Elections in the Canadian province of Alberta where I live don't usually get much attention outside of its borders—or within, for that matter. As political pundits are often fond of saying, Albertans don't so much elect parties as anoint political dynasties: prior to last week's election, for example, the Progressive Conservative Party had ruled the province for 41 years, unmolested by much in the way of formal opposition or civic dissent. Where other regions tend to see a back-and-forth tug of war between parties, the pattern in Alberta has been to let a ruling party hunker down for decades, and topple it periodically in a mass voter stampede to a new, untested party which is then allowed to sit in power for another few decades.
But last week's election attracted a great deal of attention across Canada because it looked as if it would provoke one of those rare topplings of an Albertan dynasty. The challenger was the young Wildrose Party, whose meteoric rise on the political scene could be attributed to its charismatic leader Danielle Smith, to general disgruntlement over the PC Party's handling of health care and various ethical issues, and to the Wildrose's having poached several members of the governing party.
As always during an election, I keep an ear out for how language is being used. In this one, it turned out that the tussle over political rhetoric was as interesting as the struggle over the levers of power.
The central narrative of the Wildrose Party was this: The PC Party had once been the natural governing party of Alberta, representing its core values of conservatism and individualism. But their long years in power had caused them to become arrogant and lose their political/moral compass, abandoning the principles of fiscal restraint, an unfettered market, and individual liberties. The Wildrose Party offered a chance to sweep out the cobwebs and realign Alberta leadership with the true spirit of Alberta.
The Wildrose's efforts to stake a claim to the historical ideology of the PC Party were matched with an all-out campaign to appropriate the language of consensus for itself. There's a long tradition in Alberta politics in which successful parties have hitched their wagons to an Albertan identity that is typically portrayed as cohesive, unique within Canada, and often in opposition to the rest of the country. Political language in Alberta is shot through with references to "Alberta values". And it was clearly the goal of the Wildrose Party to become linked in the minds of voters with these self-evident "Alberta values".
You don't get this kind of talk everywhere. In my eleven years of living in Rhode Island, for example, I doubt that I heard a single political reference to "Rhode Island values". Regional sentiments run pretty deep in New England, but they don't seem to be defined or expressed in quite the same way. (By way of contrast, think of the wildly successful anti-littering campaign slogan "Don't mess with Texas!" This only worked because it resonated with a common identity that coincided with state boundaries.)
From day one, the Wildrose Party branded itself as the party of Alberta-loving Albertans. Beginning with its name of course, which refers to Alberta's provincial flower. (Alberta's license plates, in fact, read "Wild Rose Country", which I guess makes it all official.)
Early in the campaign, the Wildrose tried to sow seeds of doubt as to whether Alison Redford, the leader of the beleaguered PC Party, was sufficiently Albertan. Remarks were made about the fact that Redford, who'd spent years working in South Africa as a human rights lawyer, had once considered applying for South African citizenship. And when Redford discussed how Alberta needed new policies that would increase Alberta's prominence on the global stage, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith launched into the following:
I think Ms. Redford doesn't like Alberta all that much. She doesn't like who we are. She doesn't like our character. She wants to change it. I think that's going to be the ballot question. I think that's the question that people are going to have to ask in the next election. Do we need to be changed. Do we need Ms. Redford to change us? Do we have anything to be embarrassed about. I think the answer is a resounding "no"….I like Alberta as it is. I don't think she does.
Alison Redford's rejoinder to all this was that Alberta had in fact already changed, and now its government needed to catch up.
What was striking was the sheer frequency with which the Wildrose campaign bandied about the words Alberta and Albertans, as in "What Albertans want…" or "We're putting Albertans first." This occurred far more often than in any of the other parties' campaigns. In fact, the further left you moved on the political spectrum, the less often the words seemed to appear. Where, for instance, the Wildrose's Danielle Smith might talk about policies that would benefit Albertans and Alberta families, the leader of the left-wing New Democrats was more likely to talk about "ordinary folks" and "regular families". This suggests the words were being used not in their denotational sense (that is, for the purpose of referring to people who live in Alberta) so much as in their connotational sense (for the purpose of setting off the usual mental vibrations that are triggered upon hearing the word Alberta).
I was curious enough about the connotations of these words to do an informal experiment in my undergraduate Language and Advertising class at the University of Calgary. I asked students to list the first four or five words they thought of in response to the question: "What is an Albertan?" Their responses clustered around that cohesive, traditional Albertan identity: "self-reliant, conservative, cowboys, hard-working, maverick, entrepreneurial, oilpatch" and so on. The kinds of elements you'd be likely to find strewn about in a speech by Danielle Smith or in the visual imagery of the Wildrose campaign, which often resembled those long-running Marlboro cigarette ads.
But the students' responses to my next question suggested a possible crack in the Wildrose's rhetorical strategy. When I asked them "How many of you feel that the words you just wrote describe you?" not one of a class of 75 raised their hand.
The majority of my students, it turns out, were born and raised in Alberta; nevertheless they seemed not to connect very much with an "Albertan identity". And if they didn't identify as "Albertans", how much personal resonance to the notion could there be for the many people who'd recently moved to Alberta from the Eastern provinces or other countries, sucked in by Alberta's booming economy and labor shortages over the past decade? Perhaps Redford was right to claim that Alberta had in fact changed in fundamental ways.
Still, a week from election day, pollsters were predicting that the Wildrose would win a majority of seats in the legislature. By many accounts, the party's campaign slammed into a wall in its final few days as the public reacted to controversial remarks made by two of its candidates. One of these, a pastor named Allan Hunsperger, had previously written in a blog that public schools should avoid teaching tolerance of homosexuality, since encouraging gays to take part in gay behavior would simply result in their being condemned to burn in "lakes of fire" in the afterlife. The other, Ron Leech, asserted during the campaign that he had an advantage over his ethnically Punjabi political rival because as a white candidate, he was able to speak for all ethnicities rather than merely his own ethnic community.
Danielle Smith insisted that these comments were not reflective of her party's views, while at the same time—perhaps rightly—defending her candidates' right to free speech, stating that it was up to voters to judge them for their remarks as individuals. But this response flew in the face of her entire rhetorical approach until that point, which was to paint the Wildrose Party as representative of a consensual Albertan identity. In the end, you can hardly drum the repetitive beat of linking your party to the common values of all citizens—indeed, frame the entire election as a referendum on these values—and then turn around and deny that your own candidates reflect that common set of values.
On election day, rather than receiving their forecasted shellacking, the PC Party emerged with a hefty majority of seats once again, prompting some to remark that we were back to the same old, same old provincial politics. But I rather doubt that in future elections, we'll see the same old, same old political language. I suspect that the days are numbered in which a distinct Albertan identity can be leveraged for political effect in the same ways it has been in the past. There was already evidence of its waning influence in the language chosen by the winning PC Party. On several occasions, Redford made reference to her party's loyalty to "Albertan and Canadian values". The conjunction might seem unremarkable to you. But to put it in perspective, imagine a Canadian prime minister campaigning on a platform of being true to "Canadian and North American values". Now that, with apologies to my American friends, is a phrase you're unlikely to hear anytime soon.