To those of whom are not privy to the political machinations of Alberta, it may be perplexing to understand how and why right-wing parties formed governments for decades. For as long as I have been politically aware, the idea that Alberta has been victimized by the spendthrift whims of Eastern Canadian have-not provinces has been at the forefront of almost any discussion of electoral politics. This idea has been piledriven into the Albertan psyche for decades; demagoguing politicians and disgruntled everymen alike have been pointing to Alberta’s electoral representation in Ottawa, a measly 34 seats in the House of Commons, or just slightly over ten percent of the 308 seats total. This, in concert with Alberta’s disproportionately greater GDP per capita than any of the other provinces, has been weaponized by right-wing politicians in an attempt to contrast themselves with the Liberals in Ottawa who are using Alberta’s large contribution of capital to subsidize “eastern bastards”, as former premier and consummate scumbag, Ralph Klein labelled them. For the layman, this is an extremely easy idea to understand; it provides a reason for any economic hardship they may be going through, and simultaneously provides a scapegoat that is easily politically distinguishable from those of whom are popular in Alberta. For the conservatives, this generates political capital so consistently, it even manages to evade the political ramifications of a recession that would topple governments in almost any other democratic jurisdiction in the world. Simply put, when unemployment is on the rise while the global price of oil falls, it becomes the fault of Liberal policies of the federal government, which stymies the ability of Alberta to do business and robs tax dollars from its coffers through the machinations of equalization.
When western alienation is examined under a critical lens, it quickly becomes exposed as a fraudulent grift, cynically perpetuated by politicians who seek to make Alberta “open for business”, which is huckster parlance for allowing large corporations to loot the province at the people’s expense. Often, politicians glibly express their disdain for equalization as, “writing a cheque” to Ottawa, obfuscating the reality that the federal taxes are exactly the same, regardless of the province and that federal taxes are paid directly to the federal government, and not billed to the provinces. The Atlantic provinces are the perennial beneficiaries of equalization payments from the federal government, but as of 2020, Alberta will become a net receiver of equalization for the first time in 55 years. Gripes regarding equalization payments never pay heed to the benefits of confederation, for example, the large migration of the labour force from eastern Canada to Alberta in order to perpetuate the oil boom economies of the past.
One of the many ironies of governance in Alberta, is that Premier Jason Kenney largely campaigned on the premise of launching a committee called “Fair Deal Alberta”, which was intended to redress the alleged economic injustice levied towards Alberta. The irony of course, is perpetuated by the fact that Jason Kenney was a cabinet minister in the last federal government that rewrote the equalization formula. The federal conservatives purport they are the political party that supports the interests of Alberta, yet, equalization payments remained. So, the cottage industry of bellyaching over moochers in the east taking money that Alberta never had to begin with still remains, producing as much right-wing propaganda as it ever has.
In 1980, then Prime Minster, Pierre Trudeau, launched what was known as the National Energy Program, aimed at combating the crash of global oil prices and stagflation that had plagued the previous decade. Petro Canada, a crown corporation, in addition to the privately owned oil producers, were to extract and sell oil to eastern Canada, below the global price, in order to allow industry in the east to have a consistent supply of oil that was unaffected by the erratic whims of the global free market. This, of course, greatly upset the extant oil companies operating in Alberta, because the American controlling interests in these corporations were not only competing with a nationalized oil company whose prime directives were not to generate as much profit as possible, but also forced to sell oil more cheaply to its Canadian customers. As a result of regulating oil prices well below market value, Alberta saw a sharp decrease in its tax revenue, causing a great deal of angst among it’s citizenry. Never ones to pass up an opportunity to play the role of victim, conservatives in Alberta lamented that eastern Canada were wringing them dry in order to frame the establishment of the NEP as a sort of zero sum game, whereby if eastern Canada is benefiting, Alberta is always losing. With the clarity of hindsight, maintaining the NEP would have helped Alberta out tremendously, when oil prices crashed, as they have done many times since the 80’s; there would have been a guaranteed buyer of oil produced in Alberta at a previously set price, that would be higher than the global benchmark prices, thus insulating the oil and gas industry from the ravages of a bear market. Naturally, the biggest beneficiaries of the abolition of the NEP, which came in 1985, were the vertically integrated American supermajors, who operated Canadian subsidiary companies such as Imperial Oil and Shell Canada.
In the present day, many people are upset when they hear of refineries in Atlantic Canada having their feedstock supplied by Saudi Arabian and American oil, bemoaning the fact it isn’t “ethical Alberta oil”. This adds to the tangled web of ironies surrounding the foundational grievances for western alienation: hostility to the creation of an energy program that in the long term would have benefitted Alberta in addition to the rest of Canada, resulted in the loss of guaranteed buyers of Albertan heavy crude at a regulated price. Refineries in the east process Saudi light crude, “unethical” oil, while Albertan right-wing politicians line up to fall on their swords in an act of sniveling hypocrisy, intentionally perpetuating the lie that Albertans are given short shrift by the rest of Canada, thereby pushing an unwitting, malcontent electorate into supporting conservative, “Alberta first” politics.
The UCP in Alberta and their propagandists at PostMedia have even managed to take Albertan grievance politics to the global stage, claiming to be victimized by a legion of American environmental NGO’s. Even premier Jason Kenney has often singled out the Tides Foundation (now known as MakeWay) as a cabal of malcontent environmentalists who have singled out Alberta, ostensibly to benefit the American oil & gas industry, which again, when scrutinized, holds absolutely no water.
This obviously ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of the profits generated by oil and gas companies in Alberta are primarily American. The reason for opposition to oil sands extraction by environmental groups in the western hemisphere should be painfully obvious: the extraction and production of Alberta heavy crude comes with a gargantuan carbon footprint and causes catastrophic damage to the areas surrounding the facilities (virtually of which is indigenous territory). In effect, extractivist corporations and their political stooges are able to deflect legitimate criticism with a bulwark made from half-baked propaganda, hypocrisy and quasi-nationalist bullshit. Conservatives in Alberta are consistently talking from both sides of their mouths; blaming American environmentalist groups for inhibiting the expansion of production and pipeline capacity, while simultaneously defending the exploitive American companies that are squeezing Alberta like a sponge for every last drop of profit remaining, before likely abandoning Alberta, like so many other extractive industries in other jurisdictions around the world.
Unfortunately, the political identity of Alberta at present, is still completely interwoven with the idea of western alienation, manufactured as it may be. It is the reason that Jason Kenney chose to refer to Rachel Notley as an “ally of Justin Trudeau” at every occasion. It is the reason, on any given day, drive around Alberta and see dozens of “FUCK TRUDEAU” window decals adorning pickup trucks. It is also, one of the primary reasons so many Albertans are consistently voting against their own best interests, mistaking their interests for that of a multinational oil and gas conglomerate. So much of the conservative hegemony in Alberta owes it’s existence to the fraudulent grift that is western alienation. Opposition to the expansion of the oil and gas industry in Alberta, is not the result of the whims of a Liberal effort to undermind the prosperity of Alberta — it is the result of decades of accumulation of scientific knowledge and organizing efforts by those of whom care about the planet and its constituents more than the profits of multinational corporations and the breadcrumbs of temporary, high paying jobs they leave in their destructive wake.
In closing, through decades of misinformation and martyr politics, Albertans have been led to an ideological dead end, conflating the interests of big business with the needs of the masses. A great deal of Canadians that now call Alberta home have acquired jobs that pay handsomely, and provide them with an upper-middle class lifestyle that may have traditionally been unreachable due to their education and previous socio-economic status, and they feel they owe these opportunities to the profiteering resource extracting companies. The dangling of prosperity by corporations profiting in the billions, has effectively tricked Albertans into think they are not an exploited proletariat, but “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”, as Steinbeck put it. The opportunities for young men to far exceed their earnings potential elsewhere in Canada will not be around forever. When oil and gas extraction becomes unprofitable in Alberta, those companies will cut their losses and depart, leaving Albertans to reckon with a hellscape carved into the earth in the northeast, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells drilled without being properly abandoned, and the inevitability of the ensuing poverty due to our reliance market forces and extractive industry to employ a large swathe of the population. It is high time Albertans took stock of this grim reality that is ahead, and engage the rest of Canada as an equal partner in confederation; working to decarbonize our economy and create a future where people, not corporations are being prioritized by their government.