Coal was the final straw.
I grew up in a fishing and hunting family. We spent golden days in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from the Oldman north to the tributaries of the North Saskatchewan. Rolling, pine-clad hills, quiet trout streams, chance sightings of deer and bears — it was paradise for a kid. In the fall Dad took us hunting pheasants on the farms of relatives east of Strathmore. In between times, impatient, I sought out the wildest places I could find and became a birder.
That was many years, and many governments, ago. Mostly conservative governments: some good, mostly bad. Certainly Peter Lougheed’s government was one of the good ones. It gave us an Environmental Conservation Authority, strong environmental laws, Kananaskis Country and a Coal Policy. Especially in the early years, Lougheed’s vision of environmentally-responsible development seemed to offer Alberta a future where nature and commerce might flourish together.
But it didn’t last. The ECA got disbanded, regulatory agencies were de-fanged and greed took over. It seemed like each election resulted in the “progressive” part of Progressive Conservative fading more, until it vanished altogether and we got a new creature: a “United Conservative Party.” The centre shifted and “progressive” came to define opposition parties, not government.
What did that look like on the land? It looked like paradise lost.
There’s a uniquely profound sorrow that comes of having one’s identity shredded. I chose a career in biology because I’d grown to love everything natural about Alberta. But the creeks, far valleys, shrubby corners and coulees that grew to define me were under siege from a careless capitalism that, as Oscar Wilde said, knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. By the time I retired, life had become a constant battle against what philosophers call solastalgia – the profound homesickness one gets when home is no longer there.
Native trout are gone from many of those childhood streams. Once-peaceful foothills valleys are tracked up by motor vehicles and filled with noise all summer long. Once-green woodlands are mangy with clearcuts. Prairie grassland is upside down and silent. Even the barn swallows are gone.
It happened incrementally, the consequence of inattention: Albertans’ casual assumption that home would always be there, no matter how much the governments we elected commodified it and it off in bits.
But love doesn’t offer one the option of giving up, even when one’s heart is breaking. When an angry province surprised itself by electing an NDP government in 2015, I was one of many who felt hope rekindle. Here was a government, like the original Lougheed one, that actually believed in the public interest. After three decades of promises but no action, the new government actually established new parks in the Castle River region. Then they went on to planning for the public lands in the rest of the Oldman drainage. Recently retired, I volunteered on advisory groups working on both those initiatives. It seemed impossible, but we again had a government committed to stewardship of our best places and values.
Many of my fondest memories of wild Alberta reside in the green foothills west of Rocky Mountain House, and it’s there that the NDP government proposed to establish a Bighorn Country similar to the Kananaskis. But that, apparently, was one conservation hill too far for the angry few who had grown accustomed to laissez-faire mis-management of public lands. In the 2019 election campaign, UCP politicians like Jason Nixon drew on that anger, magnifying it with lies, and rode it into power.
And so, in the 2019 election the NDP were swept aside and replaced by the UCP. This was no progressive conservative party. It wasn’t even truly conservative. It was a reactionary party of hard-core commodifiers. Everything was for sale. Nothing was sacred. The public interest would be determined in the marketplace, not by policy.
Those motivated by love of place and care for wild nature felt crushing despair as the last rules were shredded, parks put up for sale, resource protection staff isolated, and public concern sneeringly dismissed as “NDP talking points.” We’d tasted hope, and had it swept away.
And then came coal.
Since 1993 when Gail and I moved our family to Waterton, I had worked with dozens of good, decent people who loved the land in much the same way as we do. Ranchers, farmers, Blackfoot and Stoney people, business owners, artists…they came together in various combinations to manage carnivore conflicts, restore trout streams, steer industrial development away from sensitive habitats and just generally try and keep good places good.
In 2020 we all woke up to the news that the UCP government had secretly cancelled Peter Lougheed’s Coal Policy and handed out massive leases to foreign coal companies. The entire headwaters region of Alberta — almost every inch of that childhood paradise that gave shape and meaning to mine and so many other Alberta lives — was being offered up cheap for strip mines.
That betrayal was the last straw, not just for me but for all those good people with whom I’d been so honoured to work over the years.
The worst kind of anger is motivated by hate and selfishness. But there is a good kind of anger – that motivated by love. And it was love of Alberta that united so many people to fight the sellout of our headwaters to coal companies. Few things have inspired me so much as seeing Albertans of every type come together to force a rogue government to step back from their plans to pillage our headwaters. The massive resistance to coal strip mining renewed my hope that we might finally be uniting into what Wallace Stegner dreamed of: “a society to match its scenery.”
Alberta has arrived at a crossroads. It seems like everything good about this place is under threat. Yet it also seems like we could be awakening to ourselves as a people who will fight for what we love. Coal, in that regard, was a good thing; it woke us all up. But there is still a risk that we’ll get distracted and look away from the things we matter most.
So I ruined a perfectly good retirement and went into politics.
I had to: it would be a betrayal of my very identity not to defend the good places, wildlife, people and enduring values of my home place. The UCP has taken us to the brink, but at least where the coal fiasco is concerned, Albertans have pulled back. Now we need to restore what we can of our lost nature, and ourselves. We need to put our good anger to work – making the best of what remains, and what could yet be.
Solastalgia will have to wait; I’m running for office in hopes of being part of a government that builds forward from the last, desperate hope we’ve all found — for love of our home place, one another, and all our relations.
One thought on “Good Anger”
Beautifully stated, as only you can so aptly do. You have renewed the hope of many as we head into the final week of four years of chaotic mismanagement of everything that makes our Alberta a beautiful home.