Peter Lougheed in 1975
A cerebral law professor takes his progressive ideas into politics and inspires a personality cult that catapults him to the highest office in the land. Encouraged by the heady mixture of popularity and power, he makes an unprecedented move to abuse his authority. It guts the federalism on which his nation was founded—but who can stop him? One man: a brash lawyer who declared the region he led would go on strike before it would submit to unconstitutional bullying.
That isn’t wishful thinking about how Chris Christie might defeat Obamacare if the president is reelected. It really happened—in Canada, of all places. Americans might think their northern neighbor is defined by strong, centralized government. But Canada’s parliamentary monarchy and America’s presidential republic share a crucial element: Their federal systems allow states and provinces to defy centralized control.
Peter Lougheed died September 13 in a Calgary hospital that bears his name. His legacy won’t be forgotten in Alberta, where he was premier from 1971 to 1985. But it should be better appreciated outside the province. It could serve as a model of defiance for any gutsy governor.
Edgar Peter Lougheed, born in Calgary on July 26, 1928, was a rarity in politics: He believed in gaining experience of the world before trying to change it. He started and ended his first career while still an undergraduate at the University of Alberta—the 5′6″ defensive back played professional football with the Edmonton Eskimos for two seasons. A formative experience in the oil industry came, surprisingly, during his brief time outside Alberta. He worked for Gulf Oil one summer in Oklahoma while acquiring a Harvard MBA.
He had always planned yet another career, in politics, but he never aspired to become prime minister. He shrewdly saw that the provinces held the real power. A consummate example of what is known in Canada as a Red Tory, Lougheed became leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party in 1965, before he was even elected a member of the Legislative Assembly—the party, at that time, didn’t have a single seat in the legislature. The Social Credit party had governed for three decades and held 60 of the 63 seats. In 1967, he and five other PCs won election. In 1971, he became Alberta’s premier, ending one dynasty and starting another—the Progressive Conservatives have ruled the province ever since.
Those first half-dozen members were all from Calgary and Edmonton. Lougheed had to win over Alberta’s farmers and oilmen to succeed. Ed Stelmach, premier from 2006 to 2011, remembered after Lougheed died the first time he heard the man speak, in a small-town community center. “He had that audience in his grip. He had total command. The thing is, he could relate to issues in rural Alberta as a Harvard-trained lawyer—he was not looked upon as a stuffed shirt,” Stelmach told the Edmonton Journal “in an interview from his combine.” “He was graceful, but he meant business. I knew he was going to be premier.”
Trudeaumania hit the rest of the country the year after Lougheed was elected, and the stage was set: The two charismatic men would do battle in a hardnosed confrontation that epitomized Confederation itself.
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau responded to the energy crises of the 1970s with the National Energy Program (NEP) in 1980. To an Easterner, it made perfect sense: Why should one side of the country suffer high oil prices while the other reaps record wealth? Trudeau capped domestic prices and mandated a greater share of oil revenues for the federal government. Albertans saw this, rightly, as a redistribution of wealth from Western to Eastern Canada—and a violation of the constitution, which gives jurisdiction over natural resources to the provinces in which they’re found.
State leaders angry with President Obama’s intrusion into health care filed lawsuits. Lougheed didn’t leave his province’s future solely in the hands of judges. Two days after Trudeau released the budget that included the NEP, Lougheed declared war in a televised address: “The Ottawa government has, without negotiation, without agreement, simply walked into our home and occupied the living room.” He announced Alberta would reduce oil production to 85 percent of capacity. Trudeau hadn’t expected such an offense from the former defensive back. After contentious negotiations, he backed down, agreeing to a compromise that eliminated the NEP’s export tax on Alberta oil.
More important than the details of the deal—or its significance to the United States, which gets 15 percent of its oil imports from Alberta—was how the standoff changed the thinking of everyone in a highly regionalized nation. But the story of Peter Lougheed’s defiance of the bald power grab of a politician contemptuous of the people shouldn’t just remind Albertans, or even Canadians, of their rights. It should inspire every citizen of a federal state.
Kelly Jane Torrance, a native of Edmonton, is assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.