By Trevor Busch
From the outside looking in, provincial elections are always a bizarre spectacle in Alberta. Those outside the province’s boundaries are usually baffled by an electorate that seems to be petrified of any change that might bring even moderately socialist ideas into their ridgedly conservative midst, dangerous ideas that are alleged to be the opening act for everything from corrupting family values to the thousand-year reign of Satan upon the earth.
Putting aside the role of Marx and Engels as the twin anti-Christs of rightist theology, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t still the 1950s where evil Communist agitators are hiding in every dark alley, readying their dastardly campaign for the overthow of everything right and pure. In fact, even a cursory examination of the history of Canada in the 20th century proves that the Communists, while active and popular in some areas during the 1930s, never really presented a significant threat to the power and institutions of established order.
That fact, however, never stopped leaders and parties from demonizing the socialist left at almost every step throughout what Sir Wilfred Laurier called “Canada’s century”. Even CCF luminaries such as J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas — men whose character was even acknowledged by their most bitter adversaries as being beyond reproach — were often dogged by undercover RCMP surveillance, and there were once suspected to be so many undercover agents as dues-paying members of the Communist Party of Canada during the Depression that true communists joked that the party received far more funding from Ottawa than it ever did from Moscow.
And all this at a time when extreme right wing anti-Semitic fascist movements in Canada were flourishing, such as the Canadian Union of Fascists in English-speaking Canada, and the Christian National Socialist Party under Adrien Arcand in Quebec. While the threat posed by fascist movements had become glaringly self-evident by the mid-1930s, and would lead the world into war in 1939, fascist movements in Canada were never subjected to the level of scrutiny, harassment and persecution that was heaped on socialists during that terrible decade of want and privation.
Notable examples of this prejudice at the highest levels of government in Canada abound during the 1930s. Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, a rabid anti-socialist, directed the RCMP to surveil and harass suspected communists and their leaders at every step, instigated police crackdowns on homeless and destitute unemployed protesting in Vancouver, beat down striking miners in the coal fields of Estevan, Sask. in 1931, where several miners were gunned down during a protest by the RCMP, their graves in that community today still bearing the epitaph “Murdered by the RCMP”. Bennett was also directly responsible for the Regina Riot in 1935, in which the peaceful On-to-Ottawa Trek of unemployed was mercilessly crushed by RCMP riot squads on orders from Ottawa, resulting in the deaths of a number of trekkers and millions in property damage.
All of the above examples — and there are many more too numerous to mention here — are clear indications of misplaced fears in Canadian society of a Communist takeover just waiting in the wings. With the rise of the Cold War, these fears, however unfounded, only escalated, much as they did in the United States in this period. Individuals like J. Robert Oppenheimer, instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb, were labeled communists by their own government when they spoke out against the development of the hydrogen bomb. Labeling someone a communist — real or imagined — continued to morph into a convenient approach to discrediting a political opponent, or anyone else for that matter.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War, fear of communism and socialist ideas lost much of their real potential to sow discord in Western democracies. But attitudes are still slow to change, and much of Canadian society grew up in an era where the socialists — even democratic socialists, such as the NDP — were considered by many as evil boogeymen who steal children in the night and corrupt the pure psyches of our pristine youth.
Whatever one’s political stripes, it is difficult to deny the centre-right has been stealing socialist ideas from the left since before the 1960s in Canada, with the implementation of universal health care, employment insurance, and the Canada Pension Plan being notable examples which were re-packaged to make them palatable to the centre conservative right.
Democratic socialism, unlike our neighbours in Saskatchewan, who took to the idea like a duck to water in the 20th century, has never established firm roots in Alberta. In 1935, hundreds of thousands of destitute farmers instead opted for the perplexing conservative theories of Social Credit and the evangelistic demagogue William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, who, in short order, attempted to take control of the provincial banking system and to throttle the provincial media — legislation that was quickly cast down by the federal government. Social Credit would go on to rule the province for the next 36 years, followed by the PCs for another 44, both of which were preceded by the deeply conservative United Farmers of Alberta — which places some form of conservatism at the commanding heights of the province for more than century.
Suffice to say Albertans haven’t exactly been amenable to political change almost since the inception of the province, not just the last 44 years of PC domination. That is a track record virtually unrivaled in Canadian political history. But there are signs all of that may be starting to change.
As the wholly unnecessary 2015 provincial election campaign limps into its final week in Alberta, what was considered by many to be another rubber-stamp majority mandate for the Prentice PCs may turn out to be something quite different. Still suffering from a Stelmach-Redford hangover, the PCs haven’t managed to inject much vitality into their campaign, and have been polling at numbers that are often neck-in-neck with their conservative blood-enemies the Wildrose.
While all of that is relatively hum-drum for an election campaign in Alberta, a surprising surge from the left from Notley’s NDP has been shattering socialist perceptions in the province — all of which could be dangerous for a right-right split of conservative voters between the Wildrose and the PCs, which could potentially allow the NDP to steal a bag full of ridings in our first-past-the-post electoral system. And it is not without precedent in Canada.
Federally, before the unite-the-right movement managed to morph the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance into the present Conservative Party of Canada, successive majority Liberal governments were able to take advantage of a split vote on the right to steal boatloads of ridings across Canada from dumbfounded conservative candidates.
While fears of a socialist take-over are probably unfounded — this is still Alberta, after all — vote splitting can result in some bizarre outcomes in elections. And while this fear may send many running back to the arms of the PCs for another four years, the rising popularity of the NDP could prove to cut into dreams of another majority for Jim Prentice. Minority governments have been proven to be much more effective in Canada than is popularly believed.
It forces governments to work more closely with the opposition, and leaves governments much more accountable to ridings with an opposition representative.
One of the most successful minorities in Canadian history was that of Lester B. Pearson’s Liberals in the 1960s, which managed to achieve much of what it promised to the electorate by working closely with the NDP.
While Alberta is certainly a special case, whatever the outcome on May 5, voters should remember that it is now 2015, not 1935.
Democratic socialist parties have held sway in both our neighbouring provinces, among others, and form the present official opposition in Ottawa — and all the while Alberta hasn’t faced attacks from the Red Army, seen the unfurling of the hammer and sickle in provincial or the national capital, or witnessed the enthusiastic goose-steppings of mindless socialistic hoards ready to undermine the triple Canadian pillars of peace, order, and good government.
Judging by the evidence, that truth isn’t likely to change, no matter what Alberta’s political destiny has in store.
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