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The Historic Alberta Election and the Question of Albertan Identity

For as long as I’ve been capable of remembering, my home province of Alberta hasn’t really had anything that could be called “politics” or “democracy”. There were political parties, there were policy debates, there were regular elections, yes. But the needle never shifted, not in any significant way. The apparatuses, frameworks and processes of democracy were all in place and practically everyone from the Premier on down to regular Albertans talking about taxation at truck stop Tim Horton’s performed the role of the politically engaged citizen. But whenever each election came about, another majority government for the same governing party was dutifully returned, almost as a rebuke to the appearance of democratic openness. Change, that democratic potentiality both forever compromised and forever tantalizing, was impossible, practically speaking.

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Alberta Legislature, Edmonton

The Progessive Conservative Party was less an elected (and thus de-electable) government than it was Alberta’s hereditary ruling class, deeply implicated in the running of the province and with its ever-booming economy, in particular with the lucrative oil industry. Alberta was less a democratic entity than a species of corporation, swapping CEOs every decade or so but maintaining a continuity of profit-driven mission. As long as energy money flowed, the Alberta PCs were untouchable; if Alberta was not broke (in either common sense of the word), why fix it? So it had been for forty years, longer than much of the province’s young-on-average population had been alive.

Until a few days ago, that is. The PC government under Jim Prentice was roundly defeated by Rachel Notley’s resurgent NDP, resulting in the first democratic regime change in Canada’s prairie petrocracy in nearly half a century and the first progressively-tilted government elected since before the Second World War. This historic political turn happened, ostensibly, for a variety of reasons, running the gamut from changing demographics to sudden economic disequilibrium to the rapid rise of a reasonable, likable alternative on the Left to the PCs’ scandal-ridden mismanagement of public funds and open contempt for public trust. Opinion pieces on the subject are in no short supply, and though most observers seem to agree that it took a series of major screw-ups for the PCs to blow their generational dominance of the Alberta polis, what it means for Alberta itself hasn’t been as easy to formulate.

The image – indeed the very concept –  of Alberta in the rest of Canada is inextricably tied up in its identity as a politically conservative province. Albertans themselves, especially those of a left-leaning bent, may chafe at the stereotypes that stem from this perceived identity but must have likewise admitted that there was little firm evidence to gainsay them. A progressive mayor or two, some vibrant annual cultural festivals, or a clutch of shaggy-dog hipsters and academics clinging to enclaves in central Edmonton could not, in and of themselves, rewrite 80 years of political narrative. Alberta was defined not only by its provincial power realities but in the federal projection of the Albertan ideology via the conduit of the Conservatives of Stephen Harper, a socially conservative revolution of long-term radical intent conceived in the reactionary bastion of the University of Calgary political science department in the 1990s. Alberta is not only an exporter of oil, it’s an exporter of conservative ideology.

What is Alberta if not right-wing? This question will need to be asked for the next few years at least, as Notley’s NDP negotiate a governing context that has not so much been hostile to progressive legislation and its wider social and cultural effects as it has been arrogantly secure in its complete immunity to it. But what of the wider context? Can the results of a single election, historic though it may be, recalibrate a traditional cowboy identity in a single fell swoop? Few would hazard to suggest that. The rise of the Wild Rose Party, a sort of Tea Party North that makes the PCs look like rabid socialists in comparison, as the new opposition, with particularly strong support in the rural areas of the west and south of the province, bodes ill for a major leftward turn. It suggests, indeed, that the sort of general polarization that has characterized North American politics over the last several election cycles has entered the Albertan context as well.

Perhaps this election suggests that Albertan identity, such as it is, is changing. But perhaps that identity is, and indeed always was, more flexible and capable of admitting alternative viewpoints and pragmatic shifts than the arch-conservative, oil-rig-and-pickup-truck stereotypes that predominate outside (and even inside) the province have allowed. The possibility of change in the Albertan political sphere is no longer merely a fantasy; this election has proved that it can happen, and will. But change in the Albertan identity? It is either possible, already underway, ultimately unnecessary and undesirable, or all of the above. And a single mere election cannot tell us which one applies most readily.

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