By Michael Wagner
For decades, Professor Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary has been a prominent intellectual defender of Alberta and the West. More than anyone else, he has written about the distinct political identity of the prairie West. Importantly, Cooper has challenged the notion of “western alienation” because it misconstrues western political culture. He explains this in his book It’s the Regime, Stupid!
Cooper traces the concept of alienation to the 1953 book Democracy in Alberta written by C. B. Macpherson. Macpherson was a very influential Marxist political scientist at the University of Toronto. He analyzed Alberta’s Social Credit movement and did not like what he saw. As Cooper notes, “Macpherson’s book set the stage for a half-century of unflattering interpretation of Alberta and the West” (pp. 114-115).
Macpherson claimed that democracy in Alberta was degenerate and that a dictatorial government could develop. In his view, Alberta was a bad place because its people did not adopt the supposed insights of Marxism. Cooper notes, “As early as 1953, then, the argument that combined envy at the resource revenue of the province with distaste for the way Albertans conduct their political affairs was fast congealing into a cliché” (p. 115).
- B. Macpherson died in 1987 but his work lives on. As Cooper points out, “In his deeply flawed book can be found the source of the other great cliché of western politics: alienation” (pp. 117-118).
In short, the concept of “western alienation” was fabricated by left-wing eastern intellectuals. It was not developed in the West. “The fact is, western alienation does not describe westerners’ sense of regional identity so far as they are concerned” (p. 121).
Nevertheless, it is a widely used concept and Cooper explains why: “It permits non-westerners to overlook the substance of western interests and pride in the regional interpretation of them; it allows non-westerners to recast the conflict of those interests and the interpretation of them into the more congenial form of a marginalized discourse. Westerners, they can say with a clear conscience, look at matters differently than we genuine, which is to say, Laurentian, Canadians. All the fuss ‘out there’ stems from ‘alienation,’ which is both a definitive put-down because the term used to be understood as synonymous with madness (these alienated westerners better consult an alienist) and sufficiently abstract to preclude the necessity of any further investigation” (pp. 121-122).
Historically, many informed Westerners have been angered by the harmful policies of the federal government and other eastern institutions. But this does not amount to alienation. It is the justifiable indignation at injustice. Classifying it as alienation is essentially a way of dismissing the legitimate grievances of the West.
Cooper writes, “Westerners have not been ‘alienated’ from the central institutions of power in Canada so much as excluded. Initially they were excluded by subordinate legal status, then by economic subordination, and more recently by the majoritarian character of the federal government that has never reconciled conflicting regional interests so much as identified the national interest with Laurentian Canada” (p. 122).
Another University of Calgary professor, George Melnyk, also sees “western alienation” as a concept developed by easterners. Interestingly, despite being sympathetic to the West, Melnyk is left-wing and is horrified by the right-wing pro-Western movements of the past.
Nevertheless, in his book Beyond Alienation, he helpfully explains how the terminology of alienation subordinates the West’s legitimate concerns to central Canada: “Alienation came to be a general term covering everything negative about the region from Western separatists to Lougheed’s blue-eyed sheiks and anti-Francophone bigotry. Alienation came to represent a threat to the centre and to nationhood. It was not important what Westerners felt about themselves; it was important that they were alienated from the centre where all goodness lay. It was Westerners who were alienated, while Central Canadians were not. The burden of deviancy was the West’s” (p. 119).
He explains this point further by noting that “The alienation image rejects the nostalgic identity generated by Westerners about themselves, and replaces it with only one concern—alienation from the only true self, Canada. No other self counts. In the alienation image, Canada is the central focus, and the West a disenchanted hinterland” (pp. 119-120).
As a result, much like Cooper, Melnyk rejects “the alienation theme because it is fundamentally anti-Western and externally imposed” (p. 121).
In times like today when the federal government is engaging in policies that are especially harmful to the West, the media commonly tout “western alienation” as the explanation for westerners’ resentment. That term is so common and ingrained that it’s hard to avoid using. Nevertheless, understanding that it’s an externally imposed concept that subordinates the West’s concerns, and even dismisses the West’s concerns, should help Westerners to rethink their use of it. We have suffered from decades of harmful federal government policies and our justifiable anger at this situation should not be dismissed as some ambiguous concept of “alienation.”
Cooper, Barry. 2009. It’s the Regime, Stupid!: A Report from the Cowboy West on Why Stephen Harper Matters. Toronto: Key Porter Books.
Melnyk, George. 1993. Beyond Alienation: Political Essays on the West. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.