My Talk to Parkland Institute on its 20th Anniversary Celebration (November 19, 2016)
by Gordon Laxer
It’s good to be back in Alberta, and under an NDP government and at the Parkland conference. It feels like home.
I grew up in Ontario and lived in Alberta for 30 years. My timing has been a little off. I left Ontario in 1982 after having lived for 38 continuous years under provincial Conservative Party rule, only to land in Alberta and give myself another 30 years for a total of 68 continuous years under provincial Conservative governments. It’s a Canadian record, I’m proud to wear.
A pattern emerged. Three years before I leave a province with a Conservative dynasty, it falls. Is it cause and effect? The Ontario PCs were defeated in 1985. The same happened in Alberta. Three years after I left Alberta in 2012, the Alberta PC dynasty fell to the NDP’s Rachel Notley, a former student of mine.
Before last year’s federal election I told , the Toronto author and journalist of the pattern. Linda was then a federal NDP candidate in Toronto. Without hesitation, Linda demanded that I .
I missed living in Alberta under the NDP government, though I did return May 5th 2015 to help get out the vote in my old neighbourhood - Lendrum and to share in the rapturous election victory rally at the Westin hotel. I hugged everyone I knew and some I didn’t. Everyone was doing it. It was that kind of night.
Parkland had its origins in 1995-6 with Paul Martin’s austerity budget that ushered Canada into laissez-faire, don’t care neo-liberalism. Federal support for higher education, health care and welfare was slashed. That seismic shift worked in tandem with Ralph Klein’s Conservative government, the first province that gleefully clear cut public services and Canada’s ethos as a caring, sharing society. One-way bus tickets given to welfare recipients to go to BC epitomized the mood.
It’s hard to remember the palpable fear in the Alberta of 1995-6. That fear and the lack of public resistance were the soil in which Parkland Institute sprouted. Someone had to stand up to the falsehoods and through research and advocacy show how destructive the Conservative government policies were. That there were better ways. Our aim was to change Alberta’s political culture. And we helped do it.
In 1996, people were afraid to speak up. They feared losing their job if they worked in the public sector and reprisal and popular anger if they voiced doubt. King Ralph Klein seemed to be wildly popular as he decimated public services, blew up a hospital in Calgary and made up stories about a “debt wall” that was about to wash over Alberta. Political opposition was absent. The 16-member NDP caucus had been wiped out in the 1993 election. Laurence Decore’s Liberals, with their debt clock, tried to out Reform Party the PCs.
We started Parkland to counter the tenacious grip of the wrong-headed ideology and power of Big Oil. Working at and with Parkland people never felt like a job. I always felt that staff, board members and volunteers were part of a movement - united in purpose, not divided by hierarchy and rank.
Parkland gave my life much meaning, occasional terror and often excitement. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to hang around with and share in common cause our goal to transform Alberta, Canada and the world to social justice for all and protect nature.
It was a great honour and privilege to be Parkland Director for 15 years.
I’d like to bring you back to the early triumphant, chaotic days when Parkland began – in 1996-7 – with much enthusiasm, intelligence and support, but little structure and no money.
Parkland started out of the gate very fast. Our first press conference, on Jan 30, 1997, was Parkland’s coming out party. It introduced our first book – Kevin Taft’s searing and brilliant book . Kevin and I were obscure figures then. There were four stories in the Edmonton Journal the next day. But Ralph Klein’s comments really sent the book and Parkland over the top. “Don’t read that book, the author is a communist”, the premier intoned. He hadn’t had the chance to read it. A few days later I got a nice letter from Mr. Klein thanking me for the kindness in sending him a copy. I framed that letter.
By then the Globe and Mail had a story on page A 4 ridiculing Klein for the communist smear. CBC television news followed up with a 90-second, national story on Kevin Taft’s Shredding book and Parkland Institute. Sales took off. Thirteen thousand copies were sold in six weeks in Alberta, the last four weeks during the 1997 provincial election. Must be a record for a political book on Alberta.
Dave King, Peter Lougheed’s former Minister of Education told me then that the book turned the provincial election in Edmonton [where Conservatives were shut out]. If had had another month – it would have turned the province, he said. Meanwhile, Premier Klein corrected his remarks about the author being a communist. No he isn’t, but his publisher is. Did he mean s Parkland Institute or me?
It was all frantic effort with no back up. After an initial rush of donations, we had no money. Parkland had all the downsides of a small business. We could go into debt and be closed down, but could never turn a profit. That’s not what we were about. ‘People and nature over profits’ were Parkland touchstones.
We were three months behind in paying Trevor Harrison, our first – in essence - Executive Director. He and Terri had a young family to support. I was lay awake nights worrying. In the end, Parkland paid Trevor and never delayed paying staff since.
The episode might have been traumatic for Trevor, but it didn’t deter him from coming back for more punishment - as my successor as Parkland’s Director - commuting to Edmonton from far off Lethbridge.
Why does Trevor do it? He gets no pay and is diverted from doing other things. He does it for the same reason all of us who have worked with and for Parkland, have.
There are plenty of injustices going on right here in river city, Alberta and Canada. We were and are prepared to put our intelligence, work and passion into shedding light on them. We believe in the power of informed citizens and assume that if they get the information, analysis and perspectives, many will come to the right, or is that the left conclusions.
That’s why Parkland focuses on making its reports public, rather than mainly meeting with government officials behind closed doors, as other think tanks do.
For the first two or three years, I felt I had to push as hard as I could everyday or Parkland would collapse. I told Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Parkland’s Executive Director in our second to fourth years, to think of Parkland as a bicycle. Continually peddle forward or it will fall over.
Parkland is no longer a bicycle. I’ve stopped pedalling and it cruises along so well without me. It’s felt good to turn Parkland over to incredibly talented and hard working people and volunteers.
Another story. During Parkland’s 1999 Conference: ‘Poverty amidst Plenty’, a phrase we resurrected from Bible Bill Aberhart, Bill Moore-Kilgannon rushed into a supper the speakers and organizers were having after a full day of conferencing. “You won’t believe the fax we just received from the Premier”, he exclaimed. The letter was addressed to the University of Alberta President not Parkland. But the president was our ultimate boss, because Parkland is part of the U of A.
The first paragraph in Klein’s letter stated:
“I am dismayed to see yet another one-sided and ideologically biased attack on the generosity of Albertans by the factually challenged Parkland Institute and its apparent campaign to undermine the good work of the people of this province”. The rant continued in a similar vein for 2.5 more pages. It had to have been prepared in advance.
What provoked Premier Klein so? Armine Yalnizyan, keynote speaker to Parkland’s conference, had reported a conversation she had had with representatives of the poor in Calgary. They told her Albertans didn’t much care about their plight. Premier Klein took great offence at such remarks from a Torontonian. [Probably would have been okay if she was Texan.] We later learned that Klein had gone on a commercial radio show that day and did a 30-minute hissy fit against Parkland.
My wife Judith feared I’d be fired. Did the Conservative government believe in academic freedom? We never found out because the University and public rallied to Parkland’s side. Nothing further came of it, except a higher profile and respect for Parkland.
Story #2. I was a guest on CBC radio’s ‘Wild Rose Forum’ when Parkland started. The media usually billed Parkland as left leaning. But the CBC simply said: “Toronto has its CD Howe Institute, Vancouver its Fraser Institute, now Alberta has its very own Parkland Institute”, the host crooned. The topic for the phone-in show: “Have corporate-funded institutes had too much influence on government policy?” When you’re lobbed a soft ball, it’s easy to hit a home run.
Parkland Institute does more than research. We take conferences, programming, and nurturing the next generation of progressive activists seriously. My philosophy has always been to include many diverse perspectives and political orientations. Respect for that broad array is what makes Parkland so effective. I have always believed that the progressive movement and the left are too small in Alberta, to allow sectarianism to divide us. I believe in inviting in the best and most passionate people from diverse perspectives and let them debate. May the best ideas win.
When we go head to head with the promoters of the undeservedly wealthy & powerful Big oil, they call us pessimists.
Wrong, far from it. We are the optimists, not them. The world is at the brink of peak demand for oil, but nowhere near peak equality, social justice, and real-democracy, the kind that comes ‘from below’ when active citizens have the real power. We are nowhere near peak living in tune with nature, indigenizing Canadian culture, nor in getting happiness from what matters most. Once everyone’s sufficient needs are met, most of us get more satisfaction from useful work well done, and valuing each other and nature than from amassing more stuff. I believe we can develop that kind of society. That’s why I’m an optimist.
What’s ahead for Parkland? Getting a progressive government in Alberta has not put Parkland out of business. Its work isn’t finished. The Conservatives were defeated but remain in the wings. The Wildrose Alliance wants power. There is no shortage of wrong-headed policies to analyze.
There is an even greater need for activists and Parkland to critique and push now that the NDP is in office. This is not the time to go silent and let the government do it or defend it whenever it gets too cozy with Big Oil and doesn’t do enough to protect the climate, indigenous rights, the environment and social justice. Corporations and the political right are pushing the Notley government hard. If the NDP is not pushed as hard or harder from the left, it will move part way to the right, and lose much of its reason for being. Lots of research needs to be done to puncture untruths that are being spouted and ensure that the government charts a progressive course.
We live in an era where left and left of centre parties are being abandoned by their working and middle class bases because they ignore those left behind and compromise too much with the corporate and neoliberal agenda. The cry of “we need a second term above all else” does not resonate with voters. Why do you need a second term? To achieve what ends?
Activists and the young are rejecting corporate compromisers and political operatives of so-called left parties. They are turning in great numbers to the vision and leadership of people like Bernie Sanders, and the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. They lead large movements to restore greater equality, bring power to the people, support indigenous rights, oppose racism, misogyny, war and human rights abuses and protect nature and the climate.
I moved to Ontario, but left a large part of my heart here. I continue to work with you on issues dear to Albertans. I always attend Parkland’s fall conferences. We will fight many more battles together, and will win some.
Best wishes for a great future. Long live Parkland Institute!