You have to go all the way back to 1968 to find a federal Liberal who could get elected in Calgary. And while a handful of Liberals have held seats in Edmonton over the decades since, it’s been a tough slog in Alberta for the political organization that once fancied itself as Canada’s natural governing party. The 1968 benchmark is no accident. That’s the year Pierre Trudeau was first elected prime minister, ushering in an era of politics remembered in the West for regional polarization. Grievances that Albertans hold against Trudeau and the party he led linger like a bad odour, a curse to the Liberal brand and serving, among other things, as the motivation for Stephen Harper’s political drive.

So what to make of the prospects in Alberta for Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son, Justin, who recently announced his candidacy to lead the Liberal Party of Canada? Many commentators were quick to conclude that the Trudeau name — so much of an asset in other parts of the country — is kryptonite in Alberta.

But does the conventional wisdom hold?

Consider this: Only 36 percent of Alberta’s current voting population is old enough to have ever voted in a federal election in which Pierre Trudeau ran for office (his last campaign was in 1980). Put another way, nearly two thirds of Alberta voters are between the ages of 18 and 50, most too young to have had the pleasure of going to the polls to vote against a Trudeau.

Here’s another fact. Nearly 9 percent of Alberta’s population has moved here from another province since 1980. These are people who were not in Alberta during the feverish backlash against Trudeau’s National Energy Program.

Furthermore, since 1980, international migration to the province has totalled about 556,000 people, a group that makes up more than 14 percent of the province’s population, less those who have returned home or moved on to other provinces.

Together, that makes a substantial number of people who have little or no direct experience of life as an Albertan in Pierre Trudeau’s Canada. They are the majority of Albertans, many too young, too oriented toward the rest of the country or too global in outlook to get overly worked up about what a politician named Trudeau did the political equivalent of a gazillion years ago.

It might surprise even Justin Trudeau, but his last name may be less of a liability than commonly believed — particularly in Edmonton and Calgary, where the population is younger and more cosmopolitan. Albertans care dearly about their energy industry, but outsiders should not buy into the redneck stereotypes. This is a province that has most recently elected Alison Redford as premier, Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary and Stephen Mandel as his counterpart in Edmonton, all popular and well-respected moderates on the political spectrum. Albertans are more progressive on social and environmental issues than some Canadians may believe.

That gives Justin Trudeau an opportunity, but only if he recognizes it. To gain support in Alberta, he’ll need to craft smart policies that balance the environmentalist leanings of his party with the business sensibilities of Alberta’s energy sector.

First, he’d get Albertans’ attention if he came out in favour of the Northern Gateway pipeline. It’s a project that is full of political landmines and has bitter opposition, including from many in the federal Liberal ranks. But there are ways to appease opponents: insist the pipeline be rerouted away from the Great Bear rainforest, and require oil producers to set aside a sizeable pool of cash in the event of a spill. Most Albertans would agree that British Columbia should not be responsible for cleaning up spills.

That move could be balanced by calling for a carbon tax. The words are still provocative in Alberta, but the policy could be sold if the tax was borne by the end-users of carbon, not by producers. A consumer-based fuel tax would be a tough sell everywhere in Canada, and would need to get broad buy-in as an environmental necessity. But at least under this approach, and unlike under Stéphane Dion’s dead-on-arrival Green Shift carbon tax, Alberta wouldn’t feel it was being discriminated against.

A Trudeau candidacy will still be a tough sell, especially since the ghost stories live on, repeated by those over 50 who remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when the elder Trudeau stuck it to Alberta. The angry rants on talk radio prop up decade-old stories: how he flipped the bird from the train window while touring the West; how he forced French and the metric system “down our throats”; and how the 1980 National Energy Program devastated Alberta’s fledgling energy economy. This crowd is not ready to forgive and forget.

And some Albertans still carry a personal grudge. Even though you may have been too young to vote, if your dad lost his job and your family lost its house in the 1981 economic collapse in Alberta, you still may connect those misfortunes with the name “Trudeau.”

But this is a different province, demographically and politically. If Justin Trudeau can produce a well-articulated policy platform, he will find Albertans are prepared to give him a hearing. It would be a huge mistake for him to write off Alberta just because of his last name.

Photo: Shutterstock by Aleks_Shutter

Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this