To young people living in Alberta in 1971, Peter Lougheed, who died on Thursday, offered the promise that we were not living in a provincial backwater after all. What is astonishing, even now, is the extent to which he delivered on that promise.
Lougheed was elected that year not on the strength of his charisma, though he had plenty, but because the incumbent Social Credit Premier, Harry Strom, had none. But he quickly set out to fulfill the progressive part of the Progressive Conservative mandate by raising provincial royalties on the booming oil industry. He was the lucky beneficiary of middle east price rigging, but he played his hand to the public good. The results — hospitals and colleges and cultural facilities being flung up nearly as fast as corporate office towers — were a wonder to see.
And Lougheed walked the talk. I remember, as the publicist for a small theatre company in Edmonton, watching him and wife Jeanne arrive unannounced and hand-in-hand at the summer musical we were staging, and lining up to buy their tickets. No comps. No call ahead. Perhaps Jeanne had dragged him there; but he didn’t look like it; he was beaming, as if he was on the campaign trail. I shouldn’t have been so amazed. But I was.
From there, it was all downhill. Lougheed was succeeded by Don Getty, who might as well have been Harry Strom, and lasted just as long. By then, the oil bubble had burst, which gave the province the Not-So-Progressive Conservative Ralph Klein, who let hospitals languish, cut the arts, and was more likely to show up at a homeless shelter and drunkenly throw coins at its residents than to arrive with his wife at a musical.
But for a while — a good, long while — it was an Albertan version of Camelot. Ever to return? Probably not. The tiny Alberta Party is the closest thing going to the PCs of the 1970s — much more so than the PCs themselves — but they lost their only seat in the Legislature in the April election, and while they’re growing, they’re not growing quickly enough.
No, if anyone boots the PCs out of office it’ll be Wildrose. And that’ll be the true end of the big Alberta Peter Lougheed dreamed up. In fact, it’ll pretty much be a return to the days of Social Credit. Perhaps it’s just as well Mr. Lougheed won’t be around to see that.