Blog | April 13, 2012

Alberta should turn to its co-operative past rather than embrace divisive rhetoric, says author

By Tanya Hagen, Fast Forward WeeklyIn times of social and political crisis, the best hope for a society is to take a step back to its roots. Internationally acclaimed writer, political philosopher and former Albertan John Ralston Saul provides some insight into Alberta’s own political roots — and into the makings of a provincial economic crisis — as he prepares to deliver the keynote address at Public Interest Alberta’s sixth annual advocacy conference.The topic of this year’s conference — fittingly — is “Make Shift Happen: Mobilizing the Power of the People.” For Saul, the most pressing issue now facing Alberta’s political culture is grounded in the fault line between differing perceptions of what real Prairie populism is, and what it can and should achieve.The populist rhetoric that drives Alberta’s dominant political parties — most prominently espoused by the Wildrose Party — is not for Saul an indigenous form. It is the descendant, rather, of a form of angry populism that developed in Europe during the late 1890s, that grew to fruition in the ’30s and ’40s, was eventually absorbed into U.S. neo-conservative ideology, and now forms the underpinning of our local oil and gas-fuelled political economy.“I’ve often felt in Alberta that people have convinced themselves of a certain kind of Prairie populism that is based on oil industry ideas born out of the ’50s and’ 60s, and then frozen in place in the ’70s,” says Saul. “There’s this confusion in thinking this is a form of Prairie populism. It’s not. It’s Austrian, right-wing populism.”Alberta presently thrives under the shiny umbrella of oil and gas, but the economic model — grounded in European populism — that drives our wealth is outdated and unsustainable. The brushfire of prosperity fuelled by natural resources will inevitably burn itself out: without some consideration for public infrastructure, fears Saul, Alberta faces the same crises of social upheaval that now plague a crumbling United States.“If you look at the United States, which has gone a long way down the road of that European populism, you see the surging poverty, the collapsing education system, the most expensive health care system in the developed world,” he explains. “All of this is a direct outcome of this anti-government populism. What you have in the U.S. is very angry citizens, who feel very excluded. That’s no model for us to be rushing to follow.”We are swayed here by the mythos of a prosperous society, but what Albertan majority politics espouses as populist does not in fact benefit the people at large, he observes: “I’m always surprised by the fact that in Alberta you have a lot of people who are working very, very hard just to get by — a lot of ranchers, farmers, a lot of people in the oil business — they’re not doing very well — they’re not benefiting from the enormous amount of money. But in a funny kind of way, many have bought into the argument, which is really an argument designed for people who are doing very well.”For Saul, the alternative to a dysfunctional model of European populism lies in a return to the real grassroots of Prairie radicalism, in the co-operativist ethos — heavily influenced by aboriginal culture — that played a crucial role in shaping Alberta as a province. In his incisive critique of Canadian political mythologies, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008), Saul characterizes Canada as a Métis nation, “heavily influenced and shaped by aboriginal ideas: egalitarianism, a proper balance between individual and group, and a penchant for negotiation over violence.”For Saul, such principles are particularly manifest in the social and political culture that characterized Alberta during the early 20th century.“Alberta is one of the founding places of women’s rights, of the co-operative movement, of government protecting citizens against large corporations, the farmers’ movement. In 1911, Alberta played an enormous role in resetting the direction of the country in a much more egalitarian and inclusive way. It had to do with public education and public services and citizen involvement. Calgary and Edmonton are often said to be cities of volunteerism, and the root of that volunteerism is in the old Prairie populism, which is completely different from the idea of every man for himself.”If we are to avert economic and social crisis — to avoid travelling the same road as our neighbours to the south — the solution, Saul proposes, lies in a return to a uniquely Albertan co-operative tradition: to a government that invests in the well-being of its citizens, and to a system that acknowledges the real, grassroots power of the people.DETAILSJohn Ralston Saul with Making Shift Happen: Mobilizing the Power of the Public
Knox United Church
Wednesday, April 18By Tanya Hagen, Fast Forward WeeklyThis article was published in Fast Forward Weekly on April 12, 2012. Read the full article on the Fast Forward Weekly website.