Skip to main content

Surely no other candidate carries such a good-luck charm into Monday's federal election.

Rona Ambrose slips a tiny hand into the right pocket of her jacket and pulls out a small chunk of concrete embedded with several dark stones.

It is a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Story continues below advertisement

It was given to her earlier this day by a farmer who, back in the fall of 1989, joined fellow Germans in taking hammers to the infamous barrier between East and West Germany. When he came to Canada, he brought part of the wall, and, last week, split it into three pieces: one for himself, one for his son, and one for the Conservative Member of Parliament for Edmonton-Spruce Grove.

He broke down in tears when he gave it to her. It would, he said, always remind her of the meaning of democracy.

But on Monday evening, assuming the polls hold, it could also stand as a symbol of the breaking down of a political wall that many believe kept Western Canadians apart from the country they belong to and which should also belong to them.

"The West Wants In" was the slogan of Preston Manning's Reform Party when it was founded in 1987.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Reform has become the Canadian Alliance has become the new Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. The face of federal politics in Alberta has gone from what was often seen as cranky curmudgeons, invariably male, to the likes of 36-year-old Ms. Ambrose, a rising Alberta star in federal politics.

"The West is in," says former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed. "Even if it's a minority government, it will be a positive thing for Canada."

"The West is in with a vengeance," says Mel Hurtig, the lifelong nationalist who recently moved to Vancouver after more than 70 years in Edmonton.

Story continues below advertisement

"I think it remains to be seen," cautions Preston Manning. The Reform founder, however, does think "the lie has been put" to any thinking that Western conservatism could not make headway in Ontario and even in Quebec. No matter what Monday's outcome, this campaign has been worth it.

"National unity," Mr. Manning says, "and the state of federalism is in better shape today than it was before this election began."

Talk of Western alienation will not vanish overnight, yet something undeniable has changed: a sense of not only being in, but getting involved.

"Alberta can lead," Ms. Ambrose says. "We don't always have to say we're on the outside."

This sense of being on the "outside" has been around so long that some of her generation have known nothing else.

"It's been 20 years," says Ezra Levant, the publisher of the conservative Western Standard magazine and a former assistant to Mr. Manning.

Story continues below advertisement

"I was born in 1972, and I've known nothing else except for this constant frustration."

It is not as if there have not been Conservative governments in that time. Joe Clark had a minority briefly in 1979, and Brian Mulroney won two majorities in the 1980s. Mr. Clark was even born in High River, Alta., yet Albertans of today identify far more with the Ontario-born-but-Alberta-bound Mr. Harper than they ever did with native-son Mr. Clark.

Should Mr. Harper's Tories form the next government, Westerners are expected to play key roles -- perhaps even someone as young and relatively inexperienced as Ms. Ambrose.

It could involve a seismic power shift. Already, the country is witnessing a demographic and economic tilt to the West, rich in energy and situated alongside the dynamic Pacific trade routes; the political ground is also moving. The triangle of Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto that has largely controlled federal politics since Confederation would be joined by a second triangle anchored by Calgary and including Edmonton and parts of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

"Montreal was the crucible for ideas 35-40 years ago," Mr. Levant says. "Calgary has now taken that place. Calgary is the hothouse for ideas. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But the key is that in Stephen Harper, there is now someone who can articulate the good ones."

Monday's predicted breakthrough, the Calgary-based publisher says, had to come in this election, as Westerners felt badly "snubbed" in 2004 when, in the final days of the campaign, Liberal scare tactics won over Ontario voters.

Story continues below advertisement

"There was a feeling out here," he says, "that if they don't get it this time, if they don't see how corrupt this government has been, then they are buying into the idea that the Liberals are Canada.

"So this all comes as a great relief to Westerners. We always believed Westerners wanted in, but there was a fear that Westerners weren't wanted in."

A Harper victory of any measure, says former provincial treasurer Jim Dinning (considered the front-runner to replace Premier Ralph Klein), "will take some of the sting and steam out of the anxiety" many Westerners have about not being involved.

Mr. Dinning thinks the entire country could benefit from a little Western perspective and practicality. "If you've got a problem, say it, and then we'll get on trying to fix it," he says. "Don't revel in it or royal commission it. Fix it."

What's good for Western Canada, he says, will be just as good for Atlantic Canada. "Everybody goes up, nobody goes down -- in a Harper government, all of Canada is in."

"We have an opportunity to take this country to a higher level," agrees Ms. Ambrose.

Story continues below advertisement

The former policy analyst in the Alberta government is one of the newer faces of Western conservatism. Alberta-born but raised around the world while her father worked in the energy business, the multilingual Ms. Ambrose says she was a left-winger who awakened to fiscal conservatism at university.

Two years ago, she was talked into running, and has emerged as one of the more formidable forces in Opposition, gaining national recognition last February for telling Social Development Minister Ken Dryden, "We don't need old white guys telling us what do to" about child care.

Ms. Ambrose, presuming she is re-elected in a Harper government, plans to fight for greater fiscal balance. She also believes provinces should have increased international say in areas of direct interest, but is not in favour of reducing Ottawa to the status of a bank machine for the premiers.

"I don't believe in ceding any federal jurisdiction to the provinces at all," she says.

Barry Cooper, a key reform thinker who teaches political philosophy at the University of Calgary, agrees that provinces must have more powers in areas of direct concern.

Mr. Cooper also thinks the equalization formula must be rethought and reconfigured, especially as Alberta's contribution to the national revenue-sharing program increases.

Story continues below advertisement

"If every Albertan spends $4,000 a year on equalization," he says, "maybe they should have a say."

Is Mr. Harper capable of such a rebalancing act? "Now he's in the majors," says Mr. Cooper, who believes Mr. Harper can and will do it.

"This is great for Canada," says Bert Brown, the 67-year-old farmer who has twice been "elected" to the Senate by Albertans but has yet to find a prime minister willing to appoint him. Mr. Harper has promised to move on an elected Senate if he takes office.

"We are going to bring Canada more democratic government," Mr. Brown says.

He also believes the power shift to the West has only begun. He says Canada, like the United States, began in the east and spread west, with elected U.S. senators beginning in Oregon 100 years ago and finally on the verge of coming to Canada.

"We're just 100 years behind," Mr. Brown says. "If I project into the future 100 years, Alberta and British Columbia will be just like California -- with the largest population in the country."

When Ted Byfield, who coined the phrase "The West Wants In," looks into the future, he sees both great promise and some concern for Mr. Harper.

"These are the most exciting times in Canadian politics," says Mr. Byfield, whose newspaper columns and now defunct Alberta Report magazine have been required reading for Western reformers. "This could possibly save the country, in that the country has been terribly divided."

Mr. Byfield believes that Alberta has become the economic engine of the country and that it is only fair that political clout accompany this, but he says much of that political clout would have to be used to protect Alberta's good fortune.

"The natural inclination of Canada will be to channel money out," he says. "But instead of Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Plan, you have Stephen Harper from Calgary. That's going to be a tough one for him. You also might have a referendum on sovereignty coming again in Quebec, only instead of a Trudeau or even a Chrétien there to fight it, you have Stephen Harper from Calgary.

"If he wins, he may have won the election, but he's going to have a tough time."

Mr. Byfield says the Conservative Leader has continually been written off, only to prove people wrong. He has faith that Mr. Harper can pull off this delicate performance, but also sends a sharp warning that "He will have a series of cranky people -- one of them me -- who will be after him if he starts to waffle."

Patrick Beauchamp, head of the 3,000-member Alberta Residents League, is already after Mr. Harper. Mr. Beauchamp's group promotes a plan that argues for Alberta's own police force, tax collection and pension plan.

"This doesn't get the West in, even if Harper gets a majority," Mr. Beauchamp says from Calgary, "simply because our parliamentary system is such a mess."

Some Western politicians are even concerned that too much talk about "The West is In" will cause, as one put it this week, "the Central Canadian sphincter index to shoot to the top."

Certainly, concern has already been expressed by the likes of union leader and Liberal supporter Buzz Hargrove, who claimed this week that, "Harper doesn't have a sense of Canada and its communities. His sense is about Alberta . . . Those principles that he is brought up with and believes in, coming out of there, don't sit well with the rest of Canada."

"The country we know is about to change dramatically," Mr. Hurtig says. ". . . We're not just on the cusp of a Conservative government, we're on the cusp of a major Americanization of the country. And it's going to be fascinating to watch how the citizenry reacts."

Such concerns are not shared by the likes of Mr. Lougheed, who says he remains very much a "Progressive" Conservative, but has high hopes for Mr. Harper -- with one significant caveat.

"The West is in now," Mr. Lougheed says. "And there can be no retreating to Alberta and putting a firewall around it. What's important is that we start to think in a pan-Canadian way."

"Western Conservatives will have to moderate their ways," Mr. Levant says. ". . . But at least we're not at the kids' table any more in Confederation."

As for Ms. Ambrose, she plans to take her piece of the Berlin Wall to Ottawa if she wins as a reminder of "what's really important." But also of what democracy can accomplish when people decide to change things.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies