Pierre Berton wrote about Canada’s “Last Good Year” being 1967, marked by our centennial, a world Expo, a booming economy and growing international confidence. But in 1967, Alberta was still a bit of a backwater, a bit folksy and naïve, still requiring men and women be separated in beverage rooms (no joke). Alberta’s own Last Good Year didn’t come until 1980, at arguably the zenith of Premier Peter Lougheed’s political career.

In the spring of 1980, Alberta was still warm in the glow of hosting the 1978 Commonwealth Games. We now had two NHL hockey teams, and we were on the verge of being awarded the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. The unemployment rate hovered around 3.5 percent. Lougheed was only a year into his third massive majority mandate, holding 74 of the 79 seats in the province.

So much has been said and written about him that it’s difficult to say much more. But Lougheed did what no Alberta premier had done before: serve notice to the rest of the country that Alberta had arrived. By 1980, he had built the province into a political and economic contender that the rest of Canada was forced to take seriously.

Also in the fall of 1980, the federal government introduced the National Energy Program (NEP). Lougheed was at the helm in Alberta, and while the battle against Pierre Trudeau over control of Alberta’s energy resources was indeed fierce, it wasn’t hateful. It wasn’t a battle to pull Alberta out of Confederation, but rather to pull Alberta into a more respected part of the Canadian family. It wasn’t about firewalls to keep others out, but rather to tear down walls of disrespect between Ottawa and Alberta. You can’t command respect from others if you don’t respect yourself, and that’s what Lougheed gave Alberta in 1980: self respect.

After our Last Good Year, things grew difficult in Alberta. By March 1983 the unemployment rate hit 12.7 percent, and people left in droves. The NEP, the subsequent collapse of world energy prices, crippling interest rates and double-digit inflation crushed our economy. Other Tory premiers over the next 30 years had their own challenges and victories. Ottawa became the de facto opposition, and every time a government needed a boost to its popularity, it could turn to Ottawa for a whipping boy. The atmosphere became so poisonous that in 1982 Albertans actually elected a separatist to the provincial legislature (in a by-election). By the late 1990s, talk of “firewalls” around the province became fashionable.

Lougheed would never have spoken of such firewalls. He envisioned a strong Alberta within a strong, united Canada. Building walls around the province to keep out the Ottawa bogey man may be good politics, but Lougheed’s vision for the province was stronger and more mature than that.

Of course, Alberta has had many years over the last three decades that could be described as decent — some even great. Economically, the province clawed its way into the 1990s, and by the early 2000s it was the powerhouse of the country. It became debt free in 2005, our centennial year as a province. Our population has outpaced most every other province, and in 2012 we are a multicultural, tolerant and culturally minded province. Don’t believe stereotypes to the contrary.

But nothing in Alberta has been the same since 1980, our Last Good Year. We were like a child in those glowing prepubescent years — gaining confidence, dreaming extravagantly and learning the world is a big place. Then puberty hits and everything changes forever. The body grows awkward and gangly. Dreams come crashing down. Great years still lie ahead, but they’re hard to imagine. When a teen is in the throes of puberty, everything is crisis and high drama.

Lougheed got Alberta through puberty and on to the path of maturity as a province. It hasn’t been easy through many of those teen years, but now we’re reaching adulthood. Our relationship with Ottawa is still sometimes tense, but less so than before. Our economy is strong, but we know how quickly it can all come crashing down.

Thank you, Mr. Lougheed. You gave Alberta self-respect in 1980, our “Last Good Year.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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

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