Evan Berger

“When I look out over the crowd today, I think I can actually see people pinching themselves,” proclaimed Evan Berger, Progressive Conservative MLA for Livingstone-Macleod, just over a year ago as the sod was turned at the site of the new provincial police college in the windblown Southern Alberta town of Fort MacLeod.

“They’re having a hard time accepting that this day is finally here,” said Berger, then Alberta’s minister of agriculture, who at the time must have been reasonably confident he would soon be attending the opening of the college as a member of Premier Gary Mar’s PC cabinet.

Oh well, that was then, this is now, and folks in Fort Macleod must be regretting ever pinching themselves!

Fast forward from Aug. 24, 2011, to Aug. 29, 2012, and the local MLA is a Wildrose Party usurper named Pat Stier, Berger has been compensated for his loss with a controversially plum civil service posting as a “senior policy advisor,” and Solicitor-General Jonathan Denis, a member of Premier Alison Redford’s cabinet, has pulled the plug on the grandly titled Alberta Public Security and Law Enforcement Training Centre.

The far-right Opposition Wildrose Party was screaming bloody murder yesterday, insisting the good people of the dusty outpost close to where Col. James Macleod of the North-West Mounted Police built the force’s barracks in 1874 are being punished for not voting Conservative. Alberta’s New Democrats are singing harmony.

For once, the Wildrosers are almost certainly right, notwithstanding Denis’s protestations to the contrary.

But Albertans need to ask themselves: Is this the right decision, anyway, even if it’s being made for the wrong reasons? As most folks who weren’t born yesterday understand, such a thing can happen.

Well, as it happens, the answer to that question is almost certainly yes.

Let me explain: Putting a $122-million college for city cops from places like Edmonton and Calgary in a location that’s never been anything but an isolated backwater since 1884, when the Mounties finally had the sense to move up the hill from the Oldman River flood plain, never made any sense. It was sort of like putting a rodeo clown college in Manhattan’s fashion district — dumber, actually, since the potential for entertainment was considerably lower.

It would have cost a fortune to ferry trainee cops back and forth from the cities where they would be working to the dust-coated burg, pop. 3,000, where they were to be trained … to do what? Bust cattle rustlers? Drive fast on washboard?

The promise was first made by Premier Ralph Klein in 2006, a typical example of the kind of rural pork-barreling that kept the Alberta PCs in power for generations — at least until the Wildrosers came along and tried to take advantage of Premier Redford’s urban image by outflanking her generation of PCs from the right. Unfortunately for the Wildrose Party, this strategy only worked in a smattering of rural outposts like Livingstone-Macleod.

In other words, about the only logical justification for putting the college in Fort Macleod in the first place — other than tying up the rural Tory vote in another sparsely populated riding — was the historical connection with the NWMP, which was in reality just a polite name for a cavalry regiment stationed in the North West Territories to keep our American cousins from coveting their neighbour’s frontier.

It made no sense from a training perspective. It made no sense from a cost perspective. And the cops, peace officers and correctional officers it was supposed to serve couldn’t stand the idea. Even the Mounties thought it was pretty lame.

So it was just the sort of thing our Opposition parties are supposed to loyally oppose a government for doing, except that in Alberta rural politics can distort issues like a fun-house mirror.

The interesting question that remains is just how this fits into the long-term strategy of the Redford Tories. Do they expect stubborn Southern Albertans to return to the Tory fold when they realize the cost of voting Wildrose? That could happen, one supposes.

Or is this part of a strategy to recast themselves as the party of urban Alberta? (That, by the way, was an opportunity generations of Alberta Liberal and New Democrat politicians, few of whom could hope to get elected outside city limits, have ignored because the idea of a rural-urban, north-south split on the right seemed unimaginable.)

“What we just see here is classic PC incompetence and mismanagement,” Wildrose Justice Critic Shayne Saskiw complained to the CBC after Denis’s announcement yesterday.

He was right, of course. It’s just that the PC in question was named Ralph Klein, the last one the Wildrose Party claims to have had any time for.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...