrey Hodgson and others have contested claims to American exceptionalism as exaggerated and even dangerous. Such claims are double-edged, as they promote personal responsibility, independent initiative and volunteerism, but also blind self-interest, virulent greed and disregard for the common good.

A bigger question is whether Albertans really need or want to use our tremendous resources (of every kind) to advance notions of our exceptionality. Recalling that the essence of exceptionality is variance, we could use that variance to seek harmony rather than stir up more dissonance. The Brazilian writer Fabio Durão suggests that the way to transcend the logic of exceptionality is to blur the distinctions between binaries such as centre and periphery, thereby weakening the power of either extreme. Albertans who take up this challenge could look at perceptions of our distinctiveness from others not as a measure of our own singularity, but as a reminder of our connectedness to a greater whole, and perhaps even as an opportunity to improve the collective lot of our residents, our country, our society and especially our planet. Now that would be truly exceptional.

Geo Takach is a writer, instructor, filmmaker and performer in Edmonton. His latest book is Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up?


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