When I arrived in Edmonton in 1980 to become the editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia I was only dimly aware of the presence of the man at the epicentre of both the oil boom and the fight with Ottawa. Having lived in Ottawa I had experienced the power that another man, Pierre Trudeau, had over the political landscape, but I soon learned that Peter Lougheed had equally put his stamp on the dramatic decade of the 1970s.
Lougheed entered politics for opportunity sure, but also for emotional reasons – the prospect excited him for it was “where the action was.” When he first ran for the legislature, Lougheed was like a man possessed. Some archival television footage catches him literally running like a halfback from house to house, grasping hands and asking, “What’s your name?” “Nice to say hello, Henry.” Not least of Lougheed’s strengths was his willingness to learn. On becoming leader, he visited the most successful Conservative leaders in the country, and he listened to Robert Stanfield, to John Robarts (“never take a penny from the federal party!”) and to Duff Roblin. As he told me, Quebec premier Daniel Johnson gave him the pivotal strategic advice of how to run a campaign, not as a single provincial fight but as a series of local battles centred on each constituency. His election gave vent to sentiments about “fresh breezes of change” and a “euphoria of newness in the air.”
Lougheed always saw himself as being Canadian before being Albertan. This might surprise many Canadians outside Alberta, but it was firmly rooted in his strong belief in what historians call the “compact theory” of Confederation. For Lougheed, the provinces were primary and the conflicts with Ottawa were part of a delicate, even dangerous, balancing act in which the responsibility of a premier was to defend the interests of his or her province as laid out in the constitution. Since the federal government took the opposite view – that the interests of the nation were paramount – there was bound to be conflict. But, even during the oil wars, Lougheed never saw those differences as being cause for doubting the federation. Rather, it was a “dynamic” in which the country had to remake itself from time to time.
At the very top of Peter Lougheed’s agenda was what he called “province-building”; that is, preparing for the day when Alberta’s resource base would inevitably decline. In order to achieve this province-building, Lougheed was determined to reconcile his devotion to free enterprise, which he shared with his conservative colleagues, with his conviction that government had the responsibility to steer economic and social development, a view not shared on the conservative right.
For Lougheed, the financial boom was not just about “fair value” to the owners of the resource, the people of Alberta, but was necessary to pay for his activist agenda. On the first day of his regime he announced plans for three new wilderness areas, subsidies for seniors and homes for disabled children. Further plans were outlined before the end of 1972, with the government proposing building a network of rural airports and offering millions of dollars in grants to homeowners. Then, after 1974, there was aid for mass transit and $100 million for oil sands development, rural electrification, cities, schools, the disabled and seniors.
Lougheed succeeded in bringing Alberta’s voice to the national stage and in uniting Albertans of all walks of life under his regime. He also had a profound influence on other provinces, especially Saskatchewan and British Columbia, which had experienced similar economic growth during these years. Together with his Western allies Allan Blakeney, Edward Schreyer and Sterling Lyon, Lougheed achieved a serious realignment of the Confederation.
One of the least remembered aspects of the Lougheed years was a cultural efflorescence. “Culture in Alberta has always been confused with sport and spectacle,” wrote Aritha van Herk. Indeed it seems that sports best mirrored the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s, with Grey Cups, Stanley Cups and the Commonwealth Games in 1978.
Nevertheless the Lougheed government took “high culture” seriously as well. In 1971 the new Conservative government expanded the role of government in culture when it became the first province (other than Quebec) to create a separate ministry of culture. One of the department’s components was the Literary Arts Branch, which encouraged writers to find markets for their work. The signs of a cultural explosion were everywhere. During what Fil Fraser has dubbed the province’s “Camelot Years” in the 1970s, there were thriving communities of artists, sculptors, dancers, writers and singers.
It was one of these cultural initiatives that brought me to Edmonton in 1980. Nationalist publisher Mel Hurtig, who had failed to interest the federal government in funding research for a Canadian encyclopedia, approached Peter Lougheed. Lougheed was never one to be cowed or even annoyed with his opponents and Hurtig’s opposing views on matters such as foreign ownership did not prevent the premier from helping to fund a Canadian encyclopedia, providing Hurtig with $3.5 million for research from the province’s seventy-fifth anniversary fund. It would be Alberta’s gift to the nation and a free set was given to every school and library in the country.
Lougheed considered the encyclopedia one of his lasting accomplishments. When he went to Ottawa on Canada Day of 1985 to present Prime Minister Mulroney and Governor General Jeanne Sauvé with copies, he invited me to go with him. He was the most impressive man I had ever met, engaging people as we walked the streets of Ottawa with the direct question “Where are you from?”, firmly instructing his staff about the importance of education, moving swiftly along the streets with an athletic zeal. Brian Mulroney summoned him for political advice as he took a shower in the PMO. As we sat on the lawn at Rideau Hall for dinner, the waiters served us all a beef dinner, but forgot him. No-one could summon the servants and Peter blithely told Madame Sauvé not to worry, as they were probably embarrassed to bring Ontario beef to an Albertan. (Monsieur Sauvé retrieved the plate.)
Peter told me that his one regret as premier was that he had not done more to aid the teaching of Canadian history in the schools. Once The Canadian Encyclopedia moved to the Historica Foundation, he agreed to sit on the board and to act as head of our Council, which met once a year to engage a teaching community in history and to explore the ways in which Canadians could be made more aware. He brought the same energy and belief to this role and gave generously of his time. When I was asked by the University of Alberta Press to write the history of the Lougheed years for the Centennial history of the province, I was privileged to speak to him many times, and I sensed it then, as I do even now, that I was in the presence of a great Canadian—one of few who have left their mark and inspiration—not only because of his gifts, but because of his belief that governance is about community, balance and the common good.
James Marsh is Editor in Chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia, a resource of the Historica-Dominion Institute, and author of “Alberta’s Quiet Revolution: the Early Lougheed Years.”