Do we want a Texan Canada?

By Sheila Williams | June 13, 2004

Probably you’ve noticed the way Stephen Harper resembles one of those "black bodies" scientists talk about which absorb all radiation and reflect nothing back. He is a calm, thoughtful, careful man, and though I find him boring I can see him as PM.

The trouble is, Stephen Harper doesn’t resemble his core constituency. I know quite a bit about that constituency, and Harper doesn’t walk or talk like it. To know what the new Conservative party would be like if it got into power, you have to know Alberta culture. And to know Alberta culture, you have to know the culture of Texas and Oklahoma.

In 1955, the year my family moved there, Alberta was a province of ranches in the south and pulp mills in the north. It already had an American influence, particularly in the ranches; but along with the BC Interior it still remained sleepy, parochial, rural – and religious, in the sense that religion defined the social makeup of many of its communities. It was part of the Canadian frontier.

Then comes the Turner Valley and oil. Americans from Texas and Oklahoma pour in. They have money, a sense of superiority, extreme confidence, overwhelming ambition. They bowl over the sleepy Albertans.

But they do more than bowl them over. Because Alberta in many ways resembles Texas and Oklahoma, and not just in its landscape – I think of its religiosity, its investment in the idea of the cowboy – because of this, Texas and Oklahoma culture spread across the province with extraordinary thoroughness and speed.

The result can now be seen and felt throughout Alberta. American flags fly in most towns. God Bless America stickers can be found on cars. In Calgary the fourth of July is celebrated as much as Canada Day. Ralph Klein sneers at the Canadian dollar as a crappy currency, sneers at the Kyoto Accord, sneers at Canadians east of Saskatchewan – and is anointed King Ralph. I don’t believe I exaggerate when I say that Alberta – and particularly Southern Alberta – can be seen as a kind of colony of Texas.

I don’t say a colony of the United States. Texas and Oklahoma have a distinct culture, one I experienced from the ages of 15 to 22. It no more resembles the culture of California, or New York State, than the culture of Quebec resembles the culture of British Columbia.

And what, you ask, shapes this Texan culture? Well, when I look back at the time I spent in Houston Texas a number of things stand out.

I remember my 13-year-old brother asking directions from a grownup black man not long after we arrived in Houston. The black man lowered his head and said, "Yes suh, you just go down that street there, suh."

I remember the "aggies" at the U of H with their levi jeans that were four inches too long bunched over their cowboy boots. They hated blacks with a hatred that frightened me.

I remember the "murder page" in The Houston Chronicle, the guns in every home. The violence of Houston, constant, in the air, exhilarating at times, but finally wearing you down.

I remember the optimism of my friends, the feeling that anything was possible if you wanted to do it.

I remember how easy it was to get a job, the economic vitality of both Houston and the cities surrounding it.

I remember the xenophobia of the small towns in Texas and Oklahoma that my longhaired boyfriend and I drove through; I remember my boyfriend being hit in the face by a Texas sheriff who outweighed him by about a hundred pounds, and being told to git on out or by god you’ll regret it. I remember overwhelming Texas arrogance and Texas religiosity. A bigoted Christianity that dominated the airwaves alongside a black radio culture that played "Making Whoopie" by Ray Charles and offer TVs for rent.

Violence, xenophobia, racial and ethnic bigotry, vitality.

These factors shaped the Reform Party. Of course, they weren’t the only factors shaping the party, or it would never have had the admirable Preston Manning for its leader.

To get a handle on the other factors – and to get a handle on the much-discussed "Western Alienation" – I offer this anecdote.

In 1994 my husband and I were in Ottawa to attend a conference. At the airport we flagged down a cab. The cab pulled up to us. As we stepped toward it, three government officials in dark business suits pushed in front of us, one holding his hand out like a football player making a block. They got into the cab.

My husband and I were dressed casually, ordinary Canadians from BC. We looked at these Liberal officials with a helpless rage that I can still feel.

Preston Manning understood that rage. He saw that it was a valid rage that needed to be taken into account. He also saw the optimism and can-do spirit of his Americanized province as great assets; and he was right about that too.

But Mr Manning remains far more thoughtful, courteous and large-spirited than many of his constituents. They showed their true nature when they voted him out and Stockwell Day in. And it is that constituency which remains the engine of the new Conservative Party.

Harper is bland, a kind of black body in whose presence all ideological fury is silenced. But the party he represents isn’t bland at all. Canadians should think very carefully about that fact before they vote this June.

In Quebec, for example, they should remember that a vote for the Bloc is a vote for the Conservatives. And they should remember, too – and here I lay my cards on the table – that while Paul Martin is a more sensitive and nervous man than Jean Chretien, he is also thoughtful, passionate, and achingly aware that the Liberal party must pay for its past arrogance.

1006 words, June 13, 2004


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