Three leaders shaped Alberta

Our identity as a province — how we work, how we play, how we see ourselves within Canada — carries the qualities

By Greg Neiman

Black Press

Our identity as a province — how we work, how we play, how we see ourselves within Canada — carries the qualities we have adopted from our leaders.

Unique in Canada (and probably unique in the world), Alberta has been shaped by three strong leaders who we chose and kept in office for what adds up to most of our history.

And it’s also unique that in the past few months, two of the strongest leaders in our history have passed away. With the passing of Peter Lougheed last December and Ralph Klein last week, so ends an era of leadership that modern times might not ever repeat.

We’ve had 14 premiers since Alberta gained provincial status in 1905, but three — Ernest Manning, Lougheed and Klein — together held the lion’s share of our history.

At one point, Manning, who was premier from 1943 to 1968, was the longest-serving democratically-elected leader in the world. Think of the changes that took place, from the time Canada was still engaged in the Second World War, to the beginning of the Apollo space program that sent astronauts to the moon.

When Manning started his life in politics, much of Alberta’s grain harvest was taken in by horses. He ended it with agriculture becoming a mechanized, international industry.

Manning won seven consecutive elections, and it was his hand on the tiller during the time that Alberta changed from being a collection of small agrarian communities tied to two minor cities, and found its destiny as an energy producer.

All but eight years of the great Social Credit dynasty (begun in 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression) were led by Manning, who himself changed the party from a right-wing religious revolution into a modern, pragmatic political party.

That dynasty began to crumble in 1965, when a young lawyer, Lougheed, became leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. In 1967, Canada’s centennial, Lougheed became leader of the Opposition with six members, all elected in either Edmonton or Calgary.

It was the signal of change. The 1971 election brought Lougheed to the premier’s post, and Alberta would never again be chiefly agricultural in character.

Lougheed would serve as premier until 1985, ushering in the era of Alberta’s rise on the national agenda. The Heritage Fund was begun by Lougheed, as was the Alberta Bill of Rights.

Lougheed invested hundreds of millions in direct funds, plus tax and royalty incentives, to get the oilsands industry on its feet. Remember the Alberta Opportunity Company? It had its headquarters in Ponoka and many an Alberta family got in for $10 a share in 1972. A pretty good investment, looking back.

Don Getty served almost as an interim premier upon Lougheed’s retirement, when Alberta’s third great leader — Klein — took up the mantle of securing a Tory dynasty that has outlasted even the historic Social Credit run of power.

Gregarious where Lougheed was austere, Klein seized popular consent to address a recurring problem for us: the cycle of energy prices that drives our economy.

Alberta was $23 billion in debt by the time the cycle bottomed out. Klein convinced us that we were not the “blue-eyed sheiks” of the Lougheed boom years. Or, at least that we could not live like we were all the time.

Klein campaigned on severe — almost punitive — cutbacks. No opposition could slow the tidal wave of salary and pension cuts, hospital closures, layoffs in health care and rises in service fees of all kinds. In fact, we lauded Klein for them.

Klein was mayor of Calgary for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, and he topped that by being premier for Alberta’s centennial party in 2005. It was punctuated by showcasing Alberta as the lowest-taxed region in the industrialized world, and the only one with no debt.

That we also have almost no savings to show for the billions earned selling non-renewable resources would be a problem for leaders to come after him.

Under Klein’s tenure, our energy industry changed in character. Where once Albertans were characterized as local risk-taking mavericks who could parlay small exploration startups into multi-million-dollar profits, the oil and gas industry has become international in scope.

Where Alberta and Canada have no indigenous, government-owned energy firms of any kind, the nationally-owned corporations of other countries have billions invested in our borders.

Syncrude, begun under Lougheed using technology developed in household washing machines, is now run by Imperial Oil Ltd., which is in turn owned by international giant Exxon Mobil, out of Irving, Texas.

During a single lifetime, Alberta has changed from being inward-looking, small-town, family-farm-based to discovering our potential as Canada’s national economic engine, to finding ourselves a place on the world stage of energy supply.

And it was accomplished under three leaders, whose ambition, acumen and personal qualities matched the spirit of their times.

You won’t find another district anywhere where three such leaders could be democratically elected in such close succession, without violence. And where each leader’s legacy paved the way for the next.

Alberta’s political and social character is to follow a strong leader, and to follow that person for many years at a stretch.

Can we get used to a rotating leadership, such as the rest of the world has, or will someone with the right mix of vision and common touch rise to carry on for decades longer?

Whatever happens in the future, we can say for now that we are who our leaders made us.