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Who do Albertans think they are?

Who do Albertans think they are?

The results of last week’s Alberta municipal elections challenged conventional notions of the province as a “wild west” dominated by white, conservative, Christian men.

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The results of last week’s Alberta municipal elections challenged conventional notions of the province as a ‘wild west’ dominated by white, conservative, Christian men. According to political scientist Jared Wesley, it’s time to redefine common preconceptions of what it means to ‘be Albertan.’ (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Jared Wesley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Election outcomes are often used to gauge the mood of a community. Last week’s provincewide municipal elections in Alberta were no different. 

Headlines emerging from the Oct. 18 vote were reminiscent of Naheed Nenshi’s election as Canada’s first Muslim mayor, Alison Redford’s victory as the first woman to become premier, and the rise of Rachel Notley’s NDP

All of these events challenged conventional notions of Alberta as a “wild west” province dominated by white, conservative, Christian men.

These traditional images are incongruent with the widespread victories by progressive and women candidates in the 2021 municipal elections in general, and the election of first-generation Punjabi immigrants to the mayor’s chair in Alberta’s two largest cities in particular.  

For the first time ever, Calgary’s mayor and two-thirds of Edmonton’s new City Council are women. Medicine Hat elected its first woman mayor, and she’s joined by women occupying more than half of the seats on city council. Edmonton’s most conservative mayoral candidate and the six candidates he endorsed all went down to defeat on election night. So, too, did Calgary’s top right-wing mayoral candidate.  

What do these recent events and others tell us about Alberta’s political culture — those unspoken assumptions and values that remain buried below the surface of political life in the province? Are the days of Alberta’s wild west cowboy culture behind us?  

Cowboy mentality

The short answer is no, or at least not yet. Our collective culture remains fixed in a cowboy mentality that dates back generations before many of us settled this province. But our political orientations as individuals are increasingly out of step with that image. This disjunction creates a political identity crisis, of sorts — one that has become clearer, if not been exacerbated, by other crises we’ve encountered in recent years.

Over the course of the pandemic, our Common Ground research team has engaged thousands of Albertans, learning about their backgrounds, political perspectives, and struggles. Through our surveys and focus groups one thing has become abundantly clear — the province appears poised for a major political shift. Yet the cowboy myth remains firmly embedded in the minds of Albertans from all walks of life and all parts of the political spectrum. So the political culture remains fixed in its wild west origins.

According to our research, a gulf has emerged between how Albertans describe the dominant forms of politics in the province, and how they feel about politics on a personal level.  

When asked which values animate provincial politics, most Albertans continue to describe the dominance of wild west notions, like populism, western alienation, settler colonialism, frontier masculinity, bootstrap individualism, and the primacy of prosperity doctrine (hard work produces wealth). 

This becomes clearest when we ask our focus group participants to draw an Albertan who has the most influence over politics in this province. The resulting caricatures most often depict roughnecks, cowboys and farmers. In short, Albertans’ perception of the typical Albertan remains static, gendered, racialized, and rooted in a “wild west” past.  

The election of new mayors Jyoti Gondek, left, in Calgary, and Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton might seem incongruent with the traditional image of Alberta. But according to political scientist Jared Wesley, their victories reflect a tipping point when conventional ways of approaching problems fall out of step with the way the public wants to see them handled. (Barbara Blakey, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

When asked about their own political preferences, however, the average Albertan is far less conservative than this image portrays. 

Albertans tend to be centrist, even progressive, when it comes to social issues like health care and inclusion. And socio-demographically, the province has shifted even further away from this “cowboy” myth, becoming one of Canada’s most urbanized and ethnically diverse provinces

This gap between myth and reality creates tension when conventional ways of approaching problems fall out of step with the way the public wants to see them handled. Dramatic shocks, like the decline of the oil and gas economy, climate change, and the global pandemic, throw these anomalies into sharp relief, sparking cultural change.

During normal times, the bounds of political acceptability are well-defined. They are conducive to the success of leaders who espouse a particular set of values or ideology. Historically, this has meant conservatives are successful in Alberta. At the same time, political cultures define who is unfit for leadership and identify the issues that remain outside the mainstream. This common perception of in-groups and out-groups contributes to political stability as well as marginalization.

Period of flux

The political equilibrium persists until “common sense” is unable to answer a growing number of existential questions. Popular opinion veers away from conventional wisdom. During this period of flux, out-groups openly challenge the prominence of in-groups, new priorities and ideas are placed on the political agenda for open debate, and polarization often ensues.  

This struggle is resolved when either the old political culture adapts to answer those questions, or a new culture emerges to supplant it.  

Alberta may have reached such a tipping point. Indeed, we may have been at this critical juncture for quite some time without even knowing it.

For years, people who don’t look like cowboys have lamented the wild west character of Alberta politics. They complain that Alberta society doesn’t reflect who they are as individuals or communities. In reality, that wild west image is as embedded in their own minds as it is in the minds of dominant forces in the province. It holds non-cowboys back from thinking or acting in ways that seem socially unacceptable or politically correct according to these long-held norms.

Our research shows that those people are far more numerous than they assume.

Shaking perceptions

In other words, Albertans are not who they think they are. They haven’t been for quite some time. The wild west mystique lives on as a largely imagined community for the majority of Albertans. While most have never ridden a horse or worn a ten-gallon hat, outside the occasional trip to the Calgary Stampede, they have internalized the cowboy myth.

This “common sense” puts familiar boundaries around what is acceptable thought and action in Alberta politics. Tradition is comfortable, particularly for those in privileged positions. When power shifts to those outside the established elite, it shakes our perception of what’s normal and possible. 

Moments like the 2021 municipal elections offer important times to reflect on, and perhaps challenge, these assumptions  for more Albertans to see themselves as part of the “mainstream” and to redefine common preconceptions of what it means to “be Albertan.”

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Who do Albertans think they are?