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WAGNER: The “code” of Alberta’s conservative political culture

Alberta’s political culture is deeply rooted in a conservative identity predating Alberta itself.

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One widespread conception about Alberta is that it has a more conservative political culture than the rest of Canada. Such a view can be easily supported by looking at the province’s voting record since the 1930s – at both the federal and provincial levels – Albertans have voted overwhelmingly for right-leaning parties. 

The accidental NDP government (2015-2019) was elected with less than 41 per cent of the vote while the two right-of-centre parties totalled 52 per cent. This was only possible because of the knife driven through the back of the Wildrose during the mass floor-crossing of 2014, and the taint of corruption that it left on the PCs.

In the 2012 election just three years earlier, the combined Wildrose-PC vote totally nearly 79 per cent. With only a few glitches of history, Alberta’s modern political culture is decidedly conservative.

Besides Alberta’s voting record, there are also other evidences of a conservative political culture. In 2011, Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, wrote a book entitled Code Politics: Campaigns and Cultures on the Canadian Prairies, which provides historical confirmation of the conventional view of Alberta as a conservative-oriented province. 

In this book, Wesley examines what he calls “political codes.” Generally speaking, political “codes” can be understood as the expressions of a broadly accepted belief system, or a set of prevailing political values that dominate the thinking of political leaders in a community. They can also be seen as patterns of political thought and behaviour. To quote Wesley’s definition, written in academic jargon, “a code is a unique discursive paradigm that persists among dominant elites in a given community over time.” 

When Wesley compared the political cultures of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, he found that each of these provinces has a unique “political code.” After an analysis of the historical trajectories of the three provinces, he reduces the political code of each province down to one word. For Alberta, that word is “freedom” – for Saskatchewan it’s “security” – and for Manitoba it’s “moderation.”

How can a community’s political code be determined? There may be various ways of doing so, but Wesley chose to examine the election campaign literature and political platforms of Alberta’s principal provincial parties since the 1930s; that is, the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties. As he notes, “political cultures are actively promoted, transmuted, and transmitted by dominant political parties.”

In his analysis, Wesley identified three core elements of Alberta’s freedom-based political code. The first component is populism, which emphasizes freedom from government overreach, whether that government be in Edmonton or Ottawa. 

The second core element of Alberta’s political code is individualism. Wesley writes, “Throughout much of the past seven decades, Social Credit and Conservative Party rhetoric has stressed the primacy of the individual as the core unit of society. In their platforms, we find constant reference to individual initiative, free enterprise, hard work, and a general go-it-alone philosophy – all of which correspond to the conservatism embedded in the province’s political culture.”

Former Alberta Premier Bill Aberhart

The third core element of Alberta’s political code is the feeling of alienation from the centre of decision-making in Eastern Canada. As a result of this, both the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative parties have promoted the autonomy of the provincial state at certain points during their tenures in power.

To summarize, then, Wesley writes that, “Together, these three pillars – populism, individualism, and provincial autonomy – have helped structure Alberta politics around a freedom-based narrative that, itself, draws on the major aspects of the province’s political culture.”

Besides describing Alberta’s political code, Wesley provides an explanation for how it developed historically. Interestingly, he focuses on early American immigration into Alberta as the most important factor. That is, the large number of American settlers arriving in Alberta during the early twentieth century brought with them three key political values, each of which became a core element of Alberta’s political code.

Source: WikiCommons

Wesley writes that the first key value was “a laissez-faire brand of frontier liberalism that, over time, has become the foundation of Albertan conservatism.” The second was “a penchant for radicalism – a distinct lack of deference – that has manifested itself in a persistent populist impulse.” And the third was “a synthetic form of anticolonialism vis-à-vis Central Canada, through which a strong sense of western alienation has been expressed for several generations.”

In short, American homesteaders can be credited (or blamed) for setting Alberta on the pathway of political conservatism from its early days.

Once the path was set, however, Alberta’s major political parties have continued to carry and transmit the same basic values through their efforts. Wesley puts it this way: “Alberta’s two most successful parties have spoken to the public with a common accent. Emphasizing three core elements of freedom – individualism, populism, and provincial autonomy – Social Credit and the Progressive Conservatives have cultivated a dominant narrative that has helped sustain their province’s conservative political culture. Indeed, their campaign appeals have often involved explicit references to American values, sources, and texts imported by the province’s founding fragment.”

The major point of all this, of course, is to provide historical evidence for the popular view that Alberta is more politically conservative than the other provinces. The stereotype is based on fact. It’s not a mistake or misconception. As Wesley suggests, “Measured by their popularity at the polls, the Socreds’ and Tories’ common vision of Alberta as a conservative society has dominated political discourse as much as the parties have dominated the legislature.” In short, Alberta has a distinct conservative political culture.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include 'Alberta: Separatism Then and Now' and 'True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.'

Opinion

WAGNER: Alberta isn’t a part of Trudeau’s “post-national state”

Michael Wagner writes that while the Liberal conception of a non-national state might apply in the East, Alberta has a very different idea of what it is.

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Shortly after his election as prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau told the New York Times, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” and that Canada is “the first post-national state.” The Times rightly explained that Justin’s view makes him “an avatar of his father’s vision.” The social engineering of Justin’s father – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – has been so successful that the historical notion of what it means to be Canadian has been increasingly eviscerated since the 1970s. Together, the Trudeaus have brought the idea of Canadian identity to its knees.

Large numbers of Eastern Canadians vote for that “no core identity” and “post-national state” nonsense. That’s why Trudeau II is prime minister. However, Albertans have a very different perspective than their Eastern countrymen, and this is reflected in a different political identity.

As mentioned in a previous column, Professor Barry Cooper has argued that a community’s stories form an important part of its identity, and history constitutes a key element of those stories. He wrote, “History, too, is a source of identity; historical literature also shows who we are and where is here because it recounts what was done and said.” The West has its own stories and history, distinct from those of Eastern Canada, and this contributes to the West’s unique regional identity.

Besides Cooper, Alberta has another prominent conservative thinker who reflected on Western identity – Ted Byfield. Byfield, best known as the founder of Alberta Report and its sister publications, also initiated the creation of a 12-volume history set called “Alberta in the 20th Century.” This project was surprisingly successful and the proceeds helped to keep the Report magazines afloat for a time.

However, the success of this popular history series was counterintuitive. Alberta is a small market, and the volumes were rather expensive. Why did they sell so well?

Byfield attributed the success, in part, to the emergence of an Alberta identity. In a January 11, 1999, Alberta Reportcolumn he wrote, “There is gradually developing in Alberta a very powerful provincial identity. Perhaps it’s because we have so often been called ‘redneck’ by the rest of Canada, perhaps because we have so often resisted trends in the rest of Canada, perhaps because we live closer to our frontier origins, perhaps because from our very beginning almost everything we produce must be sold on a world market, not a protected local one. And, finally, perhaps because our national identity has become so confused of late that it’s hard to define what being a Canadian is supposed to mean. There’s little doubt what being an Albertan means, and this has a deepening significance. That, we believe, is one of the chief reasons for the success of the history series.” 

Here, years before Justin Trudeau declared that the country had “no core identity,” Byfield had already recognized that “it’s hard to define what being a Canadian is supposed to mean.” At the same time, however, there’s “little doubt what being an Albertan means” – and his Alberta history series was deliberately intended to strengthen that identity as well.

In his foreword to the first volume of the series, The Great West Before 1900, Byfield explained his purpose for producing these books. He began by recounting a discussion he had with a young man from Texas. Byfield asked him why Texas was known as the Lone Star State. The fellow replied that Texas had been an independent republic for about ten years and then had a war with Mexico, which is when the famous Battle of the Alamo occurred. Most interestingly, the Texan had said that’s when “we” had a war with Mexico and then “we” joined the United States. As Byfield explained, “Utterly unconscious of what he was doing, this young man identified himself with events that occurred nearly a century and a half before he was born. It wasn’t what ‘they’ did, it was what ‘we’ did. Whatever happened to Texas then, he was somehow involved in it.”

Albertans and other Canadians don’t often talk that way and Byfield believes that’s because we “do not identify with our own past.” For us, what happened in the past is what “they” did, not what “we” did. Some people see this as a positive because, in their view, we should have a cool and dispassionate approach to the past rather than an enthusiastic commitment to our province (or country) and its accomplishments. Those people are concerned about “the dangers of jingoism and blind tribal loyalty.” As Byfield explained, however, that perspective has led to a form of rootlessness and lack of belonging which is opposite of the mentality of the young Texan noted above.

Byfield wanted his history books to correct the erroneous perspective that effectively divorces us from our own history. As he wrote, “Candidly, we want the Albertans who read them to come away from them saying ‘we’ not ‘they.’”

Byfield believes Alberta’s history is worth learning. And as we study it, “we may find we come away with a certain assurance, a strange sense of common purpose, a feeling of continuity with our past. No longer are we homeless. We know now where we live. We belong.” This is precisely what Cooper meant when he wrote of the importance of history to a community’s identity – it shows us who “we” are. 

Justin Trudeau says that Canada no longer has a “core identity.” Well, as Ted Byfield so clearly pointed out, Alberta still has an identity – one that needn’t be lost to progressive dreamers in Ottawa. For those who would like to learn more about it, there’s no better place to start than his “Alberta in the 20th Century” history books.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

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Opinion

WAGNER: How Pierre Trudeau created the Alberta independence movement, and his son made it mainstream

Michael Wagner writes that before 1980, independence was a tiny fringe movement. In 2020, it is approaching a majority of Albertans.

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A fundamental change occurred in Alberta in 1980. On February 18 of that year, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals defeated Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives, restoring Trudeau to the office of prime minister. Consequently, on October 28 – a day that will live in infamy – the National Energy Program (NEP) was unleashed as a blatant attack on Alberta and its oil industry. These historical events generated a credibility for Alberta’s independence movement that had never before existed. After 1980, support for independence was no longer a tiny fringe phenomenon.

Until the fateful events of 1980, polling data measuring support for Alberta independence were generally in the low single digits. This can be seen in the early polls on sovereigntist sentiment that were reported in a 1979 article by political scientists David Elton and Roger Gibbins entitled, “Western Alienation and Political Culture,” in the book The Canadian Political Process. As Elton and Gibbins noted, a 1969 provincial poll found that only 5 per cent of “respondents expressed interest in even discussing the merits of separation.” Five years later, a 1974 survey conducted in Calgary found less than 4 per cent “expressed even the most cautious support for separatism.” And in a 1977 survey commissioned by the Calgary Herald, only 2.7 per cent said yes to the question, “Would you like Alberta to separate?” 

Clearly – at least as far as polling data suggests – support for independence was disappointingly low before 1980. 

But then Canada experienced the second-coming of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – who can rightly be called the father of the Alberta independence movement because his policies gave the movement its original credibility and momentum. 

The effect of Trudeau’s aggressive anti-Alberta posture was immediate. Data from a number of post-NEP polls are presented in an article entitled, “Separatism and Quasi-Separatism in Alberta” by sociologist Edward Bell in the Fall 2007 issue of Prairie Forum. On November 1, 1980 (shortly after the NEP was announced), the Calgary Herald reported on a poll indicating that 23 per cent of Albertans were in favour of Western Canadian independence. A subsequent study – undertaken in Edmonton from February to April 1981 – found that “about one in four respondents either supported Alberta independence or were willing to give their provincial government a mandate to negotiate it.” 

Surprisingly, in a March 1981 poll conducted by the Canada West Foundation, 49 per cent of Albertans agreed with the statement: “Western Canadians get so few benefits from being part of Canada that they might as well go it on their own.” That question did not measure outright commitment to independence as such, but it does seem rather high. Nevertheless, it is not inconsistent with some later polling. 

Sociologist Trevor Harrison, in his 1995 book, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada, reports on a 1992 poll with a question very similar to the one from the Canada West Foundation. Harrison writes, a “poll of 710 Westerners conducted by Environics Research in March 1992 found that 42 per cent of respondents agreed with the question: ‘Western Canada gets so few benefits from Confederation the region might as well be on its own.’” At that time, of course, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, and like Pierre Trudeau, he catered to Central Canada at the expense of the West. In fact, Mulroney’s policies led to the rise of the Reform Party.

Edward Bell adds one more poll result to fill things out. In 2005, a poll found 35.6 per cent of Westerners agreed with the statement: “Western Canadians should begin to explore the idea of forming their own country.” 

More recently, on August 1, 2014, Insights West released a poll of Albertans that found, “Only 23 per cent of residents believe the province would be better off as its own country.” “Only” 23 per cent? Actually, 23 percent is rather high, especially considering that Stephen Harper – an Albertan – was prime minister at the time.

Two years later, on July 28, 2016, Insights West released another poll noting that “23 per cent of Albertans say the province would be better off as its own country.” The percentage remained the same as before, but the harmful effects of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s anti-Alberta policies were not yet fully realized. Things have since changed.

On May 25 of this year, in a poll conducted for the Western Standard, “45 per cent of decided Albertans surveyed said that they would defiantly vote yes or were leaning yes if there was a referendum on Alberta’s independence.” That is to say, support for independence is likely higher in 2020 than at any previous time. The more moderate position of supporting independence if proposals for constitutional reform were first rejected by Ottawa, was just shy of a majority at 48 per cent. 

The point is this: before 1980, polls showed support for Alberta independence to be in the low single digits. After 1980, polls show support in the double digits, usually a quarter of the population or more. This suggests that a fundamental change occurred in 1980 as a result of Pierre Trudeau. Before Trudeau, Albertans really weren’t interested in thinking about independence – but he made it respectable and credible. Support for independence never seems to have returned to the low single digit range. 

Support for Alberta independence is not going away. It is not a passing fad. Under the current Liberal government – with its agenda of phasing out Alberta’s key industry – the independence movement will likely continue to grow. The question is whether a leader will emerge to articulate the Alberta cause and gather Alberta patriots into a coherent and effective political body.

Michael Wagner is columnist for the Western Standard. He has a PhD in political science from the University of Alberta. His books include ‘Alberta: Separatism Then and Now’ and ‘True Right: Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada.’

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Opinion

SELICK: The Two Sides to the Vaccine Safety Debate

Karen Selick takes on the politicians trying to use government to force vaccinations.

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EDITORS NOTE: The Western Standard Editorial Board encourages open debate by its columnists. The column below reflects the views of its author, but not necessarily that of the WS Editorial Board.

This article is about a recent event in Eastern Canada, but it should ring a cautionary bell for all Canadians since we will all soon be facing a similar issue.

New Brunswick’s Education Minister Dominic Cardy is fuming because an amendment to provincial legislation that he championed was recently defeated in a free vote. Had it been successful, the amendment would have made numerous vaccinations mandatory for school children in New Brunswick, removing an exemption that previously existed for students whose parents filed a written objection.  

According to Mr. Cardy, “There are no two sides [to the debate] around the safety of vaccines.” He described opponents of his bill as having given in to “medieval conspiracy theories.” Rhetoric like this is common in the vaccine debate.

However, existing legislation in Ontario indicates that Mr. Cardy and those who make similar statements are profoundly misinformed on this subject. 

In June, 1987, Ontario adopted a law on immunization that’s now section 38 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act.  It applies to the vaccines for 13 different diseases, including diphtheria, polio, measles and influenza. It requires doctors, nurses and pharmacists to watch for and report any adverse reactions to the vaccines they administer, including: 

  • Persistent crying or screaming, or anaphylactic shock, within 48 hours of vaccination
  • Shock-like collapse, high fever, or convulsions occurring within 3 days of vaccination
  • Arthritis occurring within 42 days of vaccination
  • Hives, seizures, encephalopathy, brain inflammation or other significant occurrence within 15 days of vaccination
  • Death following any of the symptoms already described. 

The 1987 legislation came about through the efforts of then MPP Jack Pierce, who spoke in the legislature about eight cases of severe vaccine injuries that had recently occurred in his riding of only 30,000 people. It was drafted after extensive consultations with the medical community. It was “doctor-approved” law, in a day when it was still permitted to discuss all sides of the vaccine issue without being ridiculed or silenced.

Patients can and do suffer vaccine injuries of the kind described in Ontario’s legislation far more often than Mr. Cardy seems to be aware of. 

The vaccines used in Canada are the same as those used in the United States, and there’s a little-known database of vaccine injuries available to anyone who cares to look. That’s because the US abolished tort liability against vaccine manufacturers in 1986 through the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act. Instead of suing vaccine manufacturers, injured persons are now restricted to making a claim against a government-run compensation fund called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The program reports monthly on the compensation it pays out. 

Since inception, the program has paid out more than $4 billion in compensation to 7,252 individuals suffering vaccine injuries (figures as of May 1, 2020). This is a significant amount of money. Some vaccine injuries are devastating. They can include permanent brain damage. 

These figures underestimate the extent of the damage done by vaccines because the compensation program has a strict time limit for making application. Many parents of vaccine-injured children don’t find out about the compensation fund until after that window of opportunity has shut. 

According to a World Health Organization publication from 2011, there are 19 countries around the world that have recognized the dangers inherent in vaccines by implementing compensation programs for individuals who have been injured by them. Germany was the first to implement such a program in 1961, eight years after the German Supreme Court ruled that people injured by mandatory vaccinations (smallpox, in that case) were entitled to compensation. 

In the 1970s, eight countries recognized the dangers of the “DTP” (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine by adopting compensation programs for the vaccine-injured. These included Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

In 1972, a five-year-old girl in Quebec was vaccinated against measles as part of the province’s large-scale free vaccination program. She developed acute viral encephalitis, resulting in almost total permanent disability. The family sued the Quebec government, and initially obtained a judgment of $385,000. The trial court explicitly found a causal relationship between the vaccine and the child’s encephalitis. The compensation award was eventually overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal on the grounds that Quebec civil law does not recognize no-fault liability. However, even at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1985, “the Attorney General [was] no longer disputing the causal link between the vaccine and the encephalitis.”

As a result of this case, Quebec became the only Canadian province to adopt a vaccine compensation program. Between its inception in 1988 and April 1, 2019 (the latest date for which statistics are available), it had paid compensation to 51 vaccine-injured individuals, in an amount totaling $5,797,000.  

A study was published in 2011 by scientists associated with the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto. It showed that when infants aged 12 months or 18 months were injected with live vaccines (such as the MMR—measles, mumps, rubella vaccine), they were significantly more likely to visit the hospital emergency room within the next twelve days, as compared with the number of visits they would make during a control period that did not follow vaccination.

What additional evidence would it take for Mr. Cardy to recognize that there are indeed two sides to the vaccine safety debate?

Parents faced with the prospect of mandatory vaccinations for their children are perfectly justified in their concerns. They are not part of a “medieval conspiracy theory”. It is very disturbing that an individual in a position of power such as education minister Cardy is both ignorant of the facts and willing to vilify individuals who are more knowledgeable than he is himself. 

Karen Selick is a Columnist for the Western Standard. She has previously written for the original Western Standard, National Post, Canadian Lawyer Magazine. She is the former Litigation Lawyer of the Canadian Constitution Foundation and is the owner of KeenEyesEditing.ca.

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