Peter Lougheed: back to the future
When word arrived that Canada lost Peter Lougheed, I passed the news on to my son (someone who allegedly did well in school), and he asked why that name seemed so familiar.
The past is, so they say, a foreign country.
It's remarkable to recall that in April 1971, when Peter Lougheed was elected Premier of Alberta, just over a million and a half people lived there. That's almost a million fewer than the population of Metro Vancouver today. It's sobering now to realize how few people alive today were there and remember it.
And one of them is me.
The writer James Salter once put it, "Sometimes you are aware when your great moments are happening, and sometimes they rise from the past. Perhaps it's the same with people."
Certainly, the same can be said of places. Alberta saw its moment arrive, and seized it with both hands.
As a small-town teenager my Saturdays were punctuated by walks up our dusty main street to the confectionery store for a Coca Cola, a browse through the magazine racks at the drugstore, and a stopover at Marge's Cafe for some french fries and gossip. All of us young girls drifted aimlessly up and down that street every Saturday, keeping our eye on the one intersection leading into town by the railway station, hoping some breeze would toss some new boy in -- maybe even one with his own car.
And one day that breeze whipped up into a wind, as revolutionary as it was inevitable, and dropped the future right into our laps.
The young know when change is coming, it's in their blood to feel it. But looking back, who could have failed to see it coming?
Even with only two television channels, we still managed to see the news. We saw Trudeaumania, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Laugh-In. Birth control pills. Our town was too small for a movie theatre, but someone got their hands on a print of To Sir, With Love, featuring the devastatingly handsome Sidney Poitier, and showed it in the local town hall. The whole town traipsed out to watch it and we all imagined we were part of the civil rights movement, notwithstanding that the local newspaper still featured stories denying the Holocaust.
You cannot imagine the heady power of those years, when every day brought some new thrill or drama. Not just a new gadget, but something that really changed our lives, and for the better.
You laugh. Pantyhose in wintertime when schoolgirls were required to wear dresses until the temperature hit -24 Celsius is nothing to sneeze at. Anyone who thinks stockings and garters are hot never walked to school on the bald prairie in the dead of winter in them.
Rotary dial telephones, OMG! I remember the night our whole town sat up 'til midnight waiting for our new dial phones to be connected, and then we all phoned each other.
These were years when the baby-boomers were all young and in love with a future we could only guess at. And all of Alberta felt it and passionately wanted to be part of that story, too.
There was no point in being nostalgic for the past--we were living it. This was a province that still had farms without running water or electricity. We wanted new everything!
You couldn't even say the word 'liberal' in Alberta then, but you could sure elect one if he called himself a Progressive Conservative.
And that is exactly what the young Harvard-educated Peter Lougheed did and was, and everybody in the province understood this implicitly and voted for him anyway. In electing Lougheed in a landslide, Alberta broke from a past of rural inward-faced conservatism, and boldly stepped into a future of development, prosperity, and an activist government asserting a forceful place within Confederation.
As Lougheed said of his early team: "We wanted to be the leaders in Canada, in whatever was happening..."
And they were.
Almost immediately upon being elected, Lougheed protected three new wilderness areas, brought in subsidies for seniors, and enacted a provincial Bill of Rights that pre-dated the Canadian Charter of Rights by more than a decade. He brought in a rural electrification program. In response to widely publicized cases involving serious hardship for divorced women, particularly family farmers, he introduced landmark reforms protecting their matrimonial property.
Then he introduced the first separate ministry of culture outside the province of Quebec, for the express purpose of promoting arts and culture, and later funded the Canadian Encyclopedia.