The passing of former premier Peter Lougheed last week has seen an outpouring of sympathy from every sector of Alberta society. His long-term impact and influence on today’s Alberta economy is both recognized and highly respected.
The mainstream urban media has produced stories, anecdotes and comments about almost every aspect of his contribution to the betterment of this province and Canada. But there’s a notable absence of any commentary on his influence on Alberta’s second-largest industry — agriculture.
The urban media has mentioned agriculture in the context of Lougheed’s legacy — but more in a somewhat derogatory perspective. City newspapers refer derisively to Alberta being an “agrarian hinterland” prior to Lougheed’s ascendancy as premier. They commented that he changed Alberta’s “rural-based” values to something more modern and acceptable.
I should add that those comments were made by folks who either didn’t live in Alberta when the Lougheed administration began, or weren’t even born.
Just for the record, even in 1971, more Alberta citizens lived in cities and towns than in rural areas. Also, the energy industry was already dominant over agriculture by that time, thanks to massive discoveries in the 1930s and 1940s.
The old Social Credit government had, through prudent management, laid the groundwork for the expansion of the oil industry that Lougheed later built upon. It should also be noted that although Social Credit governments had solid support in the countryside, most city ridings in Alberta were also represented by Social Credit members.
The Lougheed connection to agriculture and rural Alberta, with all due respect, was tenuous. The Lougheeds were city folks who had no direct connection to the ranching aristocracy of southern Alberta. Lougheed’s grandfather was a lawyer who represented the CPR’s interests in the west, perhaps not the most-admired position to be in, from a farmer or rancher’s perspective, at that time.
Another political reality was that in the first two of Lougheed’s elections, most of the PC party’s elected MLAs were from urban Alberta, with much of rural Alberta still supporting the Social Credit party — although that quickly changed.
What Lougheed did do upon becoming premier, in a stroke of genius, was to appoint Hugh Horner as his minister of agriculture. Horner was a medical doctor, but he had personal and political assets that helped propel the venerable Alberta Department of Agriculture into its golden age. That, in turn, had a major impact on the development and direction of the ag industry for many years to come.
First, Horner was a forceful personality that was the equal to Lougheed. I expect his appointment was by clever design, considering Lougheed’s perceived lack of agriculture awareness. Horner quickly proceeded to shake the stodgy department to its very foundation and build it into a powerhouse within the bureaucracy and the cabinet.
I recall anyone who didn’t share Horner’s plans did so at their own peril — he got what he wanted and Lougheed always backed him up.
The ag department under Horner’s direction quickly embraced the Lougheed vision of diversification and support of business. It expanded its presence into every corner of Alberta through the most comprehensive ag extension program this country has ever seen.
Support programs of every kind were created to expand the industry and assist new operators to get established. The policy groundwork and incentives were also laid at that time, which saw the creation of the massive cattle feedlot and processing industry that we now enjoy.
Many of today’s marketing commissions like ABP and ALP owe their existence to legislation created by the early Lougheed government. The predecessors to today’s AFSC were either created or revamped to better serve the expansion of the ag industry.
Those Lougheed/Horner years also saw the department begin their involvement in marketing and promoting Alberta genetics and food products in international markets. The building of the Prince Rupert grain terminal would never have happened without Lougheed’s vision and direct support.
The lamb-processing plant in Innisfail would probably be a footnote in history if the Lougheed government had not guaranteed the original financing and later saved it from bankruptcy.
Irrigation also received a boost as the Lougheed government saw its development as a tool for more ag production and economic development.
On a social note, it was the Lougheed government that terminated the Communal Property Act — a highly discriminatory piece of legislation that was specifically designed to thwart and control the expansion of Hutterite colonies in Alberta.
No other group in society had such legislation designed to take away their property rights. It was gone within two years of Lougheed coming to power.
Alas, as much as Lougheed’s wisdom in appointing Horner as his ag minister catapulted the ag department and the industry to new heights of power and respect, the retirement of the premier and Horner ushered in an era of endless departmental restructuring and downsizing.
The good old days, it seems, were the Lougheed days.
Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.