The election of an NDP government in Alberta was opposed by every daily newspaper in the province and by the entire corporate sector. So will they be gallant losers and give the new government a chance to implement its promises, waiting till the next election to try to show the wrongheadedness of a better distribution of wealth and power in Alberta, better environmental policy, and other such examples of “socialist rot”? Of course not. Both the corporations and the corporate media will oppose the new government every step of the way. But much of the dirty work will be undertaken not by the corporations or the media directly and in their own name. Instead the corporations will operate through so-called “research institutes” whose “findings” the corporate media will report without critique and without allowing rebuttals from non-corporate social actors. Here is the take of a recent Canadian history book, of which I am one of three co-authors on why these research institutes were established, how they are funded, and what they have achieved for their funders. Full disclosure: I wrote this section of the book, though my co-authors approved the wording. The book in question is Margaret Conrad, Alvin Finkel, and Donald Fyson, History of the Canadian Peoples Volume 2: 1867 to the Present, Sixth Edition (Toronto: Pearson, 2015).

From 1945 to 1975, as the interventionist state grew in Canada, business interests attempted to shape public opinion against expensive social programs, corporate taxes, and state regulation of industry through campaigns by traditional business organizations such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers Association. They had little success in swaying public opinion. A survey presented to the 1965 Canadian Chamber of Commerce convention suggested that most people discounted what business organizations had to say as self-interested propaganda.

Gradually, the leaders of large corporations in Canada began following their American and British counterparts in establishing allegedly non-partisan, non-profit “research institutes” and “think tanks” to conduct and disseminate research meant to create public support for state policies that corresponded with the corporate agenda. Such efforts began modestly with the creation of the National Citizens Coalition in 1967 by Colin M. Brown, a London Life insurance agent who opposed universal medical insurance. The NCC was incorporated in Ontario in 1975 and expanded its focus to include campaigns against many government programs and unions. Between 1998 and 2002, Stephen Harper, who later became a Canadian prime minister, was president of the NCC.

While the NCC focused primarily on political campaigns, the Fraser Institute, founded in Vancouver in 1974, styled itself as an independent research group with a focus on market-oriented solutions to social issues. Its founder, Michael Walker, an economist at the University of Western Ontario, received financial support from MacMillan-Bloedel, the forestry giant, which was at loggerheads with British Columbia’s NDP government from 1972 to 1975. Walker claimed that the Fraser Institute, as a non-profit research organization, was controlled by its staff, and not its funders. In practice, its well-paid staff knew that their research results had to conform to the funders’ interests. The organization received charitable status, making contributions to its work tax-free. In 1975, the Institute generated revenues of $421,389, which would explode to almost $11 million by 2010.

The Fraser Institute published studies of its research results, along with a monthly magazine, and a bi-monthly newsletter. It also sponsored student essay contests, held seminars for students, and created internships. Most importantly, it created close relationships with the media, which often published the Institute’s results without raising issues about its funders or underlying ideology, and without reporting the views of scholars or public figures who took issue with Fraser’s assumptions and methodologies in its research.

Before long, the Fraser Institute inspired copycats. The Montreal Economic Institute was founded in 1987, followed by the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation in 1990, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in 1995, and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Prairies grouping, in 1997. The C.D. Howe Institute, which had its origins in the work of the C.D. Howe Memorial Foundation, became an independent organization in 1982, with funding from major corporations and investors. The previous year, the Conference Board of Canada emerged from its former incarnation as a wing of an American business think tank, and by the early 2000s employed about 200 people. Each of these organizations had public relations departments that made use of sophisticated communications techniques to shape public opinion. Supporters and detractors alike credited the seemingly objective corporate-sponsored research institutes for a major shift in public attitudes regarding the relative roles of government and the private sector. They also played an important role in encouraging support for free trade.

Opponents of neo-liberalism, particularly in the labour movement, funded competing research institutes such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which began work in Ottawa in 1980, and Alberta’s Parkland Institute, founded in 1997. These organizations had modest funding relative to their corporate counterparts and far less coverage for their findings in the corporate-controlled media.[i]

[i] On think tanks and research institutes in Canada, see Murray Dobbin, The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen: Canada and Democracy in the Age of Globalization (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2003). Their impact in other countries is explored in Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution (London: Fontana, 1995).


Well, it’s living they’ve found, deep in the ground,
And if there’s doubts, it’s best they ignore them.
Nor think on the bones, the crosses and stones
Of their fathers that came there before them.
In the taverns of Edmonton, fishermen shout
Haul it away! Haul it away!
They left three hundred years buried up the Bay
Where the whales make free in the harbour.

-Stan Rogers, “Free in the Harbour”

You don’t spend too much time in Alberta without running into a Maritimer, a
Newfoundlander or someone one-generation removed from Atlantic Canada. When I lived in New Brunswick a decade ago, it was estimated that a jumbo jet load of people was leaving the province every month headed to Alberta or Saskatchewan. Some were relocating permanently, others were engaged in transcontinental commuting – six months in Fort Mac, six months back home in Saint John.

This pattern of domestic migration has been going on for some time. Excepting the interruptions of periodic busts, the booms have attracted new arrivals to Alberta since it became a rich province about 70 years ago. We all know why Atlantic Canadians come. Here is a resource rich province with a labour shortage, offering wages unimaginable down east. Yet, as we think about Alberta’s future, we might cast a thought to the past of Atlantic Canada, to the century of prosperity that resulted in all those big Victorian houses in places like
Halifax and Saint John. There was work aplenty in the timber stands that helped build the British navy in the age of sail, in a fishery that fed millions, in rich seams of coal. The economic history of the region is complicated, but to imagine that Alberta lucked into the wealth of abundant natural resources while Atlantic Canada did not is to take a very short term view.

Atlantic Canadians have seen the window close on resource economies before. The age of sail ended in the age of steam. Coal fell out of favour as the fuel of choice for railways and home heating. Technological advance made for the ecological devastation that exhausted the once staggeringly abundant stocks of cod. It is only retrospect that makes these endings appear inevitable. And, they were not sudden – people and some companies held on and did not give up easily, even as the smart money in the big houses of the region shrewdly invested their fortunes elsewhere.

By 1958, coal mining in Springhill, Nova Scotia was in trouble. Only one shaft, the #2, was in operation and it was one of the deepest in the world. The miners knew it was dangerous and they said so loudly. But the union wanted to protect the jobs and the company wanted to get the coal out and the warnings were ignored. When the disastrous “bump” came, the normally jocular banter among miners at the coal face had been silenced for weeks. They kept going down the pit, though, however grimly. The day of the bump, 75 of them re-emerged in coffins.(1)

The national press chose to focus on the heroic rescue efforts and miraculous survival of a minority of the miners in this, the third major Springhill disaster. Today, we have a Heritage Minute about it that focuses on a surviving miner, acknowledging in only one sentence “so much death.”(2) It is not the grisly aftermath of the disaster that resonates with me, however. It is the image of the silent miners, showing up for work every day knowing that it was only a matter of time until fate would determine whether they would be lucky or unlucky, whether among the quick or the dead.

Canada was a free country in 1958. Why did they keep working? Why didn’t they move to Alberta? Perhaps some of them did. For those that stayed, however, we can imagine that the choice seemed like no choice at all. There were kids to feed and bills to pay. Yes, the disaster would come, but perhaps not today. Perhaps not to me.

Here in Alberta, we know that our window will not stay open forever. The G7 has
committed to stop combusting fossil fuels by the year 2100.(3) Technological advance – whether it comes in the form of battery powered cities(4) or compact fusion(5) — may shut it considerably sooner than that. And, let us hope so, since our disaster when it comes will not be a sudden bump, leaving a small town devastated, but, potentially, an irreversible change in the planet’s climate with catastrophic global implications.(6)

Yet to tell the people of Fort McMurray (or downtown Calgary) to leave the oil in the soil is like telling the miners of Springhill not to show up for work. There are mortgages, car payments, commitments, expectations, and hopes. And maybe the disaster won’t come, or won’t come for us. How do you end a gold rush while the gold can still be found?

The thing about ghost towns, Northrop Frye once observed, is their lack of ghosts. They don’t last long enough to produce them: to accumulate generations, long history, the crosses and the bones weighing on the minds of Nova Scotia fishermen in an Edmonton tavern that Stan Rogers sang about. If Alberta does not wish to expand its collection of ghost towns, a strategy needs to be developed for sustaining both economic and ecological life here beyond 2100. We need to demonstrate that our abundant wind and sun can allow us to transition into a new energy economy. We need to think about what we might do with our fossil fuels besides shipping them somewhere to be processed and burnt.

Ultimately, we have to make a commitment to stay. Not just that we will stay, but that our grandkids and their kids after them will stay here too. Otherwise, we’ll have in a few generations a folk singer looking back nostalgically to the Alberta version of ‘goin’ down the road.’ We’ll have to hope, as well, that there’ll be a road left for us to travel.

KIRK NIERGARTH is a historian and teacher in Calgary.

  1.  This story is told in greater detail in Ian McKay, “Springhill 1958,” New Maritimes, 2 (December 1983/January
    1984), 4-16.


The pundits are out in full force as the federal election campaign fires off its first salvos. Warren Kinsella, a top Liberal politico, wrote in Ottawa’s The Hill Times (June 1) that the 2015 federal election “is the NDP’s to lose.” He argues that Mulcair’s image as someone who is “serious and progressive” trumps Trudeau’s image as “progressive and new” and Harper’s image as “experienced and serious.” The country seems to be in the mood for change. Gary Mason, writing in The Globe and Mail (June 11) agrees that “the whiff of change is in the air,” but he sees little comparison between Notley’s electoral advantages (tired regime, great television debate performance, withered Liberal Party, seriously weakened Wildrose, etc.) and what Mulcair has to face ( resurgent federal Liberals under Trudeau, for example) in crafting a federal win. The question is whether the desire for change is strong enough to unseat Harper.

I interviewed knowledgeable political observers outside of Alberta on their thoughts on the impact of the Alberta election on the federal campaign, what Mulcair and Trudeau might learn from Notley’s political persona, and whether a national strategic voting campaign makes any sense in defeating Harper. On the first question (the Alberta impact) John Harvard, a former Liberal MP who lives in Winnipeg, believes that federal voters who had viewed Trudeau as the likely successor to the Harper government will give Mulcair “a fresh look” because of Alberta but he isn’t convinced that will necessarily last. Nelson Riis, a former NDP MP for 20 years, considers the Alberta election “a game changing event in Canadian politics.” For him the electorate that wants change has to decide “who can defeat the Tories.” He hopes it will be the NDP. Left-wing activist Judy Rebick believes that current polls that show a three-way race offer hope, but that Mulcair needs to keep his party to the left because that is where the electorate is moving. Toronto pollster, Marc Zwelling, founder of the Vector Poll ™, is cautious about translating the Alberta win to the federal scene. He argues (based on a recent Abacus Data poll) that Albertans saw themselves as removing a party that “disgusted them, not embracing the NDP.” He expects the Alberta election to have a “nil” effect on the federal election.

Zwelling does not think that either Mulcair or Trudeau “can change quickly or credibly into something they are not.” This means that Notley’s political persona, which served her well, is not easily transferable and Mulcair and Trudeau are saddled with their current images. Rebick acknowledges that “Notley’s personality was a big hit with Alberta voters” with her authenticity being the key. And like Zwelling she doubts that Mulcair can be made to appear “less stern and more human” and Trudeau “a little more weighty.” Riis is not as interested in personality. He considers “a clear understandable message” as the key, suggesting that a party’s platform is as important, if not more so, than personality. Harvard admits that “a politician who needs to work on his ‘human side’ has problems.” While someone like Trudeau can “light up a room,” according to Harvard, Mulcair lacks the magic touch. The problem for Trudeau is convincing voters that “behind his sparkle lies substance.” Both leaders come with at least one serious drawback.

What about strategic voting on a national scale? Harvard believes that “strategic voting is almost certainly doomed to failure” because neither the NDP nor the Liberals see an advantage for them. They both want to win at each other’s expense. Of course this is what the Tories are counting on. The whole idea of strategic voting is to stop splitting the vote that gives Harper the advantage. Rebick is also sceptical about strategic voting. First, it can breed political cynicism; second, she thinks it favours the right over the left (e.g. vote for Trudeau because he is better than Harper), and finally people may lack sophistication in voting strategically and so vote counter-productively. “With a bigger voter turnout,” she argues, “we wouldn’t have to worry about splitting the vote.” So her strategy for removing Harper is getting more people to vote. Zwelling also argues against the value of a national strategic voting campaign. He says that “given the low credibility of polls among the general public it’s hard to imagine that strategic voting proponents could sway enough voters.” He wonders if enough voters would trust the data presented to them on whom to vote. Zwelling has been polling for more than 25 years so his warning comments on strategic voting as an electoral game-changer need to be taken seriously. I do take them seriously, but I still think there is an argument for strategic voting’s usefulness in the upcoming federal election, if for no other reason, than my worry that there may not be a landslide (no Trudeau-mania or Orange Wave), and so the Tory strategy will succeed. Here’s my argument.

Canada’s regional, linguistic, cultural, and demographic differences, not to mention socio-economic and historic ones, mean that any federal political message must have a very broad appeal. Harper is running on two words—economy and security—and he has been working hard (in his ads, legislation, and foreign jaunts) to convey that message loud and clear. His opponents have yet to coalesce around one or two powerful, all-encompassing concepts that can arouse a majority of federal voters to create a post-Conservative era the way Alberta voters have. The upcoming federal election will go to the party with a message that resonates and an appealing leader. In some cases the message and the personality may not be complementary. In Alberta’s case it was personality that mattered more than policy. In the federal case it may be the opposite, in which case, Mulcair may have a real chance at becoming Prime Minister. Otherwise Trudeau has the upper hand. Because of the diversity of political voting patterns nationally, the fact that neither Mulcair nor Trudeau has the perfect combination of policy and personality, and the lack of a “disgust” factor the way there was in Alberta, the chance of a landslide is not high. Ergo strategic voting.

While those I interviewed found strategic voting on a national scale to be problematic and clearly it was not strategic voting that worked in Alberta, where we got a landslide of change, I believe there is a case for provincially-based strategic voting groups across the country. Being provincially-based means these groups are closer to the political reality on the ground and their recommendations might have more appeal because of that. With the divide and conquer strategy in full play by the Tories and their stranglehold on two key political concepts, it is important to identify seats where the Tories can be defeated. Even a dozen key ridings might make the difference. A national strategic voting campaign, headquartered in each province, could be that final piece that gets rid of Harper and ushers in a new era. If the polls indicate there is no clear front-runner, then strategic voting websites for the centre-left make sense. Of course, my preference is for an anti-Harper landslide, but if there isn’t one in the offing, we will have to vote strategically.

George Melnyk was a member of the Calgary chapter of the Democratic Renewal Project during the 2012 Alberta election, continued with, and is currently one of its contributing editors.


Alberta farmworkers die. A lot.

Sometimes they are smothered, like Kevan Chandler was back in 2006, when a grain crust let go in a silo he was cleaning near High River. He left behind a wife and kids.

Sometimes they get killed by machinery, like when Yvon Poulin fell into a bailer that had an inoperable safety system in 2004. He was a 17-year-old kid.

And sometimes farmers just plain kill their workers for making mistakes, like when Charles Beauchamp stabbed Terry Rash to death in 1999 for sliding a truck into the ditch near Taber. The killer of a 52-year-old grandfather got only four years in the clink.

Farmworkers also get injured in droves—after all, farming is one of Canada’s three most dangerous occupations. But Alberta’s government has no good data on farmworker injuries because injury data is derived from workers’ compensation claim statistics and Alberta farmers aren’t required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their workers.

Alberta also excludes farmworkers from the ambit of occupational health and safety legislation. This means farmworkers have no right to know if they are working with carcinogenic pesticides. And farmworkers who refuse unsafe work can be summarily fired. And, if a farmworker gets killed, there is no investigation.

Alberta also has no child labour laws on farms. So 10-year-olds can drive a combine or weed fields all day long. And farmworkers can’t unionize. Basically, farm animals have more rights than Alberta farmworkers.

According to Justice Peter Barley—who undertook a 2008 judicial inquiry into Chandler’s death—“(n)o logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm workers.”

The answer is money. It is expensive for farmers to pay decent wages, provide safety gear and carry injury insurance. The Tories—needing rural votes—were never prepared to compel farmers to provide bathrooms or dust masks or overtime pay.

Premier Rachel Notley has long been critical of the regulatory exclusion of farmworkers. In 2011, she told then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk that “Other provinces have concluded coverage for farm workers is necessary, and Alberta’s continued refusal is shameful.”

The key question is whether the NDs will do anything about the plight of farmworkers now that they have formed the government?

The early signs have not been encouraging. Newly minted ND Minister of Agriculture Oneil Carlier told the Western Producer that changes to farm unionization policy and labour standards are “not a focus for us at this time.” Instead of helping farmworkers, he indicated the NDs will focus on helping their employers with market access and transportation.

Rectifying decades of government inaction on farmworker rights simply must be a priority.

Inaction means farmworkers will continue to be routinely maimed and killed at work.

Inaction means the grieving families of farmworkers will continue to live in poverty.

Inaction means kids being exposed to chemicals that can give them cancer.

Honest to God, it’s time to act, Rachel.

Bob Barnetson is associate professor of Labour Relations in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University. His research and publications focus on the political economy of employment in Alberta, paying particular attention to workplace injuries as well as child, farm, and migrant workers.