Because Alberta has oil and Peter has Alberta

JACK LUDWIG July 1 1975


Because Alberta has oil and Peter has Alberta

JACK LUDWIG July 1 1975


Because Alberta has oil and Peter has Alberta


We Westerners have always been amazed by the Great Eastern Delusion under which, alas, the West and the Maritimes live: Quebec and Ontario quarrel, reach a compromise, divide a whole Canadian loaf between them, and leave just enough crumbs dropped during their ritual tug for the West and the Maritimes. “Ontario solutions” or “Quebec solutions” are traditionally referred to — by Ottawa — as “Canadian solutions.” Anyone in the West who questions the game can qualify instantly as bellyacher, red-neck, French-hater, enemy of Confederation, etc. Ontario and Quebec, between them, define “the Canadian norm”: “those out there,” the “un-norm-al,” become the “alienated,” the “hostile,” the “paranoid,” the monolingual or polylingual perverse.

I grew up in the West but can’t for the life of me remember thinking of myself as “alienated.” We Westerners considered ourselves ignored, neglected, injured, even aggrieved, governed, for the most part, by an undifferentiated gang of proud saw-off experts who didn’t know their cash crop from a hole in the ground. Whether they were tagged Liberal or Conservative didn’t make all that much difference. So, in 1975, when “Eastern” voices cry out against “Alberta’s alienation” and expect British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to man the federal musketry, our reaction, on the whole is “so what else is new?” In spite of what one might feel about specific “elements” in the Alberta political mix the West recognizes the oilbased “clout” of Alberta as a counterforce to the “central Canadian” monolithic definition of Confederation. Through Alberta, the rest of the West and the Maritimes will, perhaps, be able, finally, to renegotiate those things the royal commission-game has studied and fuddy-duddied away most of the days of our growing-up years.

In July of 1974 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau won the comfortable majority the federal election was supposed to provide his Liberal Party. No more would the “socialist” NDP be able to barter its shore-up votes for a mess of minimum wage or a jiggle of the national tax structure. But the Trudeau “sweep” wasn’t quite “clean”; in Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives, led not by waning Tory Robert Stanfield but by provincial premier Peter Lougheed, thumped the Liberals, 19-0. “Alienated” Alberta was obviously marching to the hup-hup-hup of a different drummer.

From the Toronto-Ottawa perspective, Alberta was simply “Canada’s Texas,” full of millionaires, oil barons, cattle barons, developers, speculators, anti-union kooks suspicious of any national union, particularly the one called Canada. Yet, once apply the “alienation” label and a write-off of Western dissatisfaction easily follows: poor Western loonies always imagine that freight rates are stacked against the West, or that wheat policies, shipping, storing, and Western natural resources policies are made by “Central Canada” after a play-acting “consultation” with the Western provinces. Participatory democracy was a slogan Ontario and Quebec took seriously but which, by the time it trickled out to the West and to the Maritimes, turned into mock-parliament or quasi-Confederation.

Not Peter Lougheed but oil forced the Great Eastern Canadian Awakening. From the moment Alberta made its strikes in oil and natural gas, and, even more significantly, from the second moment, the Arab oil embargo (which emphasized Canada’s need to be self-sufficient in fossil fuel), the Alberta joke was over. Alberta still had its American Texans, its Canadian “Texans,” its minishahs, its mini-King Ranchers, but their existence meant something different: the “kooks” had power. Those old-fashioned 19th-century captains of industry were more than targets for satire, even if still totally dedicated to the red-neck Philistine pleasures — money, land, oil, cattle, short hair and short views.

In March Peter Lougheed led his Progressive Conservatives to a provincial victory as smashing as the Alberta federal success of July, 1974: his party won 69 of 75 seats, which wiped out the Social Credit opposition (at dissolution Social Credit had 24 seats; in the new legislature, four). In the East the provincial results reemphasized Alberta’s alienation, but in the West firmed up the new army of the confederacy leading a figurative march on Ottawa. Peter Lougheed emerged as an important Western political leader and as a significant political harbinger: Lougheed is not the first provincial premier to confront Ottawa. But almost every other “alienated” provincial premier has, in the past, eventually turned out to be a paper tiger. In 1975 “paper tiger” can be defined quite simply as “a premier without oil.”

I was resident at the Banff Centre in July, during the federal election, and returned to Alberta in March to witness Peter Lougheed’s predicted provincial triumph. Most Alberta people read Peter Lougheed’s victory as a backup sendoff for his anticipated give-the-East-hell follow-up campaign. Ron Ghitter, successful Progressive Conservative candidate in the Calgary legislative riding of Buffalo, told me a day or two before the Tory sweep of March that “Peter will be the first provincial premier to stand up to the East — I mean really stand up — to Trudeau, to Ontario, to Quebec.

Jack Ludwig’s sports pieces, which appeared in this magazine, will be published by Doubleday in the fall under the title of The Game Of Fear And Winning.

“Respond is the name of the game,” Ghitter said, “we made you respond. You, the East, Maclean’s, that’s why you’re here. The East would have ignored us and our little election except for one thing — oil. We have it and we’re playing tough.

“Every premier must know by now,” Ghitter went on, “that if the provinces don’t stand up, Confederation will fail. Ottawa can’t govern Alberta or any other province because Ottawa’s not close enough to the people. Only the provinces can govern. Hell, it’s not just a matter of oil, or energy. It’s the highhanded way Ottawa does everything. Look at the bicultural and bilingual thing from our point of view. This is Alberta, not Quebec. Alberta could give a damn less about bilingualism. Peter” — the real name of the Alberta Tory party is “Peter” — “knows that the one issue we always have with us is jobs. To create jobs you make tough choices about energy, about the environment, about pollution. People in Sarnia have a high per capita income because they know the price is learning to live with the petrochemical industry. The NDP thinks different, but the NDP doesn’t think the way Albertans think.”

The “problem” of Alberta isn’t alienation but may turn out to be its characteristic free enterprise “short views.” Ghitter, though no red-neck, sometimes takes the short Albertan view. One senses a hysteria in Alberta, a gold rush fever: in times of such hysteria people sell anything and everything to the highest bidder — Manhattan Island, say, or the environment, or, perhaps, the future. Overwhelming victory produces a political glee to which only a killjoy objects. On March 26 “Peter’s Party” ostensibly had its main oil view — sell for the most bucks to any bidder, domestic or foreign — backed up vigorously. But the Peter Lougheed who relayed the Alberta message to Ottawa in April chose to underplay that message all the way. As long as Alberta had oil, it needed no rhetoric.

I first met Peter Lougheed at Banff shortly after the July, 1974, federal election, at a gallery opening, which presented the work of Banff Centre artists. He seemed shy yet somehow at home in the characteristic social mix of gallery openings — tycoon patrons in cuff links and tux, their coiffed wives in long dresses, the traditional sexist cocktail party rules in effect — “I’d like you to meet Joseph Blow, and, oh yes, his wife Flo.” Lougheed resembled a North American foundation head or university president studiously avoiding the gallery’s spaced-out young, the painters concerned with how unsuitably they had been framed or hung, the unconcerned and genially bubbling artsies and craftsies. For the most part, he stayed among his social familiars.

In the months between the federal and provincial elections the “buildup” of Peter Lougheed ‘had begun packaging, merchandising, almost independent of the person being “sold.” The buildup uses schooling, a little family history, a little touch of ancestry, a success here, another success there, adds a few one-liners, borrowed jokes, a formal deadpan photo, some smiling snapshots and/or home movies, a few TV appearances, and poof: a national political feenom! In 1975 Richard Nixon’s 1972 film packagers were used to put Peter Lougheed’s best face forward. It’s this film Lougheed was watching when I entered his Calgary West campaign headquarters.

The program, a kind of “This Is Your Lucky Life, Peter Lougheed,” was being shown on most Calgary channels, except one — the “Trudeau-owned” CBC. Lougheed sat with his legs crossed, his body bent slightly forward, his eyes never off the screen, his thumbs twiddling. His wife, Jeanne, watching with him, remarked on how much darker his hair was in 1971. The film leaned heavily on the ideas of “now” and “tomorrow,” and, from an Albertan’s point of view, presented Peter Lougheed as reasonable but implacable, the right man to confront Trudeau, and Turner, and Marchand, and Macdonald.

The film, looked at chronologically, showed some interesting shifts in Lougheed’s political style. Though he spoke deliberately, and slowly, sounding at times like Gerald Ford, he had none of Ford’s without-a-monitor-I’m-dead panic, or Ford’s chronic slow-reader stumbling. On film one could see Lougheed’s hair and sideburns inch into the mid-1970s along with his widening lapels. At no time, however, did Lougheed approach the dégagé look of Pierre Trudeau, not even when he was shown romping in the woods.

Though the film emphasized Lougheed’s competence, firmness, compassion, foresight and charm, the rap I had heard put on him said he was much like Richard Nixon in his remoteness, his willingness to let a few close buddies wall him off from the enquiring public world. I told him that his opponents thought of him as someone who emphasized charisma rather than ideas or issues. They charged him with being a personality cultist, power hungry, bad at delegating authority and responsibility, and cabal-oriented. In reply, Lougheed detailed some recent Alberta political history. The provincial Progressive Conservative Party he had “built up from nothing,” he said. “I knew where the weak spots were in Social Credit. I knew their Achilles’ heels and how those Achilles’ heels developed.”

Building a party, Lougheed suggested, meant having a tight organization, and organization meant control — hence, perhaps, the power-hungry label. Unity meant unifying behind someone — the leader, who, in this case, was Peter Lougheed. But now his emphasis was on shifting people around, decentralizing power.

“In politics, people lose their fire. The same people can’t do the same job year after year. I’ve had a different campaign manager the three times I’ve run in this riding. Remaining in any job too long is particularly harmful to cabinet ministers. That’s why I intend to have every cabinet minister shift his portfolio.”

In the film (and in my subsequent conversations with Lougheed) I noticed that he carefully avoided going one-onone against Prime Minister Trudeau —a stance his more pugnacious followers expected him to take. He never, for instance, made a direct Alberta First pitch, but couched his implied Alberta Firstism in seemingly “normal” Canadian patriotic language. In April at the First Ministers’ Conference, the gap between Lougheed and Trudeau, for instance, was far smaller than the gap between Lougheed-Trudeau and Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier William Davis. Lougheed seemed always to be saying something like “What’s good for Alberta is good for Canada, and what’s good for Canadians is good for Albertans,” a position simultaneously 100% Albertan and 100% Canadian. This conciliatory tone, more than almost any other factor, leads some political observers to conclude that Peter Lougheed not only plans some day to become the national Tory leader but, eventually, the Prime Minister of Canada.

In his campaign film, the included clips always stressed the needs of “all Canadians,” even when staking claims of “Alberta’s ownership rights.” At the Ottawa Energy Conference in January of 1974, for instance, the Premier referred to his province as the “major supplier for Canada,” talked about “sound national energy policies,” and ended with the hope that all would “strive for understanding and agreement.”

To Ottawa, Peter Lougheed may look like only the latest image out of the Western imprinting machine. Within Alberta, his image is far from far right; right-wingers consider Lougheed’s 1975 mandate to be “shaft the Eastern bastards.” Those Albertans who get their ideas from American sources such as the John Birch Society or from Texas oilmen’s bumper stickers want to “Let those Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” To the extreme right wing the threat of a separate Alberta is the only economic and political stand the province can take. John Rudolph, leader of the Independent Alberta Association (a group which holds in reserve a last-ditch separate Alberta stance) believes that part of the new pressure Peter Lougheed will experience in the four years to come will derive from the far right crowding him to move more “conservatively faster.” Rudolph considers Premier Lougheed “almost socialist,” but said that right-wing people voted Tory in 1974 and 1975 because there was “nowhere else to go.” Rudolph was unhappy enough with the “socialist” slant of the Lougheed government to feel the time was right for Alberta — and BC — free-enterprisers to launch a new, openly right-wing Western political party.

“Our defense against Lougheed,” Rudolph said, “is that we’ll eventually throw him out. Lougheed’s ego can’t stánd a landslide. Peter Lougheed is nothing but what old Fred Mannix created. Mannix has more power with Lougheed than anybody else around — even more than Fred Jr. Lots of things with the Mannixes could stand looking into — land, parks.” Peter Lougheed once worked for Fred Mannix who, through Loram International (a huge contracting operation) and other enterprises, has had much to do with developing Alberta and the southwest corner of Saskatchewan.

To counter Peter Lougheed’s “socialism,” and, I suppose, the “socialism” of the ultra-free enterprising Mannixes, Rudolph wanted the province to set up a separate Alberta mail service run by private enterprise. He expected government to “stay the hell out of lands and resources.” The law of buy-cheap-andsell-high should apply freely to any customer, be he American, Iranian, Japanese, Greek, or even Ontarian.

Rudolph’s attitude toward Peter Lougheed has echoes in the Alberta “left”: anyone who has come as far as Peter Lougheed in so short a time is certain to pick up lots of enemies on the way. In the Americanized “South” of Alberta (which has Calgary as its capital) I was told, “Peter likes to be with his football buddies because among them he’s a bloody genius.” In the Easternized “North” (with the capital, Edmonton), I was told, “To the Tories, the cocktail party comes before the political party,” and, “What can I tell you, they’re all good at ballroom dancing.” A political opponent muttered, “Lougheed doesn’t have advisers, only talking bodyguards.” “Lougheed turns used Alberta jockstraps into politicians,” someone else said. “Our whole political thing starts with Peter’s Patio Set,” ex-footballers, ex-business associates, ex-law buddies.

Lougheed’s response was that in politics, as in other things, “close personal relationships make strong sacrifices possible.” He could ask a close personal friend to interrupt a career, take a cut in pay or rank because the Alberta government, “Peter” party or staff required it.

I wondered if, in this “family” setup, the illusion of dissent or debate wasn’t just that — an illusion — and wondered how the Premier intended to work in the context of his impending new majority. He suggested that the traditional functions of the Opposition had already been taken over by the press. When I examined Alberta newspapers in July 1974 and March 1975 I found little evidence of either investigative reporting or editorial challenges. When, for instance, the Petrochemical briefing papers were “leaked” to the newspapers, the important story — complete with details about special grants, loans and equities to certain industries — did not make the front page of the Edmonton Journal. Similarly the Syncrude “leak” — about the extent of Alberta’s participation in Syncrude — did not get banner coverage. I found in most papers a tendency to generalize and stay away from issues. There was little press pressure to make the government answer specific questions.

In a victory speech the night of the election, Progressive Conservative Roy Farran of Calgary North Hill said the party itself was perfectly capable of generating its own opposition. As an example of that opposition, evidently, Farran defined his own role: “Mine is but to do or die,” an odd choice of words for an aspiring ombudsman.

On the subject of opposing, Ron Ghitter told me that many times during the previous legislative session he thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be across the way? There was so much the Opposition could do, but didn’t.” To accommodate the Opposition, Peter Lougheed, after the March election, proposed changes in legislative procedures which would allow each Opposition member, if he wished, to speak twice on a bill instead of only once. Arrangements to enlarge the research facilities of the Opposition were also being proposed.

My main question to Lougheed, though, was the obvious one: what would he do with his mandate? First, “and foremost,” he told me, was the pressing need for “a new definition of Confederation.” Though this sounded abstract and general, Lougheed wanted that definition to take into account the special nature of the “Western Canada economy which though it depends on a resource base must inevitably use those resources for the long-range goal of diversification.” How a Western Canadian point of view could resolve the basically laissez faire orientation of Alberta with the lukewarm socialism of Manitoba, Saskatchewan or British Columbia wasn’t clear.

Everybody knows by now, Lougheed continued, “that oil doesn’t last forever.” The reason Alberta “insisted on a fair return now” was that the current high market price of oil internationally translated into money which could be used for the diversification of the Alberta economy, which, in turn, would mean jobs now and in the future.

On that level, Alberta — and Western Canada — were applying measures familiar to any de-colonialized economy. Natural resources could not be taken out of the West to be processed in — and produce employment for — the East. But natural resources not only could be exploited by private enterprise, the tax structure was supposed to encourage free enterprise to participate in that exploitation. Again, as Lougheed well knew, the other Western provincial governments did not encourage the private exploitation of public natural resources. The confederated West might reflect an illusionary regional unity when confronting Ottawa, but economic differences were quite real. Ideologically opposed provincial governments presented quite different economic proposals at the April First Ministers’ Conference. For instance, British Columbia wanted oil prices to stay put but natural gas prices to rise (British Columbia, one should not have to emphasize, has little oil but a lot of natural gas).

With diversification his aim, jobs his main goal and the nature of the West-inthe-21st-century the big dream, Lougheed at the conference stressed the need for Alberta to get a “fair return” for its oil and natural gas now. If, Lougheed told me in March, “the rest of Canada” couldn’t come up with that “fair return,” the new confederacy would go into action, i.e., Alberta would do business with anyone outside Canada who could “meet our laws, as everyone else does.” “I have no feeling for keeping anybody out of Alberta,” Lougheed said. “There’s no moat around this province.” While emphasis now is on oil and natural gas, ownership of land is potentially a far more significant issue. Long after all underground resources have been exhausted the land will be there — to live on, to build on, to grow on, to graze on, to ski on, to loll on. Farmers, I was told by people close to the Land Use Forum (at present surveying the question of land use in the province) are already fearful of the inflationary pressures being exerted by “foreign” investment in Alberta land. The official figure for foreign participation is 2% of all Alberta land, but since only 17% of Alberta is arable (and qualifies as “prize land”) the degree of foreign ownership might turn out to be as high as 8% or higher. Land is now, to international finance, a great “hedge” against inflation. In the early and mid-Sixties the hedge was gold. Money poured into Switzerland — and other places — buying gold first at the fixed price of $35 an ounce, and, later, at $42. While inflation rose about 75% to 80% in the next seven or eight years, the free price of gold rose to about $160 to $200 an ounce. Thirty-five dollars held as cash from, say, 1967, would lose three quarters of its value by 1974;’$35 invested in gold would be worth, at the very least, $160. The second international “hedge” was, of course, oil. If, say, before the oil embargo, someone sold his ounce of gold and put it into barrels of oil — as “hedge investment specialists” were recommending — that $35 turned $160 could double or triple, making the original $35 worth $320 or $480. If that money then went into buying choice Albertan land — the third international “hedge” — that original $35 could easily turn into $1,000, $2,000, or more. The $35 held as cash would be worth eight or nine dollars!

More accurately, the third international “hedge” is not land but food. World demand will, in the not distant future, as Alberta Liberal leader Nick Taylor told me, turn “the whole prairie region, from Winnipeg all the way to Banff, into one huge truck garden.” Land is an excellent hedge, Taylor said, because “under the British system of government we never take land back at less than what someone paid for it.” At worst, a foreign investor could keep his money secure; at best, he could make a fantastic profit — all at the expense of the people of Alberta and the rest of Canada.

Tory Peter Lougheed, Liberal Nick Taylor and NDP-er Grant Notley all realize that Alberta is one of the few “places with a stable government and a stable economy” left in the world — emirs and shahs can deposit not only their money but themselves and their families within Alberta’s secure and tranquil free-enterprise, low-tax, no-inheritance-tax boundaries.

Lougheed’s understanding of his Land Use Forum’s goal is that it will correct the current vagueness about buying and owning Alberta land: it will, he hopes, “firmly define residence and the nationality of a purchaser,” which, at the present time, trusts and “fronts” can mask. Yet even Lougheed’s partisans wonder about the Premier's awareness on the land issue. A man who voted Progressive Conservative told me the greatest irony would be if while “Peter knocked down all the Eastern Canadian windmills he let foreign investment take us over without a fight.”

In a sense. Premier Lougheed is stuck. In order to “deal hard” with “Central Canada,” he has to have an alternative extra-Canadian market; in order to have that market he has to be willing to sell precious land — and oil, and natural gas, and even water — to “foreign interests.” To take such an “un-Canadian” step would, of course, be political suicide nationally, at the precise moment he was putting down political separatism, the Premier would be practising what the rest of Canada — and not just Ontario — would undoubtedly consider economic separatism. His aspirations (if they exist) to be leader of the national Progressive Conservative Party — and next Tory prime minister — would be, at the very least, unrealistic.

Yet, as things stand, Peter Lougheed holds the greater office — Premier of oil-rich Alberta. Why give that up for the lesser role — leading a not-quitewith-it national Tory party? His current planning, he told me, was for Alberta’s future, and that was job enough.

In Peter Lougheed’s “vision,” Calgary, the “South,” is a financial centre linking oil with agriculture, agriculture with agribusiness; Edmonton, the “North,” is involved with industrial oil, and acts as a “service centre” and a “university city”; the land south of Calgary specializes in agriculture and agricultural processing; the west is reserved for tourism; the northwest develops forestry, mining and related industries; the area from Medicine Hat to Fort McMurray is a petrochemical, industrial region. In the Lougheed “master plan” diversification takes population pressure off Edmonton and Calgary. People leave those cities and distribute themselves over the rest of the province. But this very master plan sets the stage for a potential break between Premier Lougheed and his new confederate adherents on the “right.” In his view, diversification and the need to generate jobs for “Albertans and other Canadians” is so great that “though we want to encourage the private sector, if they can’t do the job — or won’t — this government will.” In their view any government involvement in business and/or industry is wicked socialism, or worse.

Everything is set for a provincial and a national confrontation: Alberta’s drummer is beating a fast-march turn to the right at the precise moment “the other” Western marchers seem to be sidling left. The New Confederation is the issue now, and probably will remain so for the next five or 10 years. Other provincial premiers stand up and make demands on “Ottawa.” But the strongest voice among them is Peter Lougheed’s, saying, quietly, “Ladies and gentlemen, 0/7,” Pierre Trudeau listens. Cf