Peter Lougheed, R.I.P.

Colby Cosh on the Lougheed mystique and its legacy
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in October 2002. (Adrian Wyld, CP photo)

Click here to view “Peter Lougheed: a photo gallery.”

The leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives was Peter Lougheed’s for the asking from about 1973 onwards. Bob Stanfield approached him almost immediately after his 1974 election defeat, and Joe Clark, who had started political life as a gopher for Lougheed’s election team, made sure to get his all-clear before launching his own campaign. Later, after Clark’s vote-counting powers failed him at a 1983 leadership review, Lougheed was drafted again. That time, he thought about it a little longer.

He concluded—and notice how little self-delusion the man exhibited, compared to many who came after him—that his lack of French was a dealbreaker. Even a man who had once been well-organized enough to combine professional football with law school was unlikely to be able to remedy that in his fifties.

In truth, he could sincerely see no more satisfying use of his abilities than to be Premier of Alberta. That probably still sounds ridiculous to some. It sounded half-crazy to everybody, when Lougheed was a young man. But his political comrades remember him talking about it when he was still nothing but a bundle of ambition—before he had even decided what the particular vehicle for his political ascendancy was going to be.

Look at our constitution, he would tell them. Who has more power, more specific ability, to guard and improve the welfare of the people—a prime minister, or a premier? Forget which job comes with more glory. Who can do the most good? Very well, a prime minister makes treaties and commands armies. But the premier of a province must decide on the wise use of natural resources; he must set policy for schools, and hospitals, and the care of the aged. One does not sense that Lougheed made this argument out of any particular abundance of saintliness. The less glamorous job just seemed more interesting as a business proposition, more gratifying as a way to pass the time.

This was the Lougheed mystique: that Alberta, which had been led almost continuously since the war by the host of the Back to the Bible Hour, had suddenly found a premier who was anybody’s equal, who could have been and done anything. He came from money; he was always eloquent about the Depression, but for the family of Sir James Lougheed it involved more embarrassment than actual privation. He excelled in his University of Alberta classes and was a star at football—a handsome, blue-eyed star, mind you. He became Student Union president; he edited the sports section of the university paper. He went to Harvard for his MBA, and fit right in with the future elite of global business. (He would make time for his class’s 25th-anniversary reunion in 1979, smackdab in the middle of an ultra-vicious struggle with Joe Clark’s new government.) It is worth remembering that when Lougheed received Margaret Thatcher in Edmonton in 1983, it was the host, not the guest, who was the grandchild of a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.

And when Lougheed fought with Ottawa, he was able to do so with a tight, handpicked, intellectually impressive civil-service cadre whose ability and imagination surprised the feds. Lougheed’s example and the ’70s oil boom did for Alberta, Inc., what the Quiet Revolution and Rene Levesque did for Quebec; they attracted managerial strength, allowing for the creation of an independent base of power. In this, Lougheed’s personal charisma was far from irrelevant.

The fine details of his struggles with Ottawa as premier of Alberta have largely been lost to the public imagination, owing to their enormous complexity. They were probably pretty hard to understand even for ordinary citizens of the time, reading the newspaper every morning. But Albertans knew that at any given moment, irrespective of what party held the reins in federal Parliament, Lougheed was always battling for Alberta control of Alberta resources. Usually he was doing so on multiple fronts. His legal experts fought for Alberta in the courts; he fought for Alberta on live television, at the First Ministers’ conferences whose disappearance is part of his legacy. We are all now a bit like the late Elizabethans, in that we have a fragile constitutional settlement that nobody wants to tamper with, and it has become conceptually problematic for us to recollect the old religious wars in their full, vivid intensity.

It is even less well remembered that Lougheed fought for the same principle—Alberta resources for the benefit of Albertans—against Big Oil. As Lougheed drew closer to the premier’s office, he did not fail to notice that Social Credit’s longstanding royalty regime was making a few millionaires in Alberta, but was yielding overall incomes no better than the national average. He was able to tame the golden goose, adjusting royalties on new wells just in time for the energy boom of the Seventies and making room for the domestic junior exploration companies whose descendants now dominate Alberta’s economy. The supranational oil majors lived with this, facing the ugly alternative of nationalization almost everywhere else on the globe they looked—and understanding that Lougheed was the only thing standing in its way here.

It is bewildering, from the vantage point of 2012, to go back and read the old debates, to see how freely the assumption was made by federal and Ontario politicians that Alberta’s oilpatch should be operated for the benefit of Central Canada. When Lougheed asked why Ontario manufactures should be sold to Albertans at tariff-protected prices, but Alberta oil ought to be sold to Ontarians at half the Chicago price, no articulate response was possible. Westerners had been asking analogous questions for a long time. But it was Lougheed who saw to the innermost logic of the situation, who saw that the question must ultimately be decided by the province’s power to close the taps.

Lougheed was obsessed with the need to build up a hoard of value before the conventional oil ran out—something he originally expected, like most everyone else at the time, to happen in the early 1980s. That focused his mind on the non-renewability of Alberta’s oil, on the future horrors that every cut-rate barrel pumped eastward would eventually inflict on Alberta. The Alberta oilpatch has proven to have a lot more life in it than was believed in the 1970s, but… well, the oil really is non-renewable, even though reserves may ebb and flow on the balance sheets. There is only one opportunity to capture the rent from each barrel on behalf of Albertans.

Lougheed would bring the same intellectual incisiveness to the struggle over constitutional patriation that he did to the energy wars of the ’70s. When it came to oil, Alberta’s interests were (and are) explicitly, inherently at odds with those of every net oil consumer in Confederation. When it came to the Constitution, the battle was between the provinces and the federal government—dual spheres of power representing precisely the same populace, which, for its part, would support either side depending on what question it was asked. At least one of the relevant paradoxes probably still holds: Canadians like the idea of an explicit rights charter defended by a strong judiciary. They don’t like unelected judges taking the place of legislatures. It’s all in the wording.

The solution worked out between Pierre Trudeau and the “Gang of Eight” premiers, of whom Lougheed was the acknowledged leader, is the infamous “notwithstanding” clause. Primary credit (or blame) for the presence of that clause in the Charter belongs to the premiers of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Allan Blakeney and Sterling Lyon, who alerted fellow Gang members to the danger of law substantially made by federally appointed judges without some provincial escape hatch. Lougheed threw his weight behind that effort, and defended the result to the end of the life.

But where the mark of his own claw is clearest is in the amending formula for the Constitution. Trudeau’s original proposal incorporated the formula from the Victoria Charter of 1971, to which all ten provinces had fleetingly assented before Quebec’s Robert Bourassa pulled out. The Victoria formula would have given Ontario and Quebec permanent vetoes, regardless of their eventual population share. Lougheed spotted this while still Alberta Opposition leader, and complained about it to the Social Credit government of the time (“more on instinct than knowledge,” he confessed in 2001). When Trudeau revived the patriation project in 1974, Lougheed decided to put some work into presenting a coherent alternative.

The 7/50 formula in the 1982 Constitution Act, along with the “unanimity formula” required for core changes under section 41, are the acknowledged work of Lougheed and his inner circle. In the constitutional bargaining, Lougheed was willing to give way on bilingualism, equalization, Senate reform, and countless other matters, as long as he was able to secure an amending formula that did not create permanent second-class provinces. Parts of the constitution may come and go, he would tell people: the amending formula, if we are going to bring the constitution home, is forever.

It is, at any rate, as close to “forever” as the work of a legislator can come. If Pierre Trudeau was the originator and champion of the 1982 constitution, Peter Lougheed was its toughest editor—a framer whose importance to the outcome of the project ranked, at worst, a close second.