03.05.2015 01:33 PM

In the Manning Foundation’s C2C Journal: me!

Link here.

Story here:

In my limited experience, one’s political origins originate with the The Four Ps.

That is: the Place where one grows up; one’s Parents, or parental equivalents; the Politics of the era; and some memorable Personal event.

The Four Ps explain, for the most part, why most of the people I grew up with in Calgary were conservatives, small and large “C.” Calgary, perhaps more than any other city in Canada, is decidedly conservative. The politics of Calgary, in this or any era, are equally conservative. If your parents spent any time at all in Calgary – whether they be from Whitehorse or Witless Bay – they often succumbed to the right-tilting zeitgeist of the place.

And the “personal” part of the formulation? Well, most of us look at politics through the prism of economics. And the economics of Alberta have been rather good, thank you very much, for many, many years. Those who arrive there tend to stay there. And the pre-oil-price-crash economics of Calgary – as they manifest themselves in things like jobs, quality of life and disposable income – compare favourably to other places in Canada and the world.

It’s a good place to grow up in (although a debate persists about whether I ever truly grew up, at all). But however much I love Calgary (and I do), and however much I regard it as my true home town (and I do), one thing cannot be denied: I am a Calgarian who is not a Conservative.

I had no shortage of opportunity to become one, whether of the Progressive Conservative, Reform, Alliance or Conservative variety. Wherever I looked, in my youth, conservatives littered the landscape. They were endlessly organizing to bring things together (Uniting The Right) or tear them asunder (Western Canada Concept). Alberta conservatives ran the provincial government, most municipal governments and – periodically – the federal government itself. Their priorities, and their people, dominated the agenda. The notion that something other a conservative could become Premier of Alberta seemed far-fetched, like unicorns, or Nickelback possessing talent.

Thus, Conservatives were, and are, everywhere in Wild Rose Country. If you were from there, you were one. Any other political persuasions that existed in Calgary were exceedingly rare, and protected only by endangered species legislation. It wasn’t against the law to be a Liberal in Calgary, of course, but it was an excellent way to get singled out in Social Studies class by your home room teacher as a “communist.” Which, at Bishop Carroll High School, I was (thanks, Mr. Zelinski). It was a good way to not fit in. Which, mostly, I didn’t.

I arrived in Alberta with my family in 1975. The five of us – my artist Mom, my doctor Dad, and two brothers who were younger than me and therefore immaterial – were Irish Catholics who had been born in Montreal. As such, being Liberal was in our DNA. It was part of our genetic coding. We could not help ourselves.

We had left Montreal because the Quebec language and culture wars had gotten to be a bit much. Many of our English-speaking friends and relatives were doing likewise, choosing discretion over valour, and scooting down the 401 to The Great Satan, Toronto. Our family was the only one that chose a place that was in a different time zone, however. My Dad was a doctor who did medical research, and there was research money to be had in Alberta, praise be to Premier Lougheed. So off we went – me, Mom, Dad, and the two brothers whose existence I acknowledged as little as possible.

From the start, we were welcome. In the Seventies, Albertans were open and generous and neighbourly. They greeted us with open arms, and we soon had many friends. My two best friends were Calgarians, and they remain my best friends to this day. Neighbourliness notwithstanding, one fact could not be glossed over, even in polite company: we were Liberals. In Calgary. On the streets, in Calgary. With Liberal membership cards, in Calgary.

Spending my teenage years in Calgary, I was not always aware that I possessed political views that were anathema. There were, however, moments when the uniqueness of our situation was brought home to me. Being called “a communist” by the aforementioned home room teacher, for sure. Being described as a “Marxist agitator” by the exceedingly thoughtful Vice-Principal at St. Bonaventure Junior High School – that, too. Also memorable: finding the Canadian flag we kept on our roof burned to cinders, one day, at the nadir of the National Energy Program imbroglio.

Me: “Why did they go up on our roof and burn the Canadian flag, Dad?”
Dad: “Good question. Go buy us another flag.”

Flag-burning incidents aside, we were not infrequently asked how we came to be Liberals in Calgary. Did we take a wrong turn on the Trans Canada? Were we serving out some sort of a prison sentence, and our Lake Bonavista neighbourhood was to be our well-to-do gulag? They were fair questions.

My parents, per The Four Ps above, were a big part of it. I drove them batty, of course – the time I was almost arrested for inciting a riot at a punk rock show at the Calgary Stampede remains one cherished Kinsella family memory – but they were the best parents a guy could have. If they were Liberals, I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t be a Liberal, too.

The place that is Calgary, as noted, is decidedly conservative. Fine. But it was the very ubiquity of conservative philosophy – it was so all-encompassing, it seemed to be part of the very air itself – that compelled us to remain liberals and Liberals. Democracy, like Newtonian physics, requires opposite and equal forces. We wouldn’t ever be equal to the conservative juggernaut, but we’d try. It felt right.

The politics of Alberta in the Seventies, as noted, were very, very conservative. The NEP was an unmitigated disaster, a policy Viet Nam conceived in spite and jealousy. As a Liberal – and as a Liberal who would later become Special Assistant to a Liberal Prime Minister – the NEP disgusted and appalled me. Still does.

Opposing the NEP was legitimate. Opposing it was right. But the way in which some of that opposition manifested itself – most notably with the nativism and xenophobia of the Western separatist movement – shocked us. We had left Quebec to get away from the separatists. We therefore were damned if we were going to let it fester in our new home.

Thus arrived my political awakening. At the time, I was the lead screamer in a ham-fisted high school punk quartet called the Hot Nasties. Our songs were almost entirely about girls and being teenagers. But when the dark, seamy underbelly of Western separatism revealed itself – and when I saw too many otherwise-respectable folks being sucked into its abyss – I got active. In no time at all, I was organizing “Rock Against Western Separatism” and “Rock Against Racism” gigs at local community halls, and writing songs about the inadvisability of carving up perfectly good countries because you are angry at someone.

I started looking around for a political party that shared my point of view. The New Democrats had no power, and never would. The PCs, appallingly, were playing footsie with the separatists.

So I joined the Liberal Party of Alberta – not, I note, the federal Liberal Party – when the Western separatist movement was at its greatest strength. I strode into the offices of the provincial party wearing my cherished biker’s jacket, purchased at the Boutique of Leathers in Southcentre Mall on MacLeod Trail. I forked over the cost of a membership to one Nick Taylor, then leader of the Alberta Grits. He looked nervous. (He later told me he had been worried I was there to rob the place, not sign up.)

Punk rock, while fun, was an inadequate vehicle for opposing a surging separatist movement. Most of the kids who attended our shows were there to have a good time, not to debate the intricacies of sovereignty and energy policy. So I got more involved with the Liberals, provincial and otherwise, and have only regretted it about a hundred times in the intervening years.

Along with the influence of my folks – who deeply loved Alberta, and Albertans, and only left the place to be closer their grandchildren – the thing that propelled me towards liberalism, and Liberals, was that extraordinary year, 1979-1980. That was the year that things got a bit crazy, at both ends of the country. And, while my family and I opposed the NEP, we certainly didn’t think opposing it should entail wrecking the country. We’d had quite enough of that sort of nonsense in Quebec, thank you very much, and we were in no rush to relive the experience.

As I have gotten ever-older – and as I have lived and toiled in places as diverse as Dallas, Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and yes, The Great Satan itself – I have come to recognize that our political differences are negligible. Ideological distinctions are exaggerated by political people, because it is in their self-interest to do so. But most Canadians, wherever they may be, are good and decent folks. And Albertans, however stubbornly conservative they may be, are among the most good and the most decent.

It is an imperfect country, quite often led by imperfect people. Sometimes, they make bad decisions. The response to that should be as measured as it is democratic. The response to that should not ever be blowing the place up.

That, more than anything else, is how this Alberta Liberal came to be Liberal in Alberta. It was my parents, a bit. It was the place, and some of the politics of the era, to be sure. But, mainly, it was because of a pretty personal reaction to the events of that year, 1979-1980, when assorted Albertans were running around, trying to reinvent the wheel. Western separatism, to me, was as dumb as the NEP that gave rise to it.

Per the words of Pierre Trudeau, I became a Liberal to put Alberta in its place. And Alberta’s place is – was, and always will be – in Canada.

~

Warren Kinsella is a Toronto-based lawyer, author, bon vivant and columnizer. He is not profound, but he enjoys a good scrap.

17 Comments

  1. eric weiss says:

    Great article. I grew up during that time period as well. Maybe because I grew up in Redmonton, I didn’t see as much separatist support happening. But I could understand the frustration that created it. Albertans are proud Canadians. We just get ticked off when we think we’re being marginalized and used as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The NEP definitely did that in the minds of many, if not most of us. Seeing friends and family loose jobs contributed to that.

    Although it made good press, WCC was never a real threat. One was elected in a byelection in 1982, but lost during the general election that same year. At it’s height it received 12% support. I was in Eastern Canada during the 2004 Federal election. The eastern press were in a tizzy over the so-called resurgence in Alberta separatism. In the end they received .5 percent. It makes good copy, but didn’t live up to the hype.

  2. cynical says:

    Thanks, Warren. Good essay, even if it is being publicized by the Manning Institute.

    I’m a little older than you and grew up south of Lethbridge. My dad was a Liberal, and I drifted left from there. My high school was a public high school effectively run by a church, and questioning authority was not encouraged. One of your WCC candidates was my schoolmate. He should’ve stuck to the rodeo business, I think.

    Most of our neighbours and friends were of the Social Credit persuasion and voted Conservative federally. My dad voted Conservative once, to elect a local candidate who turfed a rabid Socred asshole from office. Many of them had been led astray by the writings of Cleon Skousen. It took a pragmatic farmer from Milk River to end the guy’s run.

    Anyhow, your four P’s have it.

    Whatever you can say about conservative Albertans, they make good, caring neighbours, and the same guy who will forward a racist joke by email will also be the first to lend a hand when there’s a crisis, regardless of the colour or persuasion of the business.

    We’re a curious and contradictory species, thanks be to your deity of choice, or not.

  3. HarryR says:

    Well written, Mr K., though I imagine there may be a few ruffled feathers over your use of the word “littered” when associating Albertan conservatives with the landscape. I think, perhaps, “adorned” may have been a better fit.

  4. Simon Frisch says:

    Okay, now please explain why Conservative Calgarians elected and then reelected Muslim Mayor Nenshi?

  5. Ray says:

    Wow. Had to read that that twice. Good stuff.

  6. Elisabeth Lindsay says:

    I consider myself to be conservative. Moved to Calgary in the sixties to raise our kids, mainly because of the entrepreneurship can do culture. Loved the big sky and mountains and mainly freedom.

    I considered Nick Taylor to be a conservative liberal which fit me to a tee.

    Voted and door knocked for him after one day when on the bus on the way to ski up at Sunshine Village. Twisty mountain road. Bus got stuck and the first one off the bus to help with chains and stuff was Nick Taylor.

    Have never found a Federal Liberal to vote for in Alberta since. Especially after the NEP disaster. That long line of rigs on Hwy 2 going South and devastation and destruction of many friends
    is etched forever in my head.

  7. Patrick says:

    This always drives me nuts when commentators start talking about liberal cities and conservative cities, and the same goes for the notion of a blue state and a red state, especially when there is no such thing. Almost 40% of Calgary in the 2004 election voted for something other than Conservative and it was mostly Liberal, NDP and Green. To call a location conservative, Red, Blue, or green just cements a notion that a place is a certain way and that it is not expected to change. It also isolates and marginalizes a significant part of the population and creates a myth that that those who are not voting with the prevailing wind are wasting time and effort and are just a few stragglers not facing reality. It’s lazy thinking. Lazy journalism. And it stifles change.

  8. James Smith says:

    Nice piece.
    I was an Alberta Liberal & met Nick many times, a real gentleman. (He’s the only person to ever refer to me as “SMITTY”)

    I’m curious, given your piece, about your take on the thousands of Albertans who voted Liberal their whole lives, and 20 minutes after arriving in Calgary, they suddenly become ardent Tories.
    The first time I noticed this I had a colleague who was from Newfoundland, he was, like you, from a Liberal family & spoke glowingly about PET, but in 1980 (pre NEP) he voted Tory.

    To that end I might add a fifth P – Peers – the herd mentality can do strange things to folks

  9. Africon says:

    Excellent and thought provoking piece . . . . . for a “liberal”.

    Place and parents – for example Charles Adler and his family’s escape from Commie Hungary – same for countless Canadian that came here from dictator run countries, myself included.

    Another angle of vision re “place”.

    Ever noticed some common themes as one travels from Sweden through Lisbon, Mali to Cape Town or Canada through Alabama or Bogota to Buenos Aires or Tokyo though Shanghai to Darwin to Melbourne.
    Distance from equator seems to affect so many things like food, music, fashion, cleanliness, tolerance, politics and work ethic to name just a few.

  10. Steve T says:

    Excellent article. Reflects my own experience, to some extent, as being a small-c conservative in Manitoba. This is a fairly left-leaning province, but my upbringing was decidedly conservative. My dad was even more of a fish-out-of-water: a university professor who was not a raging socialist. The black-and-white views here (eg: if you have conservative views, you are an insensitive and/or ignorant knuckle-dragger) were difficult to work against.

    Much like your situation, it takes a lot more courage to have a different viewpoint, than just to go along with the crowd. I always admired my dad for that, much as I’m sure you admired your dad.

  11. Pedro says:

    I grew up in Windsor, Ontario in the ’60’s. My parents were Eastern European immigrants and we were surrounded by a mini version of Europe. Had a friend whose family were farmers who hosted Eugene Whelan on occasion and was awed by a great Liberal. Met and respected Mark MacGuigan and Herb Gray. My parents would detour on the way from church to drive by the Martin house in Walkerville. I warmed to PET when he said the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation .Then watched him say “Just watch me”, my jaw dropped and I think I got the pin stripes tattooed on my butt the next week. Don’t know what it was about it but as a virulent anti-Communist, the taste of smug use of state power made me think all semblance of respect for small “L” liberalism was a sham. And I supported that use of power for the purpose it was invoked. Just made me think that Liberal views were to be trotted out for convenience. The term ‘Cadillac liberal’ seemed to sum it up for me. Also hated the constant klatching with Castro for what seemed only to be to spit into the face of despised Americans. Of course, I grew up in Robarts/Davis Ontario so I knew which side my bread was buttered.
    Awww, maybe I’m just a contrarian.

  12. MgS says:

    One of your better pieces, Warren. Thoughtful and insightful.

    It’s funny, I grew up in Calgary myself. I’m old enough to remember the NEP, the faux outrage of Western Separatism and the rise of Manning’s Refooooormatories. All of them taught me one thing: rigid ideology sucks.

    In the last 20 years, I’ve watched Calgary become driven by money and greed, and the governing PCs in Edmonton playing to that same tune. Perhaps because I grew up in a family where we discussed these things all the time at dinner, I became less and less enamoured of the emerging “greed is good” conservatism in Calgary. Far too many here vote “conservative” (although today, what they are voting for is far from what conservative meant even in my youth) simply because that’s how they’ve always voted.

    My own leanings in terms of government policy have come to lean heavily towards the Scandinavian countries in recent years because I’ve been there and seen the difference it makes when a government respects its citizens and invests in them. (there are areas I disagree with them on, but on the whole, those democracies are much healthier than we have here in Alberta)

    Electorally, I want to see Canada move to a PR system – we need the change. Not because PR will work perfectly, but because FPTP has become synonymous with a system that no longer represents the breadth and depth of political opinion here, or elsewhere in the country. Big money has learned how to manipulate it to its own advantages, and the citizens of this country are paying the price for it.

    Canada desperately needs change at all levels. The current malaise politically is only to the benefit of those whose agenda is to consolidate their grip on power. It isn’t a matter of “right vs left” any more, but one of recognizing that change is needed to make this a better nation for its peoples.

  13. Jeff W says:

    I enjoyed this piece. I’m sitting in Mobile, NL, 1.5 km from Witless Bay so you hooked me in with that line. I think you hooked me in with a Witless Bay mention in the past but that may be someone else.

    4 P apply as I grew up here in the 80’s in a big C (well PC) house in the Peckford and Crosbie times. Witless Bay and Mobile sit in traditional PC/Con ridings both provincially and federally though we are currently represented by the now orphaned Mr. Andrews.

    After university in mid 90’s I moved to Calgary where I forged a career, started a family and after 10 years moved back here. Worked for a Calgary employer in my house here for 6 years after that. Two kids both born in Calgary.

    That 10 years on my 20’s was great and turned me into a mostly small c fiscal and somewhat politically incorrect conservative, at least behind closed doors. 10 years almost I’ve been back here in NL where I now realize there is no such thing as a conservative of any nature here. What passes for PCs here would be raging Liberals or worse in Alberta.

    Your article has made me home sick for Calgary. I’m likely about to embark on a rotational position with that Calgary employer again. Wife and teenagers too stubborn to move at this point but we’ll see, I may win them over yet and head back west permanently. But for now I’m somewhat looking forward to it despite the strain of missing family and travel but it is better than some alternatives.

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