‘Twas the Klein before Christmas…

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.

Merry Christmas

1 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/5-memorable-ralph-klein-moments-1.1347249

2 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/severely-normal-people-don-t-want-to-talk-about-aish-klein-1.474222

 

 

 

 

 

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Mom, dad, I could’ve been a Muslim.

Every once in a while the fact that we’re all human slaps you in the face.

Recently I shared a Facebook post about the fears of American Muslims now that Donald Trump is in power. (You can see the video here)

Someone commented: “While all Muslims may not be violent, if they follow the teachings of their religion that potential is always there. They are not just like everyone else on the street.”

And down the rabbit hole of religious intolerance we go.

There are many counter-arguments to that simplistic viewpoint, but the fact that so many people in North America embrace that reductionist meme is troubling. Why do they do it? The short answer is that we all see things from our own  viewpoints.

I grew up in a Christian household. I went to Sunday school. The people I knew – my mother, father, neighbours and family – were good people. The lessons I learned about life from my stern but loving father (who I was always a little bit scared of) and from my caring and compassionate mother were wrapped in the warm cloak of family, church and social rituals like Easter and Christmas.

When I grew older I questioned some of the claims of Christianity. I stopped believing everything in the bible, but Christianity was still there in the faces of family, in the holidays we all shared together. When I read about the bombings and killings in Northern Ireland and about sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, I distanced myself and my family from those people. What they did was not Christian.

We live in a primarily Christian country, and almost everyone, including the media, agreed that what those people did was their personal action, and that Christianity itself was not violent and was not a religion of sexual deviance…

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WAIT A MINUTE!!!!

I apologize. Let me start over from the beginning.

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I grew up in a Muslim household. I went to the mosque every week. The people I knew – my mother, father, neighbours and family – were good people. The lessons I learned about life from my stern but loving father (who I was always a little bit scared of) and from my caring and compassionate mother were wrapped in the warm cloak of family, worship and social rituals like Ramadan and Eid.

When I grew older I questioned some of the claims of Islam. I stopped believing everything in the Koran, but Islam was still there in the faces of family, in the holidays we all shared together. When I learned about the killings of Christians in Egypt, and the beheadings of reporters by ISIS,  I distanced myself and my family from those people. What they did was not Muslim.

We live in a largely non-Muslim country, and almost everyone, even the media, agreed that what those people did was a religious action, and that Islam itself is a violent religion…


In today’s North America many supposedly good people unquestioningly believe and distribute material that promotes hatred and misunderstanding about Islam.

They’re not all vicious or political opportunists. Sometimes they’re just people who are so steeped in their own religion or viewpoint that they cannot open their minds and hearts to other perspectives.

The only way that we will ever understand other people and cultures is to understand them first as human beings. Just as importantly, we have to understand that we as human beings are primarily shaped by our own culture.

Mom, dad, I could’ve been a Muslim.