In my limited experience, one’s political origins originate with the The Four Ps. That is: the Place where one grows up; one’s Parents, or parental equivalents; the Politics of the era; and some memorable Personal event. The Four Ps explain, for the most part, why most of the people I grew up with in Calgary were conservatives, small and large “C.” Calgary, perhaps more than any other city in Canada, is decidedly conservative. The politics of Calgary, in this or any era, are equally conservative. If your parents spent any time at all in Calgary – whether they be from Whitehorse or Witless Bay – they often succumbed to the right-tilting zeitgeist of the place.
And the “personal” part of the formulation? Well, most of us look at politics through the prism of economics. And the economics of Alberta have been rather good, thank you very much, for many, many years. Those who arrive there tend to stay there. And the pre-oil-price-crash economics of Calgary – as they manifest themselves in things like jobs, quality of life and disposable income – compare favourably to other places in Canada and the world.
It’s a good place to grow up in (although a debate persists about whether I ever truly grew up, at all). But however much I love Calgary (and I do), and however much I regard it as my true home town (and I do), one thing cannot be denied: I am a Calgarian who is not a Conservative.
I had no shortage of opportunity to become one, whether of the Progressive Conservative, Reform, Alliance or Conservative variety. Wherever I looked, in my youth, conservatives littered the landscape. They were endlessly organizing to bring things together (Uniting The Right) or tear them asunder (Western Canada Concept). Alberta conservatives ran the provincial government, most municipal governments and – periodically – the federal government itself. Their priorities, and their people, dominated the agenda. The notion that something other a conservative could become Premier of Alberta seemed far-fetched, like unicorns, or Nickelback possessing talent.
Thus, Conservatives were, and are, everywhere in Wild Rose Country. If you were from there, you were one. Any other political persuasions that existed in Calgary were exceedingly rare, and protected only by endangered species legislation. It wasn’t against the law to be a Liberal in Calgary, of course, but it was an excellent way to get singled out in Social Studies class by your home room teacher as a “communist.” Which, at Bishop Carroll High School, I was (thanks, Mr. Zelinski). It was a good way to not fit in. Which, mostly, I didn’t.
I arrived in Alberta with my family in 1975. The five of us – my artist Mom, my doctor Dad, and two brothers who were younger than me and therefore immaterial – were Irish Catholics who had been born in Montreal. As such, being Liberal was in our DNA. It was part of our genetic coding. We could not help ourselves.
We had left Montreal because the Quebec language and culture wars had gotten to be a bit much. Many of our English-speaking friends and relatives were doing likewise, choosing discretion over valour, and scooting down the 401 to The Great Satan, Toronto. Our family was the only one that chose a place that was in a different time zone, however. My Dad was a doctor who did medical research, and there was research money to be had in Alberta, praise be to Premier Lougheed. So off we went – me, Mom, Dad, and the two brothers whose existence I acknowledged as little as possible.
From the start, we were welcome. In the Seventies, Albertans were open and generous and neighbourly. They greeted us with open arms, and we soon had many friends. My two best friends were Calgarians, and they remain my best friends to this day. Neighbourliness notwithstanding, one fact could not be glossed over, even in polite company: we were Liberals. In Calgary. On the streets, in Calgary. With Liberal membership cards, in Calgary.
Spending my teenage years in Calgary, I was not always aware that I possessed political views that were anathema. There were, however, moments when the uniqueness of our situation was brought home to me. Being called “a communist” by the aforementioned home room teacher, for sure. Being described as a “Marxist agitator” by the exceedingly thoughtful Vice-Principal at St. Bonaventure Junior High School – that, too. Also memorable: finding the Canadian flag we kept on our roof burned to cinders, one day, at the nadir of the National Energy Program imbroglio.
Me: “Why did they go up on our roof and burn the Canadian flag, Dad?”
Dad: “Good question. Go buy us another flag.”
Flag-burning incidents aside, we were not infrequently asked how we came to be Liberals in Calgary. Did we take a wrong turn on the Trans Canada? Were we serving out some sort of a prison sentence, and our Lake Bonavista neighbourhood was to be our well-to-do gulag? They were fair questions.
My parents, per The Four Ps above, were a big part of it. I drove them batty, of course – the time I was almost arrested for inciting a riot at a punk rock show at the Calgary Stampede remains one cherished Kinsella family memory – but they were the best parents a guy could have. If they were Liberals, I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t be a Liberal, too.
The place that is Calgary, as noted, is decidedly conservative. Fine. But it was the very ubiquity of conservative philosophy – it was so all-encompassing, it seemed to be part of the very air itself – that compelled us to remain liberals and Liberals. Democracy, like Newtonian physics, requires opposite and equal forces. We wouldn’t ever be equal to the conservative juggernaut, but we’d try. It felt right.
The politics of Alberta in the Seventies, as noted, were very, very conservative. The NEP was an unmitigated disaster, a policy Viet Nam conceived in spite and jealousy. As a Liberal – and as a Liberal who would later become Special Assistant to a Liberal Prime Minister – the NEP disgusted and appalled me. Still does.
Opposing the NEP was legitimate. Opposing it was right. But the way in which some of that opposition manifested itself – most notably with the nativism and xenophobia of the Western separatist movement – shocked us. We had left Quebec to get away from the separatists. We therefore were damned if we were going to let it fester in our new home.
Thus arrived my political awakening. At the time, I was the lead screamer in a ham-fisted high school punk quartet called the Hot Nasties. Our songs were almost entirely about girls and being teenagers. But when the dark, seamy underbelly of Western separatism revealed itself – and when I saw too many otherwise-respectable folks being sucked into its abyss – I got active. In no time at all, I was organizing “Rock Against Western Separatism” and “Rock Against Racism” gigs at local community halls, and writing songs about the inadvisability of carving up perfectly good countries because you are angry at someone.
I started looking around for a political party that shared my point of view. The New Democrats had no power, and never would. The PCs, appallingly, were playing footsie with the separatists.
So I joined the Liberal Party of Alberta – not, I note, the federal Liberal Party – when the Western separatist movement was at its greatest strength. I strode into the offices of the provincial party wearing my cherished biker’s jacket, purchased at the Boutique of Leathers in Southcentre Mall on MacLeod Trail. I forked over the cost of a membership to one Nick Taylor, then leader of the Alberta Grits. He looked nervous. (He later told me he had been worried I was there to rob the place, not sign up.)
Punk rock, while fun, was an inadequate vehicle for opposing a surging separatist movement. Most of the kids who attended our shows were there to have a good time, not to debate the intricacies of sovereignty and energy policy. So I got more involved with the Liberals, provincial and otherwise, and have only regretted it about a hundred times in the intervening years.
Along with the influence of my folks – who deeply loved Alberta, and Albertans, and only left the place to be closer their grandchildren – the thing that propelled me towards liberalism, and Liberals, was that extraordinary year, 1979-1980. That was the year that things got a bit crazy, at both ends of the country. And, while my family and I opposed the NEP, we certainly didn’t think opposing it should entail wrecking the country. We’d had quite enough of that sort of nonsense in Quebec, thank you very much, and we were in no rush to relive the experience.
As I have gotten ever-older – and as I have lived and toiled in places as diverse as Dallas, Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and yes, The Great Satan itself – I have come to recognize that our political differences are negligible. Ideological distinctions are exaggerated by political people, because it is in their self-interest to do so. But most Canadians, wherever they may be, are good and decent folks. And Albertans, however stubbornly conservative they may be, are among the most good and the most decent.
It is an imperfect country, quite often led by imperfect people. Sometimes, they make bad decisions. The response to that should be as measured as it is democratic. The response to that should not ever be blowing the place up.
That, more than anything else, is how this Alberta Liberal came to be Liberal in Alberta. It was my parents, a bit. It was the place, and some of the politics of the era, to be sure. But, mainly, it was because of a pretty personal reaction to the events of that year, 1979-1980, when assorted Albertans were running around, trying to reinvent the wheel. Western separatism, to me, was as dumb as the NEP that gave rise to it.
Per the words of Pierre Trudeau, I became a Liberal to put Alberta in its place. And Alberta’s place is – was, and always will be – in Canada.
Warren Kinsella is a Toronto-based lawyer, author, bon vivant and columnizer. He is not profound, but he enjoys a good scrap.