Adoration of Peter Lougheed moves beyond canonization into deification

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s message at Peter Lougheed’s state funeral. Below: Premier Lougheed with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who haunts us still.

With his state funeral yesterday afternoon, the official adoration of former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed moved beyond canonization into deification.

If other Canadians happened to pause and listen to what was actually being said in Calgary’s 57-year-old Jubilee Auditorium, which was broadcast by the CBC, they could be forgiven for wondering if we Albertans had collectively taken leave of our senses.

I mean no disrespect for Mr. Lougheed with this observation. As has been said here before, he was an undeniably successful politician, far-sighted by the standards of any generation and surprisingly liberal in his economic views from the perspective of the positions held nowadays by his fellow Conservatives.

But Mr. Lougheed was not the father of our country, and his record is as mixed as that of other politicians of his generation. Alberta would have been a great place to live, pretty much as it is today, had someone else become premier in his place in 1971. He most certainly was not born atop a mountain in the Kananaskis Range, which is what it was starting to sound like this afternoon!

Mr. Lougheed’s family is entitled to its heartfelt grief. People who knew him or knew of him and respected him, even if they disagreed with him, are right to honor his memory. And his political allies and beneficiaries of the political dynasty he founded 41 years ago naturally remember him very fondly.

I am not so sure, however, if the occasion of a state funeral – Canadian provinces are indeed entitled to hold such events – is an appropriate venue to try to gain a political edge or revise history, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper most certainly did in his remarks.

And as for suggesting that “every single one of us woke up this morning in Peter Lougheed’s Alberta, it was the Alberta of which he dreamed, and it was the dream he was able to make real,” as Premier Alison Redford did, that seems just a little over the top.

Still, Ms. Redford hit the best note of all the official speakers at the funeral. She was dignified, didn’t try to milk the occasion for too much political advantage, and her assessment of Mr. Lougheed as intelligent, compassionate and honest is certainly fair.

But was he, as broadcaster Rex Murphy said, “the greatest premier this country has ever seen”? Do our soldiers and the rest of us “all stand a little taller because of E. Peter Lougheed,” as former Treasurer and Conservative leadership candidate Jim Dinning intoned in the voice and diction of a beat poet? (Presumably Mr. Dinning had in mind Canada’s soldiers, as, just yet anyway, Alberta doesn’t have an army.)

Oh well, a little hyperbole is permissible on such occasions.

As for Mr. Harper, he can be forgiven his little joke about the supposed benefits of “strong, stable Conservative governments” and his homily to using the wealth we were all endowed with by nature to reward “entrepreneurs and investors.”

But he really ought not to have tried to turn the occasion into a sneaky attack on the legacy of Pierre Elliot Trudeau – who, unnamed, haunts us still, even here – and “the folly of the National Energy Program.”

Is Canada a better country because Mr. Lougheed – an undeniably admirable and determined fighter – won the battle to ensure control of this resource remained in Alberta and to restrict the flow of benefits from it to all Canadians? Was the country “from that point forward … changed for the better”? Are all Canadians, therefore, “fortunate that Peter Lougheed was there,” as Mr. Harper asserted?

All these points of the prime minister’s are highly partisan, intended to perpetrate a certain view of history, and all of them are legitimately debatable – as indeed, is the suggestion the NEP was folly or responsible for the economic circumstances visited upon Alberta in its wake. This is true even though Albertans take in that opinion as if it were fact with their mothers’ milk.

After the funeral ended, the Alberta and Canadian flags were raised to the top of their staffs. The state broadcaster did not play the national song, announce plans for a granite memorial in Redford Square or inform us that driving was permitted again, but none of these things would have seemed entirely out of place.

Just the same, as the flags atop their staffs imply, it’s now time for us to take a deep breath and get back to reality.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

10 Comments on "Adoration of Peter Lougheed moves beyond canonization into deification"

  1. Bruce says:

    Well, I read most of the speech by the PM and it’s crass. Peter Lougheed deserved better. Why am I not surprised?

  2. Lou Arab says:

    I have no problem with the attention paid upon Peter Lougheed. He was an important Albertan by almost any standard, and his dedication to public life deserves our respect and attention.

    I just wish conservative politicians eulogizing him would do more to emulate his positions on the issues of the day, rather than just try and bask in his reflected glow. They only appear weaker for it

  3. rangerkim says:

    I completely agree with your musings David about Mr Lougheed. He was a great man, but after all, just a man. The kind of man we see precious little of on the political stage in this day.
    To wit; His Honor Harper Himself. This man is the walking embodiment of all things crass, small and mean.
    I believe you said this first David, and if you didn’t you should have: If Peter Lougheed was running for office today on the very same platform he is so celebrated for, he would only be able to do so under the NDP banner. Or as an independant. The PC’s would trash him so fast your head would spin.
    To me this is just more evidence that my understanding (and yours David and your supporters) of the nature of political affairs today is accurate; a young Peter Lougheed today would despise Harper and the Alberta PC’s.

    • Alvin Finkel says:

      As a Marxist historian with a focus on labour and social policy, I just shake my head at the willingness of those on the left to join in mindlessly in the celebration without critique of the Lougheed record. Yes, like all premiers of the 1970s of all political stripes, he was more willing to spend money on social programs than premiers of today, especially Tories. But remember that the Canada Health Act of 1984 was necessary because Lougheed, along with a few other right-leaning premiers, allowed physicians to extra-bill patients, and a large percentage of them in Alberta did just that. Lougheed’s labour record was awful. He banned strikes throughout the public service and forbid university professors from turning their mickey-mouse staff associations into real unions. The ILO kept saying that he was violating international labour agreements, and he did not even bother to give them a response. He was responsible for legislation as well that practically destroyed the construction unions in this province. But who cares about public service secretaries, nurses, and pipefitters? A great hero has died, and such nobodies must all shut their traps about how they were treated by him.

      In his management of public monies, Lougheed did a poor job. We all know that Don Getty had pie in his face as billions of dollars of loans to private industries had to be written off as the companies went broke. But check the public records and it’s clear that most of these loans were approved in the Lougheed period. Lougheed looked and sounded like a corporate wizard while Getty looked and sounded like he’d taken too many hits to the head as Eskimo quarterback. He became the fall guy because he was in office when everything turned sour. It was the disappearance of all that money that created the mythology that the cupboard was bare in Alberta and which allowed Klein and Decore to have their enlightening debate about whether we needed brutal cuts or massive cuts to deal with what Kevin Taft later demonstrated conclusively was a purely short-term deficit.

      Lougheed was willing to charge the oil companies higher royalties than they paid under Social Credit or would pay under Lougheed’s successors. He deserves credit for that. And he deserves credit for his enlightened positions on the oil sands in recent years. His genuine and very public sadness when Grant Notley died in a plane crash showed him to be able to rise above party interest at a tragic time. But he was no plaster saint, and his role in the fairly irrational debate on all sides about a National Energy Policy in 1980 put him squarely on the side of American oil interests. It’s fine that at his funeral only good things were said; that’s not the place for truth and deep thinking. But surely in any other forum, including a blog discussion, where people are supposed to use their brains, stuff that makes Lougheed sound like he was a secret NDP premier need to be countered. Comparisons with Harper are not completely misplaced but they do miss the historical differences between two eras: that of the post-war welfare state consensus (meant to prevent a working class angry about the Depression from overthrowing capitalism) and that of the neo-liberal period. In every country, all the principal parties have moved to the right, with social democrats and liberals of the 2000s taking the positions of Tories of the 1960s and early 70s, while Tories take the positions that they took in the 1920s. Harper is very similar to almost every other leader of mainstream conservatism in the current Western world, while Lougheed was similar to almost all of his conservative counterparts in the West in the early 1970s (Robert Stanfield, Edward Heath, Charles De Gaulle, and yes, even Richard Nixon).

  4. David Trigueiro says:

    I may misremember, Alvin, but Lougheed was not in office when extra billing was introduced. Indeed, the loans turned to disaster, but that was a result of the oil market crash and severely depressed provincial economy. Housing prices were so depressed that a number of community leaders in The Properties advocated tearing down empty houses in the neighbourhood. All parties and virtually all Canadians supported government loans to industry. You are right that Alberta labour policies are and always have been industry centred, but public service unions remain strong to this day. Yes, Lougheed was similar to Stanfield and Heath, but to tie him up with De Gaulle and Nixon is a pernicious lie and you should be ashamed.
    As for you, Dave, great piece as usual. It achieved exactly the right balance of perspective and respect. I would have pointed out that Harper is Canada’s Nixon, but that is probably better saved for another piece.

    • Alvin Finkel says:

      You are incorrect on when extra billing was introduced, David. It happened in the early 80s and stopped with the Canada Health Act in 1984. Lougheed was premier, and personally defended extra-billing. The point about the loans is that they were socialism for the rich–if they resulted in success, they would garner profits for their recipients; if they resulted in failure, all of us had to pay. All parties did not support such loans, most of which, in all provinces, had the same result (see Phil Mathias, Forced Growth). The Saskatchewan NDP governments of the Lougheed period followed a policy of public investment to support a more diverse economy as opposed to loans to developers of mega-projects.
      To be compared to Charles de Gaulle is no insult. He was the leader of the anti-fascists in France after the Nazi invasion of that country. He introduced a variety of social policies and opposed American imperialism in Vietnam. Though he behaved a touch thuggishly during the workers’ and students’ uprising in France in 1968, he agreed to a social compromise, including early and generous pensions, to which the just-defeated right-wing government in France made cuts. Compared to Charles de Gaulle, our Peter Lougheed was not very liberal at all, though obviously de Gaulle operated in a political theatre where the left was much more important than in Alberta or Canada of that period.

      As for Nixon, though he was a vile man of dubious ethics, he was hardly a Tea Party man or George Bush. He followed Keynesian economic policies and he made a valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful effort to introduce a Guaranteed Annual Income program in Congress. While he mouthed off against student radicals, he did quietly take the United States out of Vietnam. There is nothing “pernicious” about comparing the achievements of a centrer-right premier of Alberta with Tricky Dicky of Yorba Linda, unless you want to define Nixon solely through Watergate, which misses the point about welfare-state liberalism, which Nixon, unlike Ronald Reagan, did not oppose. I’d love to see your comparison of Nixon and Harper, David. I suspect that it will be on the level of personalities as opposed to fundamental policies.

  5. Lars says:

    I would have pointed out that Harper is Canada’s Nixon, but that is probably better saved for another piece.

    Well, we’ll have to wait, I guess, but you could have said this a few more times.

  6. david says:

    My own view is that Richard Milhous Nixon, despite some fairly unappealing personal qualities, notably among them an excess of self-pity, was a far better president than he has been given credit for being since the Watergate scandal, affair, coup or whatever it was. Mr. Nixon was easy to caricature – that nose! – and he reminded a lot of people of a not particularly successful used car salesman (would you buy a used car from this man?) and he was looked down upon as a little too proletarian (that good Republican cloth coat of his wife’s) by the American gentry. But as Dr. Finkel has pointed out, notwithstanding his use of the odious race-based “Southern Strategy,” Mr. Nixon was very progressive by the standards of modern conservatives on such issues as health care, labour and opening the American door to China. This makes him an unsuitable comparison for Mr. Harper, although the idea that our sour prime minister mirrors the crazy policies of Ronald Reagan and the personality of Richard Nixon may have legs. That said, if I were to seek an American presidential comparison for Mr. Harper, I would say he is more like a combination of Calvin Coolidge on the economy (although it was Herbert Hoover who got to wear the blame for the catastrophe) and James Buchanan on the national unity file. Which means, if we have the misfortune to see Mr. Harper stick around, we may require a combination of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to save our country! God help us!

  7. Lars says:

    Actually, yes, both Alvin and David are right in that Nixon is an inappropriate forerunner for Harper – in addition to all of the incongruities that they’ve already listed, there was Nixon’s role in bringing the US Environmental Protection Act into being. Neocons such as Harper would find this unfathomable.

    It was frequently said about the Bush regime, by older sorts, that they’d never have thought that anything could make them nostalgic for the Nixon years. I suspect that palaeoTories such as Lougheed in general can’t help but look good in comparison to their heirs, and I think that it might be worthwhile referring to the older generation of conservatives as “True” or “Real” Tories, carefully distinguishing them from their degenerate descendants.

    Incidentally this – “every single one of us woke up this morning in Peter Lougheed’s Alberta – really isn’t true. It’s still Ralph’s World, and we’re still stuck in it. If I was really feeling mean-minded, I’d synonymize Ralph’s World with Peter Lougheed’s Alberta – Alvin makes the point that the one set the stage for the other.

  8. david says:

    Lars’s comment reminded me of something I wrote in this space back in June 2010 that is still relevant to this debate: http://bit.ly/OkWo9q

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