Growing up in Calgary, as I did, there were certain things you just didn’t do. If you didn’t you were just asking for trouble.
You didn’t, for instance, ever offer or accept two dollar bills (because those were bad luck, and sometimes even called “whore notes”). You didn’t ever try and raise a rat as a pet (because rats were illegal in Alberta). And you didn’t ever say, out loud, you were a Liberal (even if you were one, like I was).
Circa 1979-1980, being a Liberal in Alberta was worse than being a rat, actually. The reason for this was Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy program, or the NEP.
The NEP was part of the Liberal Party’s first budget, after it won back power from poor old Joe Clark. On paper, it didn’t seem too bad. The NEP professed to be about three main things. One, it was preoccupied with security of the oil supply, and independence from the vagaries of the world oil market. Fine. No problem.
Two, it wanted to boost Canadian ownership and participation in the oil and gas business. In those days, when every single oil company CEO was an American, that one wasn’t so bad, either.
And, three, the NEP wanted to do something about “fairness,” said Finance Minister Allan J. MacEachen in the House of Commons, “with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs of rights of all Canadians.”
Hmmm. That last one was a big problem, turns out. In response, oil companies stopped investing in Canada, and they started closing up shop, too. In Alberta, the bankruptcy rate went up by about 150 per cent from the year before. The real estate market crashed, and food banks started to open up in places like Edmonton and Red Deer.
In my Calgary high school, kids I had hung out with would be there one day, and gone the next. Where’d they go, I asked my friends. “Their parents lost their jobs and they had to sell their house and move away,” I was told. Heard that a lot.
That was what happened to Albertans, pretty much: misery, ruin, disaster. For Liberals, the NEP eventually led to misery, ruin and disaster, too. By the time the 1984 election took place, the NEP helped to wipe out the Liberal Party of Canada in the West, reducing it to a rump. Thirty-five years would go by before any Liberal would be elected to the House of Commons out of Calgary.
Ironically enough, it would be Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, who would lead that Liberal renaissance in Calgary and other parts of Alberta. He did so, in large measure, by avoiding his father’s mistakes.
Over and over, he said the NEP had been the wrong thing to do. Over and over, he said Alberta’s energy industry was an important part of Canada’s economy. Over and over, he’d travelled to Calgary – like he did right after declaring his candidacy for the Liberal Party leadership in 2012 – to pledge allegiance.
Well, 35 years after the NEP, and – per the muse, Yogi Berra – it’s déjà vu, all over again.
Alberta is in big economic trouble, just as it was in 1980. Oil prices are down. Investments are way down. Bankruptcies are way up. Joblessness, up.
Justin Trudeau’s political enemies, consequently, giddily see opportunity. In yesterday walks tomorrow, to them. There’s another tin-eared Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s chair, and he doesn’t give the aforementioned rat’s ass about Alberta. We in the West propped up the economy of Central Canada for years, they say. Now, when we need help, all we get is rhetoric and re-announcements of infrastructure monies.
There is great, great peril in all of this for Justin Trudeau. There’s a trap. But this Alberta Liberal, for one, doesn’t believe he will fall into it.
Justin Trudeau may represent a Quebec riding, but he spent much of his pre-politics years in the West. He seems to understand the West in a way that his father never, ever did. And, in particular, he knows that NEP-style politics will only assist the Conservative Party, which is now busily banging away at the drum of Western alienation, looking for an audience.
In 2016, unlike in 1980, rats are making an occasional appearance in Alberta. Two dollar bills are cherished as collector items, because two dollar bills aren’t being made anymore. And saying you are a Liberal from Alberta – well, that isn’t such a big deal anymore. My hunch is that Justin Trudeau aims to keep it that way.
Like the Akram Vignan’s Dada Baghwan once said: you are only worthy as a son when you remove all your father’s troubles.