A public memorial service will be held today in Calgary for Peter Lougheed, the former premier of Alberta, who died last week at age 84. B.C. residents should take a moment to bow their heads in respect for the man who stood up proud not just for Alberta but for all of Western Canada.
Lougheed rose to power in 1971, permanently kicking the old-time-religion Social Credit government to the curb and creating a Conservative Party dynasty in Alberta that exists to this day. He served as premier for 14 years and when he retired in 1985, Canada was a more sophisticated place, thanks largely to the tenacious lawyer and former Edmonton Eskimos football player.
Lougheed was to Western Canada what Rene Levesque was to Quebec during those uncertain days in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the fate of the entire country was in question. Like Levesque, Lougheed stood up to then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in Lougheed's case, it was over provincial oil and gas revenues and the National Energy Program. Unlike Levesque, however, Lougheed was a proud Canadian and eventually cut a deal to share energy revenues in 1982.
Unlike their federal counterparts, Alberta Conservatives are still formally known as Progressive Conservatives and Lougheed embraced both of those seemingly opposed notions into a coherent political stance. Lougheed was a fiscal and social conservative who also believed in well-financed government services for all residents that was paid for with a tax structure that demanded rich citizens and companies pay their fair share. Although he encouraged development of Alberta's vast oil reserves, including the tar sands near Fort McMurray, he was not a popular man in the provincial energy sector, thanks to the hefty tax rates he set for oil companies and their executives.
He used those taxes to create the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which continues to benefit Albertans with government revenues to this day.
Lougheed invested heavily in infrastructure during his tenure, modernizing Alberta's highways, hospitals, schools and universities. He could easily have stayed on as premier much longer (in his last election in 1982, his party won 75 of the 79 seats in the legislature) but he bowed out with grace at the top. Although he wasn't the premier for the 1988 Winter Olympics, he was in charge when Calgary won the right to host the games and it was his efforts that made those Olympics the coming-out party to the world for Calgary and for Alberta.
Lesser men with little or no desire for anything beyond personal power succeeded Lougheed (Don Getty, Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach), making Albertans and Canadians long for a real leader in Edmonton.
Lougheed's vision of progressive conservatism fell out of favour and remains out of style, especially in Ottawa. Stephen Harper's brand of conservatism is far more dismissive of social programs and interventionist governments, preferring the cold, hard realities of the market and low taxes across the board. Although Harper long ago weeded out the Lougheed Conservatives from his caucus (so long, Keith Martin), there remain many conservatives across Canada, both in the federal party and in the B.C. Liberals, that continue to believe in Lougheed's compassionate conservatism.
In Alberta, voters flirted with Harper's conservatism in the Wildrose Party earlier this year before giving Alison Redford, an unapologetic old-school Progressive Conservative, a mandate and keeping the PC dynasty alive into its fifth decade.
It's too early to see if Redford is anything more than a shadow of Lougheed but standing up to B.C. Premier Christy Clark over Alberta's share of revenues connected to Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline must have older Albertans wondering if its 1979 all over again.
Both Redford and Harper have much to thank Lougheed for. For Redford, the Lougheed legacy allowed her to hold on to power. For Harper, Lougheed set the table for the rise of Alberta and Western Canada as a political and economic force in Canada. Calgary and Vancouver, not Toronto and Montreal, are now the driving metropolitan forces in Canada.
Lougheed's legacy extends far beyond Alberta's border. He set the standard not just for Alberta premiers but for all premiers. Discriminating voters should ask for more political leaders like Peter Lougheed.