Alberta's dirty little progressive secret

Alberta has long been considered Canada's undisputed capital of conservatism. But is that notion more myth than reality? Even a cursory examination of the province's political past reveals a prominent progressive streak in Alberta.

Alberta's political past chock full of socialism, feminism and progressive firsts

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley reacts to election results in Edmonton during her historic win in May. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

Originally published Dec. 17.

Earlier this month, newly elected Calgary MP Kent Hehr spoke in the House of Commons and shared an observation his father had passed on to him.

"Son, you got elected a Liberal from Calgary. You are kind of like a unicorn," said Hehr.

In those 15 words, he perfectly summed up the perception of Alberta as Canada's conservative heartland, a notion held by many across the country.

It's a perception that matters, as it shapes the way the country sees Alberta and the way Albertans see themselves. It's also a perception that is rooted, at least partly, in historical experience.

After all, Hehr and fellow rookie MP Darshan Kang were the first federal Liberals elected in Calgary since 1968 when Patrick Mahoney was sent to Ottawa to serve under another prime minister named Trudeau.

Alberta was also the home of the Reform Party, the precursor of the current Conservative Party of Canada, and the home of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Add to that the fact that the province was run for nearly half a century by the Progressive Conservative Party, and it is easy to see how Alberta's conservative reputation was born.

But is it accurate? Is Alberta an especially conservative place? Not according to University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas.

"Albertans are not conservative in terms of policy preferences," she says, while allowing that "might sound a bit weird."

Calgary MP Kent Hehr is sworn in as minister of Veterans Affairs and associate minister of National Defence during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Albertans like their social programs

Weird, indeed, but Thomas, who was raised in a tiny rural community in southern Alberta, should know.

"Albertans really like intervention in their economy, they like their social programs. But this is the thing, Albertans don't really want necessarily to pay for them." 

In fact, Thomas says, Alberta has a long history of supporting progressive policies and politicians.

Case in point, one of Alberta's most popular premiers, Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed.

He was the premier who, among other things, started a government-run oil company, bought an airline, created a human rights commission and spent lavishly on the arts.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, left, greets Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a handshake in Calgary, Alta., on Monday, July 6, 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press File)

"You compare some of the things the Lougheed government was saying when they were first elected in 1971, it's pretty similar to some of the things that you heard the Notley government say when they were first elected in 2015," Thomas says.

Not convinced, here are a few more examples of progressive firsts in Alberta:

  • The first woman elected to public office in Canada was Annie Gale, as a Calgary alderman in 1917.
  • The first woman elected as a member of a legislature in the British empire was Louise McKinney, also in 1917.
  • Alberta was home to the Famous Five, the driving force behind Canada's suffragette movement.
  • The province was run by the United Farmers of Alberta, a co-operative agrarian party, from 1921-1935.
  • The CCF, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, was founded in Calgary in 1932, morphing into the NDP in 1961.
  • The first aboriginal Canadian appointed to the Senate was Alberta's James Gladstone in 1958.
  • Canada's first Chinese-Canadian MLA was George Ho Lem, elected in Calgary in 1971.
  • The first Muslim MLA elected in Canada was Lesser Slave Lake's Larry Shaben in 1975.
  • The first Muslim MP elected in Canada was Rahim Jaffer in Edmonton in 1997.
  • Canada's first Muslim mayor was Naheed Nenshi, elected in Calgary in 2010.

'That was a big big-tent party'

So, how did a province with a penchant for progressive political firsts put Conservatives in power for 44 straight years?

Well, if you ask Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the answer lies in the PC brand, which was both progressive and conservative. 

"When Peter Lougheed was the premier, that was a big, big-tent party. You know, in federal government terms it meant that everyone from Pierre Poilievre to Stéphane Dion would be in the same party."

Peter Lougheed during the 1971 campaign that brought his Progressive Conservative party to power in Alberta. (CBC)

Nenshi says that with the demise of the PC dynasty in the last provincial election, that big tent has collapsed, allowing new political divisions to emerge in the province.

"The really big tectonic shift in Alberta politics is not the fracturing of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, it's the urbanization of the province."

Of course, provincially, those urban seats are the key to the NDP's current hold on power in a province where more than two-thirds of Albertans live in and around its two major cities. 

Federally, the political divide between Alberta's two major cities appears to be narrowing as well. Edmonton has long been home to whatever electoral successes progressive parties have enjoyed in recent years. But with two MPs in Calgary, the federal Liberals now have a toe-hold in the historically more conservative south as well.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the province's urbanization will mean a continued shift towards more progressive politics.

David Valentin, the spokesman for the polling firm Mainstreet Research, says people have been moving to Alberta's cities for decades while continuing to elect conservatives, 

"Those things never really sort of actualised. People would come from other parts of the country, and more often than not the research would show that they would sort of acclimatize and become a little more conservative when they landed."

Notley approval ratings still high

Of course, opinions might change over the remaining three-plus years of Rachel Notley's first term in office, and Valentin concedes that he has already noticed a shift in some long-held Albertan values.

"More and more people are willing to accept higher debt, are willing to accept some sort of tax increase," he says, by way of example.

He also says that, so far at least, Notley's approval ratings have remained reasonably high, despite her adherence to a left of centre platform.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says Alberta is now divided between rural and urban residents not conservatives and progressives. (Erin Collins/CBC)

At the U of C, Melanee Thomas says that, given the province's progressive history, that absence of any strong backlash shouldn't come as a shock.

"It's not necessarily surprising that when the provincial government did change it took that step to the populist left," she says.

Of course, as with all of Alberta's political leaders, progressive or otherwise, how long their popularity lasts will likely depend more on oil prices than policy choices.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.