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The New Battle of Alberta

For decades, the ‘battle of Alberta’ has alluded to the intense rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton, especially on the ice or the football field.

“The worst way to engage Edmontonians is to tell them how things are done in Calgary,” wrote Harvey Locke in a piece titled “The Two Albertas” for the Literary Review of Canada.

But as demographics shift, there’s a different kind of battle of Alberta brewing, one that doesn’t divide people along municipal boundaries. And that battle has elicited boycotts, harassment campaigns and even death threats.

“I think there are multiple Albertas and multiple identities … at play in terms of the political future of the province,” said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.

There’s long been an urban vs. rural divide in Alberta and that gap is widening, Coletto says. But there’s also been an influx of young people into the province, particularly to Edmonton and Calgary.

“There’s a generational divide that’s growing,” Coletto said.

Yet despite deep divisions within Alberta, Albertans are often viewed monolithically by the rest of Canada.

“Albertans will unite to defend their economic freedom and autonomy,” Locke wrote. “They will put aside any difference to avoid being told what to do by Central Canada.”

One need look no further than the current Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline dispute with B.C. to see evidence of that. But, although Albertans may appear to rally together from time to time, they are far from a singular entity when it comes to the environment.

Environmental campaigns draw violent threats

The latest skirmish in the new battle of Alberta broke out in late January over an event called Hops and Headwaters hosted at a brewery in Edmonton. The event was in support of a campaign to protect the Bighorn Backcountry, a region in the province’s foothills home to the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, which provides drinking water to the citizens of Edmonton.

“Water being the largest ingredient in our beer, it’s an issue and something that’s very near and dear to our hearts and important to us,” Bent Stick Brewery co-founder Scott Kendall told City TV News.

Seems fairly reasonable, right? Nope. The brewery was struck with dozens of one-star reviews on its Facebook page for supporting the headwaters protection campaign.

Reviews like this one: “I will not support any company that supports foreign-funded groups such as Y2Y [Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative] and Love Your Headwaters that strive to limit my ability to responsibly access and enjoy the beautiful public lands in Alberta.”

And it didn’t stop at Facebook comments. By the time the event date rolled around, there were enough threats made on social media to warrant hiring four private security guards.

Why were some Albertans so hot under the collar? Because of a proposal to limit off-highway vehicle use in certain areas.

“My organization never had a security protocol until we started working on this issue,” said Stephen Legault, a program director for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y).

Up until now, parts of the Bighorn Backcountry have been somewhat of a free-for-all when it comes to off-highway vehicle use, but all of that ripping around in the wilderness has consequences.

“Off-highway vehicle use can have a dramatic impact on downstream water quality and on the ability of endangered species to survive,” he said.

Damage from off-road vehicles

An example of the type of damage that can be caused by off-highway vehicles. Photo: Stephen Legault.

Legault — who’s lived in Alberta for 25 years — is adamant he isn’t against quadders and other off-highway vehicle users, noting that citizens have done a good job of managing stream crossings in some areas.

“I think the critical thing is that it’s not about eliminating it, it’s about finding a place for it where it does less damage.”

The first threats of physical violence came when Legault gave a talk in Caroline, Alberta, a few months ago.

“For the first time in 25 years, I actually had to leave an event and drive away in order to de-escalate the situation,” Legault said. “In many ways, what’s happening is there’s a proxy fight happening right now over government.”

It’s certainly not the first time a complex policy conversation has turned into a toxic, polarized debate. It’s just one of several attacks on academics, scientists and environmentalists in Alberta in recent years. Veteran environmentalist Tzeporah Berman has faced violent threats for her role in Alberta’s Oil Sands Advisory Group. And economists Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe have weathered more than their fair share of rage online.“

Collaborating with the enemy

Adam Kahane knows a thing or two about how public conversations can get derailed. He has mediated conflicts around the world for more than three decades and has been credited with helping to end Colombia’s civil war.

In his latest book, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People you Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust, Kahane says there are four choices when it comes to working with others: collaborate, adapt, force or exit.

There’s always the choice to collaborate. Unfortunately, often times when people can’t get what they want, they turn the other side into an “enemy.”

“The situation quickly moves from ‘those people have a different perspective’ to ‘those people are wrong’ to ‘those people are my enemy.’ That’s the process of enemy-fying, constructing enemies,” Kahane said.

“I’m not saying people never have enemies, but I’m saying we don’t have enemies as often as we think we do. And so turning an ordinary situation into a declaration of war is an unfortunate escalation.”

Another factor that has really irked some Albertans in the debate over limiting off-highway vehicle use in the Bighorn Backcountry is the involvement of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Both of these organizations (like most non-profit organizations, including ourselves), receive some of their funding from foundations located outside of Canada that share a common interest in protecting wildlife and wilderness and addressing climate change. (We might need a passport at the border, but wide-ranging animals such as grizzly bear, wolverine and lynx roam freely back and forth between the two countries and require protection on both sides of the border for their long-term viability).

As for the involvement of “foreign-funded” groups, Kahane says it’s not the first time there have been charges of “foreign-funded” organizations coming in from the outside and meddling in local affairs.

“It’s a classic form of othering,” Kahne said. “It’s a very common way of looking at things, because then the problem isn’t us. It’s those outsiders. It’s a scapegoat.”

French thinker Rene Girard says a scapegoat removes the need to look at ourselves.

“Usually there’s something amongst us that has to be worked out,” Kahane said.

Crescent Falls in the Bighorn Backcountry. Photo: Stephen Legault.

The real issues

In the case of the escalating tension over the North Saskatchewan River, Legault says there’s been almost no monitoring or enforcement of off-highway vehicle use in Alberta over the last decade.

“An identity has developed that part of being an Albertan means I can go anywhere I want,” he said.

“We’re not asking the government to ban off-highway vehicle use. What we’re saying is there needs to be careful thought given to where off-highway vehicle use occurs … What we’re really trying to do is find a place for everybody to enjoy nature.”

Coletto said this issue feeds into a larger narrative in which the battle lines are easily drawn.

“There’s always a defence of tradition and heritage,” he said. “On the one hand, you’ve got a solid and larger than perceived group of environmentalists and progressives who are living and working and trying to advocate for change in Alberta, but there’s just as large a group that’s trying to defend their way of life.”

Since the early 1970s, there’s been a conversation about protecting the Bighorn Backcountry. In 1974, former premier Peter Lougheed held the eastern slopes hearings, in an attempt to engage ranchers, hunters and sportsmen on a vision for how the region would be managed.

“That proposal has gone so far as to be on roadmaps in Alberta in the 1980s and then got quickly rescinded,” Legault said. “This issue has been part of the effort to protect Alberta’s headwaters for a very long time.”

Getting beyond the battle of Alberta

Kahane is clear that if you want to reach a solution, sometimes you need to work with people with whom you have permanent disagreements.

“I think those situations are more and more common and it is possible. I’ve seen it with my own eyes many times, but you have to make a choice,” Kahane says.

Sometimes that means talking in the presence of armed guards and sometimes that means talking under the condition that people leave their guns at the door.

In Colombia, progress was made in peace talks by bringing together everyone from armed left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitary to trade unions, churchgoers and academics.

Alberta may be no Colombia, but it’s important to remember there are real differences at play, Kahane emphasized.

“They’re not imaginary. And they’re not necessarily ones that if we really had a good chat over a beer we’d find we agreed,” he said.

A fascinating piece of Coletto’s research indicates Albertans think they’re more conservative than they actually are.

“I think it’s historical. You have to always keep in mind the historical political culture of Alberta as being a place that was for most of its history on the outside looking in,” Coletto said. “It is remarkable to think how resilient those views have been and how effectively they’ve been passed down even from generation to generation. If you’re a progressive or an environmental-minded Albertan … that’s always going to be a hurdle in the province.”

But, while being conservative has been a core part of the Alberta identity for a long time, “that identity is starting to be chipped away at,” Coletto says.

Legault said he’s recently been able to start some productive conversations through posting his photographs of the Bighorn Backcountry.

“I think all sides of the conversation need to get over their fear of losing,” he reflected.  “Conservationists need to get over their fear of losing nature and recreationalists need to get over their fear that we’re going to take away everything they care about.”

The irony is people on both sides of the conversation are defending their right to spend time outside in nature.

“There are lots of shared values,” Legault said. “The problem is the divisions are easily exploitable.”

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