Why Alberta Is Not Ontario

-- (historic), Alberta, Commentary, Energy, Equalization, Regulation, Trade, Uncategorized

If you’re one of the many new immigrants to Alberta over the last decade, I’ll take a wild guess (especially for those arrived from Ontario) that some might query why so many Albertans disdain central Canadian priorities: think political party preferences, the CBC or a Toronto-centric definition of what constitutes a “good” Canadian.

As a public service, I’ll explain. To start, Ontario’s history includes American revolutionaries chasing United Empire Loyalists over the border into the wilderness. Northrop Frye theorized that historical experience created a “garrison” culture where few question the group and everyone must get along — or else. Margaret Atwood called it survivalism and argued it produced a chronic fear of American absorption; for the record, it was not always an unreasonable response.

Alberta’s early influences were different. European settlement came mostly later with a different mix of immigrants especially early in 20th century, so few migrants to Alberta had any ancestral fear of Americans.

Instead, in Alberta’s case, the “other” to be wary of, including in pre-Confederation days, was Central Canada — or “the east,” as Albertans label such distant lands east of the Manitoba-Ontario border.

As to why, consider an early example from historian Aritha van Herk on the effects of Ottawa’s protectionism in the late 19th and early 20th century: “The West buckled under Central [Canadian] tariffs; meat, timber, and coal were all subject to tariffs — and to double the insult, they had to buy tariff-laden equipment from Central Canada in order to be able to work their land.”

The pattern long continued. In the mid-20th century, compared to Alberta’s prices, Ontario and Quebec could obtain crude at a lower cost offshore. That’s fine; it was a market response. But it was unlike the earlier Ottawa-imposed double-standard, when westerners wanted to buy farm and other equipment cheaper south of the border but were prevented from doing so by the Dominion government.

Or the later double-standard: when oil prices skyrocketed in 1973 because of the Arab oil embargo, Ottawa decreed that sources of Alberta oil developed before 1973 could be sold to the rest of Canada only at 75 per cent of the international market price. The federal government also imposed export taxes on crude. Seven years later, the Pierre Trudeau government repeated the experiment on Alberta in what is known in these parts by many names, but officially as the National Energy Program. To Albertans, and other economically literate peoples, it was properly seen as an economically daft, counterproductive body blow.

It’s why every oilman, haberdasher and clerk present in Alberta back then yet curses when the NEP is mentioned: Because it was only the latest in a century-plus of Ottawa-Toronto-Montreal actions that harmed Alberta.

Has it ended? The harsher market interference was killed off in the 1980s with the arrival of free trade, a long-sought western priority. But there are other issues that should properly rankle any Albertan, natural-born or recently arrived: think of constitutionally entrenched over-protection for Quebec seats in Parliament, or equalization and transfer payments that punish success and reward provincial failures.

Arguably, even nature played a role in forming a distinct Alberta culture which is frontier-like and optimistic, not survivalist and paranoid. Read early accounts and what jumps out, despite settler hardships, is an almost uniformly positive psychological response to the wilderness.

Unlike the thick forests of the Canadian Shield and the fear it might produce about what’s behind the next tree (an American revolutionary with a musket or a bear) dangers on the open prairie are obvious from a mile away; that’s psychologically easier to deal with and it produces a natural optimism, unlike the mental state formed inside a garrison.

The late rancher and cowboy Andy Russell, once described on these pages as the “ultimate Albertan,” writes of the intersection of the prairie sky and Rocky Mountains in this manner:

“It is a marriage of light and life . . . the mountains light up at first sun in deep rose, swiftly changing to gold, and all shot through with deep purples shadow, it is as though the whole universe pauses for a long, heart-stretching moment, locked in a spell of deep wonder.”

Simply put, Russell’s exultation in our endless western skies and magnificent Rockies is as far from the fearful Loyalist-garrison-survival narrative and mindset as you can possibly get.

Immigration patterns, legitimate enmity for historic federal policy, and even the response to the western landscape; all that, in a nutshell, is what created Alberta’s political ethos and yet animates it.