Politics is intensely personal.
My aversion to Alberta conservatism took root when then-premier Ralph Klein stumbled into a homeless shelter 4 days before Christmas in 2001, drunkenly berated a group of homeless people, threw some money at them, and left.
Surely, I remember thinking, the Alberta I know will not stand for this. Surely the people of Alberta, the good people I know, will make him resign. He admitted to a drinking problem, which was not really news. His popularity grew.
The story became all about him. The most powerful man in the province verbally assaulted and insulted some of the least powerful, and the story was about his struggles?
I searched for stories about the people he insulted. There was one or two, but nobody seemed to care too much about them. They were homeless, right?
The question grew in my mind: what kind of province had I been born and raised in?
Research into Alberta’s history reveals a string of populist governments. It also reveals fascinating and ambiguous figures like Premier John Brownlee of the United Farmers of Alberta, who resigned after a sex scandal; self-proclaimed prophet Bible Bill Aberhart and his protege Ernest Manning, who terrified audiences in rural Alberta with apocalyptic Christian plays like “Branding Irons of the Antichrist”, and The Famous Five, champions of a woman’s right to vote, but supporters of sterilization for the “mentally deficient”.
Other broader shadows lingered over our past – residential schools attempting to eradicate Indigenous culture, Ukrainian Internment camps, Japanese Internment camps – like every other jurisdiction in the world we had been strong in some ways and weak in others. Most of us hadn’t attempted to learn about, much less stop, the injustices that were happening around us. Most of us, and I count myself in this, didn’t care too much about the pain and suffering of people we didn’t know.
So Ralph Klein was not an anomaly in our province. A populist leader who directed our collective anger at “bums and creeps”¹ from Eastern Canada, at people “yipping about AISH”² or at the jobless and homeless, he was a typical Albertan.
The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. (2016 Oxford University Press)
I respectfully submit that the Oxford Dictionary is way behind the times.
In Alberta we have always been driven by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Leaders like Bill Aberhart and Ralph Klein were masters at it. Some in the conservative movement still play on our fears and anger every chance they get.
I was reminded of this last week when an old friend flamed me on Facebook – our Premier should be locked up, we were sh—ing on Albertans, I was drinking too much NDP cool-aid, I should get my head out of my butt – language straight from conservative megaphones.
Way back in 2001 my personal belief was that we lived in a fundamentally good society that cared for the vulnerable and powerless. I believed that inequality, sexism, racism and poverty existed despite the best efforts of our governments to eradicate them. That was simply not true. Alberta’s history, both recent and more distant, paints a darker and more ambiguous picture.
It’s still a great province. Anyone who looks dispassionately around the world should recognize that our lives are a thousand times more fortunate than most. We’ve been given great gifts. We can do better to make sure that everyone benefits from those gifts.
Ralph Klein brought me the gift of insight. He convinced me to learn my own history, and to learn about the marginalized and invisible, because they are important too. Ralph Klein changed my beliefs, and I thank him for that.