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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Adoration of Peter Lougheed moves beyond canonization into deification

| September 22, 2012
Peter Lougheed

With his state funeral yesterday afternoon, the official adoration of former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed moved beyond canonization into deification.

If other Canadians happened to pause and listen to what was actually being said in Calgary’s 57-year-old Jubilee Auditorium, which was broadcast by the CBC, they could be forgiven for wondering if we Albertans had collectively taken leave of our senses.

I mean no disrespect for Lougheed with this observation. As has been said here before, he was an undeniably successful politician, far-sighted by the standards of any generation and surprisingly liberal in his economic views from the perspective of the positions held nowadays by his fellow Conservatives.

But Lougheed was not the father of our country, and his record is as mixed as that of other politicians of his generation. Alberta would have been a great place to live, pretty much as it is today, had someone else become premier in his place in 1971. He most certainly was not born atop a mountain in the Kananaskis Range, which is what it was starting to sound like this afternoon!

Lougheed's family is entitled to its heartfelt grief. People who knew him or knew of him and respected him, even if they disagreed with him, are right to honor his memory. And his political allies and beneficiaries of the political dynasty he founded 41 years ago naturally remember him very fondly.

I am not so sure, however, if the occasion of a state funeral -- Canadian provinces are indeed entitled to hold such events -- is an appropriate venue to try to gain a political edge or revise history, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper most certainly did in his remarks.

And as for suggesting that "every single one of us woke up this morning in Peter Lougheed's Alberta, it was the Alberta of which he dreamed, and it was the dream he was able to make real," as Premier Alison Redford did, that seems just a little over the top.

Still, Redford hit the best note of all the official speakers at the funeral. She was dignified, didn't try to milk the occasion for too much political advantage, and her assessment of Lougheed as intelligent, compassionate and honest is certainly fair.

But was he, as broadcaster Rex Murphy said, "the greatest premier this country has ever seen"? Do our soldiers and the rest of us "all stand a little taller because of E. Peter Lougheed," as former Treasurer and Conservative leadership candidate Jim Dinning intoned in the voice and diction of a beat poet? (Presumably Dinning had in mind Canada's soldiers, as, just yet anyway, Alberta doesn't have an army.)

Oh well, a little hyperbole is permissible on such occasions.

As for Harper, he can be forgiven his little joke about the supposed benefits of "strong, stable Conservative governments" and his homily to using the wealth we were all endowed with by nature to reward "entrepreneurs and investors."

But he really ought not to have tried to turn the occasion into a sneaky attack on the legacy of Pierre Elliot Trudeau -- who, unnamed, haunts us still, even here -- and "the folly of the National Energy Program."

Is Canada a better country because Lougheed -- an undeniably admirable and determined fighter -- won the battle to ensure control of this resource remained in Alberta and to restrict the flow of benefits from it to all Canadians? Was the country "from that point forward … changed for the better"? Are all Canadians, therefore, "fortunate that Peter Lougheed was there," as Harper asserted?

All these points of the prime minister's are highly partisan, intended to perpetrate a certain view of history, and all of them are legitimately debatable -- as indeed, is the suggestion the NEP was folly or responsible for the economic circumstances visited upon Alberta in its wake. This is true even though Albertans take in that opinion as if it were fact with their mothers' milk.

After the funeral ended, the Alberta and Canadian flags were raised to the top of their staffs. The state broadcaster did not play the national song, announce plans for a granite memorial in Redford Square or inform us that driving was permitted again, but none of these things would have seemed entirely out of place.

Just the same, as the flags atop their staffs imply, it's now time for us to take a deep breath and get back to reality.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.



Climenhaga seems reluctant to say anything bad about Lougheed.

Fortunately, others do not feel similarly constrained against telling the ugly truth about him:

The Lougheed government's election in 1971 was not a victory for the people but mainly for the home-grown Alberta energy and other capitalists who wanted a larger share of the revenues from energy exploitation being siphoned off by the foreign-owned monopolies....

To finance Syncrude's interests [in the Tar Sands], Lougheed created the state-owned Alberta Energy Company in 1975, which paid for 80 per cent of the pipeline to ship Syncrude product from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, 50 per cent of the $100 million power facility required to fuel the Syncrude plant, and 20 per cent of the Syncrude plant itself. Alberta Energy was handed over to private interests in 2002, becoming natural gas producer Encana, which later spun off oil sands monopoly, Cenovus.

The workers have a collective memory of the Lougheed years, and it is not of a "visionary" acting on behalf of all Albertans. During the Lougheed years, workers in Alberta fought tenaciously in defence of their rights against a government which had come to power to champion the interests of the Alberta-based owners of capital, particularly in the oil and gas sector. Lougheed was one of the first, if not the first premier in Canada to openly declare himself a salesman for the monopolies, declaring that the Alberta government was directly in the oil marketing business. His negotiations to secure the building of Syncrude included changes to the labour code, essentially written by the owners of capital who formed the Syncrude consortium, to champion monopoly right.

Syncrude insisted as a condition of the project that it would require a no-strike agreement with the construction unions building the plant. If a voluntary agreement could not be reached, Syncrude insisted that the government legislate amendments to the labour laws for special project status which would allow a specific site agreement with no-strike provisions. In the summer of 1974, on Syncrude's insistence, the government changed the labour code, providing the guarantee that Syncrude demanded as a condition of the project....

The intent and effect of the legislation was to ensure the unrestricted rights of the oil and construction monopolies to "labour peace" in the oil sands....

The Lougheed years saw the government preside over unprecedented union-busting.

In 1984, the Contractors' Association locked out building trades across the province when their contracts expired. Twenty-four hours later they declared that the collective agreements were null and void, and unilaterally cut wages by 50 per cent and even more. The anti-worker labour laws to this day permit the contractors to establish as many paper companies as they like and force the unions to recertify what is really the same company over and over again. Work can simply be transferred from a unionized company to a non-union "spin-off." Many workers still remember this bitter period, both for its hardships and the courageous battles fought in defence of the rights of all. Building trades workers organized mass demonstrations at the Legislature, and carried out actions on construction sites. They were known as a force which stood as one with workers of every sector fighting for their rights. For example, in 1986 hundreds of out-of-work construction workers stood as one with the workers at Gainers, returning day after day for the historic "Battle of 66th Street" to defend the strike and keep scab replacement workers out of the plant.

Prior to his election in 1971, Lougheed had promised full collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. But instead his years in office saw the passage of laws which criminalized health care workers and provincial government employees, making strikes illegal for hospital workers through the passage of Bill 44 in 1983 and for provincial government employees through the Public Service Employees Relations Act in 1977.

The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) were forced on strike twice during the Lougheed era. During the first strike in 1980, the government ordered the nurses back to work after three days through an order in council. The nurses stood firm and refused to return to work. The determination of the nurses and overwhelming public support for their courageous stand forced the government to back down and six days later UNA reached a negotiated settlement which met virtually all of their demands.

Two years later, the Tory government tried to force the nurses to participate in a government-supervised vote to supercede the vote the union had organized according to its constitution. UNA resisted this attack on its members' right to decide, and the government retaliated with legislation making it a criminal offence for a union to boycott a government-supervised strike vote. Nurses went on strike again in 1982 and this time the government used back-to-work legislation which included large fines, decertification of the union and banning workers from holding office in or working for a trade union in Alberta for two years for defiance.

These attacks were followed by the passage of Bill 44 in 1983 which made strikes illegal for all hospital workers. Bill 44 provided for huge fines and suspension of dues collection for up to six months for any union which upheld its members' right to decide their wages and working conditions. Strikes of hospital workers have been illegal since that time.

The first strikes of provincial government employees also took place during the Lougheed era, beginning with the strike of the Alberta Liquor Board Employees and a two-day walkout of direct government employees angered by the government's bad faith bargaining in 1980. The Public Service Employees Relations Act made strikes illegal and provided for compulsory arbitration in which the arbitrator had to consider government fiscal policy. Calgary teachers were also subjected to back-to-work legislation in 1980 when they walked out demanding that the government address the question of class size, a battle which teachers are still fighting to this day....

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