Alberta an agrarian hinterland? Not quite

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Recently former Alberta leader Peter Lougheed was proclaimed and lauded as Canada’s best premier. I am not sure whether that proclamation was the result of a careful academic analysis or a glorified popularity contest. The folks who judged this “best premier” exercise were mostly from other parts of Canada. I expect if this was an exclusively Alberta exercise former premier Ralph Klein might well have been voted the best, but then Ralph didn’t have Lougheed’s imperial good looks, pioneer family pedigree or the benefit of rapidly rising oil and gas prices.

The reality was that the folksy Klein had to salvage the province from the massive spending excesses of the Lougheed/Getty era when energy prices tanked. Any politician knows that being an evil grinch is a lot harder on their public image than being a sugar daddy.

Lougheed also had the good political fortune in those early days to face the former premier, the late Harry Strom. The dull, lacklustre and hapless premier Strom was no match for the young, charismatic and dynamic Lougheed. A similar political parallel was drawn 40 years later between Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and former premier Ed Stelmach. It would seem that the ruling PC Party learned from its history.

What was of note in the Lougheed best-premier proclamation was that the mainstream urban media across Canada all stated that Lougheed was the saviour responsible for bringing Alberta into the modern era. Most stories noted that Alberta was nothing more than an “agrarian hinterland” before Lougheed became premier. I guess the implication was that the province back then was somehow backward and populated by unsophisticated farm folk who desperately needed to be led out of their rural ignorance. How such a backward agrarian society could have produced the perceived highly sophisticated, urbane and visionary Lougheed is never explained.

The real modernizer

Those of us very long in the tooth might recall that Alberta before Lougheed was not quite the bucolic backwater that younger and history-challenged commentators allege. The real modernizer of Alberta was the late premier Ernest Manning. After the Second World War, he indeed took a largely agricultural province from rags to riches, thanks to the wealth generated from the emerging energy industry of the day. He also didn’t have Lougheed’s perceived sophistication and easy public relations skills. But he did have fiscal skills and a sense of destiny that included extending a progressive education system on an equal basis into the countryside. That action alone produced one of the more progressive and entrepreneurial commercial agriculture industries in North America.

What most admirers of the Lougheed era fail to remember or understand was that by the 1960s, prior to his ascension as premier, Alberta was already mainly an urban-based society. There already was in place a long-established and expanding energy sector which provided much of the province’s economic activity and government tax base. Interestingly although there were more people involved in agriculture back then, actual production was much less than it is now with fewer people involved in primary production.

Ironically, the early Lougheed administration took development actions that significantly increased the economic activity of our agrarian hinterland. Policies were initiated at the time that laid the groundwork for the massive feedlot and meat-processing industries that exist today. They began the diversification progress that saw the development of more speciality crops and added-value businesses. Some of the last extensive irrigation and water storage projects were hatched back then. The Agriculture Department was developed into a political and strategic powerhouse, and had major influence under legendary ag minister, the late Hugh Horner, who was an equal to Lougheed.

No one will dispute Lougheed’s influence on the federal scene in advancing and protecting Alberta’s interests. There probably wasn’t an Albertan who didn’t feel proud watching Lougheed stare down Trudeau during the height of the energy-policy wars. Some of his legacies such as the Heritage Fund and the constitutional notwithstanding clause will benefit generations to come. But modernizing an agrarian hinterland — well not quite. That’s a revisionist version of history by a naive media to accentuate Lougheed’s image as a saviour.

Besides one does wonder — is there anything really wrong with being an agrarian hinterland? I suggest that even in the 1960s, the Alberta agricultural economy was something most of the rest of the world would have seen as a people paradise.

One can’t help but extrapolate that if commentators considered Alberta, with its energy industry base, an agrarian hinterland back in the 1960s what did that make Saskatchewan and Manitoba back then? With no real industrial base to anchor their economies, then by Alberta standards of the day, those two provinces must have been real rural backwaters populated by rubes and peasants. I think not, but I expect it’s a perception that some in the urban media still harbour about the Prairie west in general.

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