The Albertafication of Canada

By Gene Miller, June 2011

The political mess to the south of us first seeped across the border into Alberta and now threatens to flood the entire country.

I bring you important and extraordinary news: Superman is renouncing his US citizenship. 

I’m no storm crow and I’m not making this stuff up. Well, at least I’m not making this stuff up. It’s right there in Action Comics #900, in case you think I’m trying to trigger the whimpering demise of America the beacon of the free world. Says the Man of Steel—but wait, there he is speaking on his own behalf.

So, memo to the Manning Centre For Building Democracy which is planning some fringe events at the Conservative Party Convention in Ottawa, June 9-11, including one horrid, mossy clambake to review “cutting edge ideas and discussion on reforming Canada’s welfare state as well as removing barriers to environmental entrepreneurship”: It’s time to leave the Mesozoic behind.

There is something preposterous about the Manning Centre’s agenda and output, but given recent political and social trends south of the border, I worry this ditzy desiderata could find fertile sprouting ground beyond Calgary, especially now that the Harper Conservatives have been handed a majority. For what it’s worth, Preston Manning, who I know personally, is a lovely man whose only flaw is that he’ll walk around four sides of a room to sit in a chair to his immediate left, or stand if he suspects the government put it there.

If hindsight’s 20/20, foresight isn’t.A few days before the federal election I started to believe overly in the “orange wave” and the possibility that the wise and practical Canadian electorate would truly humble Harper with at best another minority win. Much as I wanted before the election to project triumphant “I’m telling you so” certainty about this, I couldn’t in my heart of hearts pull myself past contorted, mucilaginous conditionality: “I anticipate the possibility of being able to tell you I told you so”—the way deadline-trapped newspapers used to prepare alternate “Wins!” and “Loses!” front pages on the eve of big elections.

So, finally the Harper Conservatives (aka the forces of dullness) have achieved a majority. Now, we’re in for it. When Harper says he is “humbled” by the electorate’s anointment, I ask you to realistically imagine the pillow talk going on in Conservative Party inner circles. Trust me: he means he is humbled by the staggering range of choices now before him, and that he doesn’t know what to do first: starve the CBC to death, cut arts and cultural funding another 50 percent, eliminate legal abortion, move to a full two-tier health care system, withhold all support for housing, abandon financial collaboration with cities (especially Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal), open Canada’s Arctic north to gold rush-intensity resource extraction, remove the hand-wringy factor from all social policy, walk away from the environmental agenda, and so much more. Dizzying, huh? Hey, maybe do ’em all at once!

From the election outset, Harper disappointed me by failing to announce that he was stepping down from the Conservative leadership because in good conscience he could no longer embarrass Canada on the world stage by looking like a dental equipment sales rep. For this and his other various and many sins, the electorate, exercising its inalienable right to both hayseed gullibility and full-sheeted insanity, handed him a majority. Talk about an attack of bad brains.

Look, here’s what we could have had with a New Democrat/Liberal coalition government: People in attractive, loose-fitting tunics, braiding each other’s hair with flowers; the glorious return of Opportunity For Youth (OFY) and Local Initiatives Program (LIP)—that is, welfare for creatives; snowmobile culls; clean groundwater and hundred-mile food production; free cable service including all the movie channels; talking unicorns.

Here’s what we will get with a Harper Conservative majority: The elimination of all civil rights; gun emplacements at every street corner; forced labour camps for poets, artists, actors and the rest of the cultural elite; a green light for every form and method of resource extraction—no rules, no limits; relentless attacks on the social safety net; the end of firearms registration; and open season on everything that’s cute, furry and vulnerable.

Canada, the choice was yours.

This is the start of wholesale Albertafication of Canadian political culture—a nation full of Tim Horton’s-swilling Triffids in cowboy boots hooting “Get ’er done! Get ’er done!”—and the long slide toward the end of a sovereign and distinct Canadian social identity, and the emergence of an ugly, thinly-disguised right wing brotherhood between Canadian and US conservatives. Just at a time when world-historical conditions are calling upon this nation to show its highest expression of national community built on real values and cultural authenticity, Canada, responding to Harper’s “Who’s your daddy?” routine, votes its fears and insecurities and elects not a statesman or national visionary, but a strict parent, a punisher. Or as a Globe and Mail headline had it recently: “nasty, brutish—and competent.”

I remember three years ago when UDI (Urban Development Institute, the developers’ lobby) Calgary, dominated by suburban raw-land developers, went on the warpath in response to the threat that PlanIt—Calgary’s timid and relatively un-ambitious effort to manage land use and support urban infill—might be adopted by city council. “Social engineering! Social engineering!” they bellowed, and brought up some nutbar from the US-based Cato Institute to prove that such urban land management strategies don’t work and lead directly to a death-spiral economic collapse for the entire city. So, no demurrers and don’t tell me it can’t happen here.

In the NY Times, Anand Giridharadas recently noted “These have been tough years for American power: years of a sick economy that cannot easily be healed.…Great numbers of Americans now fear that their children will not lead lives as bounteous and carefree as theirs.” But lurking around this statement is a recent statistic: 20 million Americans—roughly one in 20 citizens—are millionaires. In other words, great numbers of Americans, including those on the next rung down, couldn’t give a shit. And you might also want to chew on comedian and social critic Bill Maher’s astute observation: “Republicans prey on something deep in the American psyche: poor people don’t see themselves poor, they see themselves as ‘temporarily disadvantaged millionaires.’” (Continued on page 42)

I had hoped Canada would understand—however complex or subtle the idea, however fragile the calibration, however careful the articulation it requires—that national identity goes deeper than a donut chain, and puts memory (who we have been) as a handbrake on expectation (who, reasonably, we want to be). This stuff takes thought, and the outcome calls for the constructive cultivation (and celebration) of humility—not just frugality—as a key ingredient of the national character. 

It’s pretty simple: I think Canada needs to be the UnCola, needs to acknowledge and never ever forget that there is a connection between the braying libertarians who are always screaming for less government, less intervention, less regulation on one side and historically inevitable right-wing moral hubris and corporate sociopathy that can tear a society apart on the other. 

If it isn’t the tar sands, it’ll be something else. A lot of Canadians, observing the US-precipitated financial meltdown triggered by lax regulation and sheer corporate venality, noted that Canada came through it relatively unscathed in part because our bank act and industry regulations prohibit financial institutions from acting like a gambler with five whiskey sours in him pouring his life savings into the ten-dollar slots. And do you think this would sober the market triumphalists of the Fraser Institute and their ilk, give them pause for some earnest reflection about the value of regulation and more government? Get real.

You may remember Matt Taibbi’s famous line in Rolling Stone Magazine about Goldman Sachs: the “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into everything that smells like money.” You might now want to go to Rolling Stone online and read Taibbi’s lengthy, brilliant exposition (“The People Vs. Goldman Sachs”) about the brazen swindle perpetrated by Goldman Sachs and the outright mendacity of its corporate leadership while testifying before a US Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. A Rolling Stone reader wrote in recently, “I can’t believe [Goldman Sachs CEO] Blankfein walks the streets and nobody has caved his head in yet.” I thought: Be patient.

Yes, Jesse Ventura, ex-pro wrestler and former Governor of Minnesota, is a bit of a nut; and it’s nice for him to take time away from paintball wars or upgrading his home security system to write on his website…but honestly, what the hell is this rant—stillborn revolution, or sign of things to come? 

You control our world. You’ve poisoned the air we breathe, contaminated the water we drink, and copyrighted the food we eat. We fight in your wars, die for your causes, and sacrifice our freedoms to protect you. You’ve liquidated our savings, destroyed our middle class, and used our tax dollars to bailout your unending greed. We are slaves to your corporations, zombies to your airwaves, servants to your decadence. You’ve stolen our elections, assassinated our leaders, and abolished our basic rights as human beings. You own our property, shipped away our jobs, and shredded our unions. You’ve profited off of disaster, destabilized our currencies, and raised our cost of living. You’ve monopolized our freedom, stripped away our education, and have almost extinguished our flame. We are hit…we are bleeding…but we ain’t got time to bleed. We will bring the giants to their knees and you will witness our revolution!

Jesse, I love ya, brother, but given a choice, I would much sooner witness the revolution than find myself swept up in it. 

So I want Canadian political leadership tuned to the growing signs that right now the American gyroscope is in a serious wobble. There is social rot and incipient class warfare in the States, and we need Canadian leadership capable of conducting a national conversation about how to avoid getting sucked into that vortex. I do not want political leaders singing lunatic harmony with the meat-eaters at the Fraser Institute, and tone deaf to the Wagnerian apocalypse now in dress rehearsal next door. 

Globally, we are once again standing at the edge of history and are witnessing the first judders of a tectonic disruption triggered by the waning of a binding social narrative, oiled by glib quality-of-life excuses for planet-wide winner-take-all plunder, and highlighted by risky, revolution-courting concentration of power and wealth by the elite. You have only to read your history to know this always ends in a nasty crack-up. Could be a 5.5, but it might be a 9.1.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.