I was born on a farm outside Truro, Nova Scotia. My parents had always been involved in politics; my father was local Liberal organizer and my mother was, for many years, an elected county councilor.
In Nova Scotia, politics is “bred in the bone.” When I was growing up everyone knew everyone else’s political affiliation; you were a Liberal family or a Conservative family, and had been for generations. In Alberta we don’t focus on heritage in quite the same way; many Albertans have come here recently, like myself, over the past thirty-some years.
I arrived in 1980 to teach in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. With everything that was happening between Premier Peter Lougheed and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, I thought it would serve me well to come west to hear differing views about the evolution of the federation and the balance between federal and provincial jurisdictions and powers.
Every province creates its own mythology about past wrongs; Alberta is no exception.
In Depression years the eastern banks were “bad”; later the rest of Canada would “steal” our resources. Now eastern banks help fuel growth in the oil sands and Albertans want to help build a stronger Canada.
What makes Albertans distinctive? It is always dangerous to be too categorical; however I think we are probably more self-reliant than some other Canadians. I think we are more open, diverse and inclusive than many people give us credit for; and I think we do pride ourselves on being globally connected and outward-looking people who are willing to take a risk.
We are also sensitive to being patronized and our hackles go up pretty quickly if we think our views are being ignored or not taken seriously.
It may be that some other Canadians think we are a little arrogant these days. Humility is a virtue, and I think as Albertans we do have to acknowledge we’re lucky. Other parts of the country don’t have the natural resources we have. The energy sector is a big part of Alberta’s future.
However, in our province we have a tendency to go from boom to bust – from very good times where some say we spend like “drunken sailors,” to times of restraint and painful cutbacks.
In the time that I have lived in Alberta the price of a barrel of oil has gone from $13 to $120 and everywhere in between.
In boom times life is good; with the bust, we end up slashing public spending on healthcare, education and other forms of public infrastructure and social programs. This part of the Alberta experience has to change.
We are price-takers, not price makers; the price for oil and gas is established in the global market place based on supply and demand. One of the frustrations for many of us is that we know any boom will end; we may not know when, but we do know it will end.
We need to be smarter than we have been in the past and realize that we have to find ways to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycle. We’ve talked a lot about this challenge in Alberta but it’s not clear to me that we’ve really done the hard thinking around how we work through these peaks and valleys.
(Editor’s note: The author is a former deputy prime minister and four-term Liberal MP from Edmonton)