The Great Myth of Alberta Conservatism

With an election approaching in spring 2019, it’s worth asking if we’re all wrong about the province

Flag of Alberta made up of images of oil industry

It’s the Friday of the Thanksgiving long weekend in downtown Calgary, and Ontario premier Doug Ford has filled a conference centre with rowdy fans united in their hatred of a carbon tax. Many oil-patch workers were hit hard when the price of crude tanked in 2015; work camps disappeared and with them the last good jobs. The economy has recovered some, but Alberta is not what it was at its peak, before the oil price crashed. Consumer debt is high, and it’s still not uncommon to hear of houses on the market that won’t sell for months or years. An ethic of hard work and good money has soured into idleness. It is not so much that the people here are now ­insurmountably poor but rather that they are disappointed.

United Conservative Party leader and would-be premier Jason Kenney, who has invited Ford to join him here, takes the stage and commiserates with the crowd: the event is part of a long build-up to the provincial election that will take place this spring. Sure, Alberta had seen oil busts before, he says, “but something was different this time—this time, we seem to have governments in Edmonton and in Ottawa that were stacking the decks against working Albertans, that were ­doing everything they could to make a bad situation even worse.”

Alberta reliably elects politicians, at all levels of government, who vow to defend the province from the economic predations of Ontario and Quebec—­Kenney is playing to a well-loved trope in politics here. It’s one that operates on the assumption that Toronto bankers and media are aligned with Liberal ­Ottawa politicians as part of a generational project to screw the West of its wealth and clout (in the current version, under the guise of environmentalism and antipipeline protests). This gives outsiders and locals alike the impression that ­Alberta is a politically homogeneous place, a field of Tory blue stretching across the plains. The conservative heartland: ­fortis et liber.

Alberta’s conservatism is one of the most established stereotypes in Canadian politics, informing everything from media punditry to federal electoral ­strategy. But the perception of the ­province as reliably conservative obfuscates its own past and temperament. Alberta isn’t, actually, terribly conservative in any ideological sense, and conservatism doesn’t fully explain either its ­current electoral politics or its long history of electing conservative ­governments. ­Albertans are as ­likely to elect Naheed Nenshi—Calgary’s urbanist, progressive mayor—or Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP as they are to create an ultraconservative Wildrose Party or send ­another army of Conservatives to ­Ottawa. On a range of specific policy and social issues, the province polls largely within Canadian norms.

Albertans’ long-standing commitment to conservatism is, in many ways, a matter of factional allegiance born of an accident of history—the outcome of regional rivalries far more than political beliefs. It’s not that Alberta is bereft of any conservative bent—most Prairie provinces drift to the pragmatic right on government spending, for example—but rather that left versus right isn’t the best framework for understanding the place. For most of the province’s history, it has been conservative politicians who have been the ones promising to defend the province against the presumptions and overreaching of a central Canadian elite.

Alberta is, in other words, populist, in the textbook meaning of the term—its politics is rooted in a kind of weird and wild bottom-up people-powered energy that brooks no arrogance from an ­established political class. This ­habit is far older, and is far more ingrained, than one government or even one generation’s worth of conservative governments. There is one common trait that yokes the founding of the province to politics to this day, and it’s not a commitment to low taxes or small government—it’s grievance. A sense that this province has been dealt a winning hand by nature but a raw one by Confederation.

By all accounts, Kenney—a staid, establishment figure who served as a cabinet minister for years under Stephen ­Harper—doesn’t need to rile the crowds. If recent polling holds, the freshly minted United ­Conservative Party, formed in 2017 to ­reassemble ­conservatives in the province after a decade of in-fighting, will win this year’s election. He should be able to fill a conference hall with ­devotees quite ­handily, and attaching himself so publicly to such a polarizing figure as Doug Ford may even hurt ­Kenney among moderate voters. But there is an air about: people in the room are angry.

Ford’s populist ­appeal, however, ­commands the room; when he speaks, the crowd boos, jeers, and japes on cue. “We refuse to be outhustled,” Ford says. “We refuse to be outworked. And, most ­importantly, my friends, we refuse to back down because the elites, the ­activists, the insiders, and their media friends, they spent the entire campaign trying to get us to apologize for being Conservative.”

Lest anyone imagine that such antiestablishment ramblings are confined to the conservative set, NDP premier ­Notley herself seems to enjoy a measurable ­uptick in support every time she gets fiery in defence of Alberta’s honour or ­interests. This is a leader who declared war on BC wine for that ­province’s obstrep­erousness on the Trans ­Mountain pipeline expansion, after all, and who has promised to sabotage the federal government’s plans to combat climate change. No Alberta leader ever lost a vote by bopping Ottawa. And the chief complaint grumbled in conservative corners is that Notley made a fatal mistake by trusting a Trudeau too much.

The NDP’s sudden election in 2015—after forty-four years of Progressive Conservative rule—seemed, at the time, to be some kind of unfathomable aberration. Kenney himself has repeatedly referred to the NDP as an “accidental” government, the socialists assuming power because voters were angry at the Progressive Conservatives and ­imagined a protest vote would be safe. Or so his theory goes. But polling data creates a much more complicated picture.

Illustration of oil field worker

Alberta is the home of the Calgary school (a collection of academics, economists, and politicos who share an ideology that includes strong support for provinces within the federation), which helped produce some of this country’s most successful conservative politicians and political operatives, including ­former prime minister Stephen Harper. Many Canadians ­also associate Alberta with social conservatism—an ­assessment that isn’t ­entirely baseless, to be clear. A ­majority of the province—63 ­percent—supports ­reinstating ­capital punishment. Immigration questions, ­especially, are fraught: a ­recent poll by the Environics Institute and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation showed that Albertans are more skeptical about the validity of refugee claimants than other Canadians are, and 62 percent said too many new ­immigrants don’t adopt Canadian values. Commentators also cite Ralph Klein’s ­extreme reluctance when premier to support same-sex marriage in 2005 as well as the United Conservative Party’s ­current antagonism to gay-straight alliances in schools as representative examples of the provincial political id. Kenney has recently had to confront a bevy of questions relating to his earlier statements on abortion and gay rights.

But some of these examples are exceptions, ones which gain a high profile ­nationally because they fit a certain narrative about the province that doesn’t always reflect the political positions of the electorate more generally—or, indeed, even of ­big-tent conservative parties in which social conservatives remain a powerful and vocal minority that must be placated. Take one litmus-test issue for conservatism, for instance: abortion. Faron Ellis, a research chair at ­Lethbridge College, has run surveys on six contentious social issues every year since 2009. The most recent poll, in 2018, found that 84 percent of Albertans support a woman’s right to make abortion ­decisions. And national polls frequently place Alberta’s support of abortion rights within a few points of Ontario’s, Ellis has found. (Other ­surveys have found that ­Atlantic Canada is the region most ­opposed to abortion; it now reliably votes for the pro-choice Liberals.)

Albertans have grown noticeably more progressive on several other social questions in recent years as well, according to Ellis’s research: 92 percent support legalized medical marijuana, and 85 percent support doctor-assisted death. ­Support for same-sex marriage now stands at 82 percent (up from 66 percent when Ellis began tracking).

Despite the economic situation, a stark majority of Albertans—82 percent—polled last spring in an expansive social ­survey conducted on behalf of the CBC believed that more should be done to reduce the pay gap between men and women. ­Almost as many believe action should be taken to reduce wealth in­equality. ­Only about half of those polled trusted the private sector to create jobs, and almost 80 percent felt the province was too reliant on the oil-and-gas sector.

None of these results are in keeping with a simplistic understanding of the province’s ostensibly conservative political culture. Janet Brown, the pollster who led the CBC’s study, puts it this way: “If you want to understand Alberta, understand this: we love our social programs, we want to live in a fair and equitable ­society, we don’t like paying taxes, and we don’t trust Ottawa.”

Settled in a large parking lot just off Deerfoot Trail, the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner is a cult favourite for large breakfast plates and lemon ­meringue pie. Writers love this place ­because it’s filled with colourful, nostalgic kitsch and booths outfitted in a frayed fabric printed with road signs. Plus, the food is good. I meet Kenney here to talk about various understandings, and misunderstandings, of conservatism. “Conservatism is organic,” he tells me. “It’s not like Marxism, which has a fixed set of policy prescriptions. It’s a disposition, a disposition rooted in the belief that civil society should come before the state, and the intermediary institutions of family and volunteer organizations and local communities have their own sovereignty, and the state should give space to those things to allow for human flourishing.”

Kenney has included support for services like socialized health care in his party’s platform, for example. He gets agitated by the way central Canadians so often misrepresent the ideology. He begins to point at my phone ­recorder for ­emphasis. “Whatever caricature they have right now—Donald Trump, Doug Ford—whatever negative prejudices they have about people they don’t like in politics, they just bundle up as conservatism.”

Kenney rejects my suggestion that Alberta is not as conservative as he imagines; that won’t bear out, he ­insists. “I always believe that demography is destiny, and Alberta’s political culture was established by the people who came here,” he says. “Southern ­Alberta was settled by Americans from the upper Midwest who came up here for better land and by rebellious third sons of British families who fell in love with the eastern slopes and ­started ­ranches.”

Indeed, immigration—particularly from the US—and demographics have historically been invoked to explain the province’s grassroots, right-leaning political culture. Academics have long posited that the province’s conservatism is a self-­fulfilling myth—that its low taxes and entrepreneurial ethos tend to ­attract more conservative-­minded immigrants and that these people tend to elect more conservatives who then keep the taxes low, reinforcing the cycle of history.

But the province didn’t start out that way. “Alberta, for decades, was considered to be the most radical, left-wing jurisdiction in the British Empire,” says Tom Flanagan, a retired political-­science professor at the University of Calgary and long-time conservative political activist and operative.

Alberta became a province in 1905, when the federal Liberal government carved up the North-West Territories, ­creating Alberta and Saskatchewan (and, a year later, the Northwest Territories), to undermine the Conservative Party and better maintain political control of the two provinces. Albertans felt that everything, from trade policy to the freight rates set by the Canadian Pacific Railway, was stacked against the western provinces: the effect of Confederation was to treat the Prairies as a kind of colony ­within a colony, supplying ­eastern Canada with raw materials and ­making it difficult to develop an independent manufacturing hub. Meanwhile, the ­eastern bankers took the province’s money and rang up the debt at usurious rates.

Alberta’s first government was an esta­blishment Liberal one, but the population grew increasingly organized and restive in subsequent decades. In 1921, voters installed a group of collectivist farmers under the ­banner of the United Farmers of Alberta in ­office. Meanwhile, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation—the precursor to the ­modern NDP—was founded in Calgary, in 1932. The province’s public ­finances grew increasingly ­shambolic, ­ultimately ­leading to an infamous ­default on its debts in 1936. “There were people in desperate circumstances all over the province,” Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, says. “Alberta was an agricultural province and the agricultural economy collapsed.”

In the 1935 federal election, Liberal prime minister William Lyon ­Mackenzie King offered voters a “simple proposition: vote for us and we’ll bail you out. Don’t vote for us and we won’t,” ­Manning says. That is the last kind of threat one should make to an Albertan, he goes on. “It deepened that antagonism. That’s the kind of proposition that gets embedded in the DNA. I can ­remember I heard politicians in the ’50s still talking about that.” That same year, in their provincial election, Albertans did something radical: they voted for the ­Social Credit Party.

Alberta’s Social Credit was a deeply religious movement and is considered a ­socially conservative party, but that term didn’t have the same meaning in 1935 as it does today. Mistaking the party’s election for a hard conservative shift in the populace would be to miss its meaning and point: Social Credit was ­interested in ­evoking Jesus through economics. It preached an ­experimental monetary ­reform that would grant citizens the capital from their productive labour that would otherwise be counted as profits. It issued “prosperity certificates” and ­handed them out to residents. “­Nobody at the time would have put it on the right wing of the political spectrum,” Flanagan says. “It was opposed by both the Liberals and the Conservatives and was denounced by the ­establishment ­newspapers.” Under ­Premier William ­Aberhart, ­Alberta tried to nationalize its banks: the province established ­Alberta ­Treasury ­Branches—essentially, provincially owned banks—which are still ­thriving today.

In 1943, Ernest Manning (Preston Manning’s father) succeeded Aberhart as both leader of the Social Credit Party and premier of Alberta. Preston Manning still remembers the discontent that was prevalent in the province at the time. “We pay 10 percent more for everything we buy and get 10 percent less for everything we sell” was the prevailing sentiment, he says.

Alberta’s comparative poverty ­ended in 1947, when the province found a large oil field in Leduc. (The province’s first significant commercial oil find dated back to 1914, but that field in ­Turner ­Valley was depleted shortly after the Second World War.) Oil changed everything. Now the province could keep taxes low and social spending high. Oil also gave the province’s political parties preternaturally long tenures: Alberta’s governing party has changed just twice in the decades since the Leduc discovery, in 1971 with the election of the Progressive Conservative Party and again in 2015 when the Alberta NDP won.

Aberhart couldn’t follow through on ­Social Credit’s most ambitious goals—the province simply wasn’t wealthy enough to hand out money ­during the Depression. But ­Ernest Manning could. By the ’50s, the ­government was cutting resource-­dividend cheques for all its citizens. Oil also changed ­Alberta’s relationship with the rest of Canada. Now the province had something to lose.

By 1971, Social Credit ran out of steam. They had been in power for thirty-six years, an ­exceptionally long tenure for any democratic jurisdiction. The ’60s had been a period of extraordinary social ­upheaval, and Alberta, increasingly ­looking the part of a sclerotic backwater, was itching for something new. Peter Lougheed of the Progressive Conservatives provided that. Unlike the moralizing preacher premiers of yore, this young man was to the manner born. He was a ­lawyer and Harvard graduate. He jogged—a novel show of virility at the time. And his success was a marked shift to the left: Social Credit had grown increas­ingly conventionally conservative ­during its decades in office, and Lougheed was a Progressive Conservative who was true to the first half of
the name.

Lougheed drastically increased resource royalty rates and expanded the scope of government. In 1974, his government even purchased an airline—part of a ­broader effort to diversify the province’s economy away from the oil-and-gas sector. ­Lougheed embraced statist policies that, to ­modern economic sentiments, seem far to the left of what the NDP would ­attempt today.

One of Lougheed’s greatest legacies, however, is his forceful opposition to Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program. In the 1970s, Alberta was producing enormous quantities of oil while the rest of Canada was reeling from successive oil crises. The NEP, introduced in 1980 over Alberta’s strenuous objections, ­created an export tax designed to force that province’s oil to be sold to central Canada at a discount from the world price. To those out east, the oil belonged to Canada as much as it did to Alberta; Lougheed and Albertans in general were derided as greedy “blue-eyed sheiks” (a derogatory term that came into such common use its origins are now unclear; it featured in ­several of Lougheed’s obituaries) unfairly benefiting from the largesse of a ­geological ­treasure. To ­Albertans, the NEP was straight theft. Yet again, ­central Canadian elites were treating the West like a storehouse stocked by their hard work, to be plundered at will during ­famine or drought.

How much the NEP directly damaged Alberta’s economy is a disputed question; global oil prices crashed just as Trudeau’s reforms were established and the energy crises of the ’70s gave way to the great oil glut of the ’80s. But in the minds of Albertans, Trudeau was the prime culprit in the crushing recession that followed. There is hardly an Albertan alive who doesn’t remember ­hearing stories about people losing most of their savings or their house, or both. The term jingle mail became common parlance; it referred to the sound that keys to abandoned ­houses made as they were mailed to the bank when mortgages ­became unsupportable.

Walking away from everything is the kind of experience that tends to create a lot of resentment. The NEP sealed an enmity between Alberta and Ottawa that continues nearly forty years later. The federal Liberals have never made any significant inroads in Alberta electorally since; various conservative parties have been the only ones trusted with the province’s interests. This, again, is more a matter of political myth than fact: Brian Mulroney was actually a great disappointment to the West, and Jean Chrétien was one of the greatest champions of the province’s oil sands.

This province has an uncanny way of reenacting its dramas. The oil price goes from boom to bust, and the province’s fortunes with it. And while once this province’s farmers cursed the CPR, still now they spit when they say “NEP.”

Ask any Albertan to name their favourite premier and you will likely get one of two answers: Lougheed or Ralph Klein.

Both were Progressive Conservative premiers, but they were nothing alike in either temperament or accomplishment. Both figures are political demigods in the province, each representing a competing vision for Alberta. They are the dual ­pillars holding up the mythic ­firmament of Alberta’s conservative identity.

Klein, who was premier between 1992 and 2006, is the man who came to best define the current Alberta stereotype, for both good and bad. Bombastic, ­charismatic, and forthright, Klein was the man who told the eastern “bums and creeps” flooding into oil-rich Alberta to go home, who eliminated the province’s debt, and who demolished Calgary General Hospital to do it. Klein said what he thought and possessed the will to do what was necessary. Never mind that he was a journalist by profession, a card-carrying Liberal before he became leader of the PC Party, and a leader who, ­after a brief period of austerity, reinvested in program areas like health and education in line with growth in natural-gas royalties. We’re speaking here of myths.

But, to many of Canada’s conservatives, Klein remains the archetype. The conservatives who led the province in the decade after his retirement ranged from forgettable to calamitous; the PCs, who had been in power continuously since 1971, had grown aimless. Wildrose, a far-right conservative party founded in 2008, came close to defeating the PCs in 2012 but collapsed after a ­series of “bozo ­eruptions”—as untoward comments about ­religion, gay marriage, and ­climate change were termed by the party’s own leader—cast the upstart as temperamentally unfit to head the province.

The slow-motion collapse of the PCs cul­minated in 2014, when the sudden resignation of then premier Alison Redford was followed by several Wildrose MPs crossing the floor to join the PCs. The in-fighting fatally undermined trust in the Progressive Conservatives, and the province turned to the only viable party it could see: the Alberta NDP, led by an intelligent and charismatic Rachel ­Notley, with generational ties to the province’s political royalty to boot.

If Jason Kenney is Klein’s political heir Rachel Notley belongs to Lougheed. Her focus on ­economic diver­sification tracks more closely with ­Lougheed’s long-standing priorities and concerns. Notley’s father, Grant Notley, was ­elected leader of the Alberta NDP in 1968 and served as head of the ­official opposition from 1982 until his death in a plane accident two years later. His daughter proved to be the prodigal political child. She took a place in the legislature in 2008, a time when the Alberta NDP was still a fringe element in provincial politics. The ­federal NDP’s perceived antipathy to both the energy industry and pipelines seemed to put the party’s chances of electoral success somewhere between “faint hope” and “nonexistent.” But in the wake of the Wildrose-PC ­debacle, Notley was able to make the case that the NDP was best able to carry on the province’s tradition of pragmatic Prairie populism.

To the general public, her success was as unexpected as it was stunning, but it was not quite the anomaly that it seemed—the NDP’s is not an accidental government. And it has been possible not ­because the province suddenly ­became a socialist haven but because it was never a particularly conservative one. For the most part, Notley has run a government not so terribly removed from that of the PCs: tax increases have been in line with historical precedent, as have spending and service levels. It’s an incrementalist kind of government—much like the ones that preceded it.

In the oil business, particularly dangerous wells are called “rogue.” When pressure in a well is ­unusually high, it can erupt, spewing crude and natural gas for kilometres and starting catastrophic fires if an unlucky spark catches the wind. This is also, Preston Manning often says, a good metaphor for politics in Alberta. Like rogue wells, the province is characterized by “­bottom-up energy,” Manning says. “Very valuable if you can harness it but very dangerous if you can’t.”

To manage the pressure in a rogue well, Manning explains, you drill a relief well from the side—which ­itself can be temperamental. “If it’s too shallow, it won’t take the pressure off. If it’s too deep, it can turn into a rogue well. But if it’s just right, it can take the pressure off and bring it under control.” Manning says eastern Canada doesn’t understand “that there was ­potential separatism in western Canada that was as dangerous or more dangerous than in Quebec—because you couldn’t use the argument about economics [to counter threats about leaving the country]. It ­tended to work the other way—in the West, if you separate, you would be ­better off.”

The federal Reform Party, which Manning founded in 1987 and lasted until 2000, was one of Alberta’s relief wells, he says. “It was a movement that tried to recognize that energy. . . . And ­instead of inflaming it further, it tried to say, ‘We’re mad too, but instead of blowing the whole thing apart, let’s ­reform the federation. Let’s make it better. The West wants in, not out.’”

Reform was but one of many relief wells that have been created over the province’s history: Alberta maintains a reputation for wild political upheaval and experimentation unparalleled in any other province for a reason. The United Farmers of Alberta, the CCF, ­Social ­Credit, Ralph Klein, Reform—even, arguably, the provincial NDP win in 2015—were all born of the same wildcat energy.

Populist energy can decimate a political status quo that has calcified or grown corrupt. But it can also give voice to the darker grievances of xenophobia, ­sexism, and racism. Social Credit had to ­contend with the antisemitism in its ranks. Reform was derided, even by fellow conservatives, as an offshoot for racists and bigots. The United Conservative Party is now contending with a steady drip of members who have made extremely derisive comments about ­Muslims, gay rights, and transgender people. Kenney himself has faced backlash about ­decades-old comments on abortion and LGBTQ issues.

In the unlikely event that Rachel ­Notley gets reelected, it will probably be because her party succeeds in painting Kenney as too extreme; her victory would, in effect, be a direct ­repudiation by ­voters of the stereotype of Alberta conservatism. Far likelier is that ­Kenney will win. If he does, he will ­become the most socially conservative premier ­elected in Alberta since Ernest Manning—but it would be a mistake to think that’s why voters will choose him. ­Populism is once again ascend­ant in the province, and in the current matchup, it is Kenney ­rather than
who represents it. A Kenney victory would be less a reflection of conservative atavism than an expression of the province’s deep ­anger: as in the ’80s, some Albertans are ­openly musing about separating from Canada, and Kenney is the one offering them a relief well.

Voters in this province are deeply ­attached to the “Alberta advantage”—a catchphrase that lionizes the province’s perpetually low taxes and excellent services, made possible through natural abundance. Indeed, who would not be? It is an apt summary for Alberta’s felt need to defend its economic and politi­cal ­interests in the face of a federation that has been perpetually rigged in ­favour of power brokers elsewhere. And those are the terms on which the upcoming ­election, like the ones that preceded it, will be fought and won.

February 5, 2019: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ralph Klein was the successor of Peter Lougheed as premier of Alberta. In fact, Donald Getty was Lougheed’s successor; Klein was premier after Getty. The Walrus regrets the error.

February 14, 2019: A previous version of this article attributed a recent poll about Albertans’ attitudes toward immigrants to the Globe and Mail. In fact, the poll was conducted by the Environics Institute and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. The Walrus regrets the error.

Jen Gerson
Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.
Studio Tipi
Studio Tipi draws regularly for Monocle and The Weekender.