Jared Wesley leads the Common Ground project. Contributed photo

How Alberta’s political culture is (and isn’t) changing

Jared Wesley on polarization and identity.

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One of the best articles I’ve read in recent weeks is a piece by Emma Jackson in The Breach.

Jackson is an Edmonton climate activist and organizer, and her article is about what the left can learn from the so-called Freedom Convoy movement. She talks about how there’s a battle playing out right now in Canada between two visions. Not just the visions themselves—but the power and organizing behind them. She makes the case for movement-building that is messy and imperfect, something she says the right often does a better job of than the left.

In her piece, she talks about the importance of stories. As humans, we need stories. We can’t make sense of our world without them, and I don’t think we can find a place of belonging without them, either.

But right now it often feels like we live in a world of endlessly fragmenting stories. It can be completely disorienting. And when we’re drawing from such divergent wells of information and understanding, the idea of having some semblance of a shared story in society can seem like nothing more than naive idealism.

Jared Wesley has given more consideration to this than most Albertans.

He’s a political scientist at the University of Alberta, and he leads something called the Common Ground project. It’s a group of researchers who are digging into the political culture of Western Canada. They look at what binds people in the West together—and where, and why, they diverge.

I spoke with Wesley about political polarization, what an Albertan looks like, the rise of white nationalism, and that tricky question of what to do when your family or friends are sympathetic to political views you find abhorrent. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I'm curious about the Common Ground Project, and I've been curious about it for a while—this idea of looking at where Albertans and Western Canadians are finding common ground, and where they aren't. Why is it that conservatives and progressives are failing to find common ground in Western Canada?

Unpacking why we're seeing this type of polarization would fill an entire shelf in a library, but what our project is looking at is: To what extent are progressives and conservatives actually talking with one another? To what extent do they engage with one another, either on social media or in person? And what happens when we actually do bring them together through focus groups? Do they look at their communities' overarching values the same way?

And we find that, actually, there is a lot of consensus as to what Alberta political culture is.

Progressives and conservatives can disagree whether those values are good or bad, but they seem to have a general sense that Alberta's political culture is grounded in this age-old cowboy myth that's animated our politics really dating back to the early 20th century—notions like personal responsibility, bootstrap individualism, settler colonialism. While those terms don't get used by folks in our focus groups, when we ask them to tell us what the average Albertan thinks, that's what they tell us.

If we look at public opinion surveys, Albertans do agree on a lot of public policy issues, and a lot of Albertans see themselves as being in the centre of the spectrum. Our research is trying to figure out why this sense of Alberta's political culture being right-wing persists, and how does it help us understand why progressives in particular feel alienated in this political culture?

To what extent is that alienation new? It's easy to look around and think we've never been so divided, and that social media entrenches us in our own echo chambers. But has it ever been so, or is it actually a new phenomenon?

I think part of it has to do with the evolution of Alberta's society over the last number of decades. As we've seen generational change and immigration to the province, today's Alberta doesn't look like it did even in the 1990s. Just looking at demographics, within the next 10 years or so, about one out of every four Albertans is going to be a member of a visible minority community, or a BIPOC community.

And I think we're starting to see the polarization a little bit more, or feel it more, because Albertans are starting to realize this disjunction between who they actually are when it comes to their attitudes about public policy—or where they position themselves on the ideological spectrum—and what they see the community values to be.

This manifests itself on social media with people saying, when a government makes an announcement that is in keeping with that conservative political culture, "I hate this place. This is not my Alberta. I'm leaving." I think a lot more people are noticing that their own personal ideology doesn't seem to fit with that political culture.

That, to me, suggests that there’s a real disjunction between who Albertans actually are and who they think they are.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist

At the same time, I think many of them are starting to realize that they're not alone in this, and that if we're not at the tipping point, we're coming close to it. Progressives are realizing that they are what many people on social media are calling the "silent majority" when it comes to things like health restrictions. So public opinion is out of sync with those dominant values. When we see that happening in other cultures, in the past it has sparked some kind of a cultural shift, where people start to see that their own ways of thinking are not in keeping with the general consensus—or what they think is the general consensus—of society.

And usually that disjunction is brought to the fore during major events, like a pandemic.

You've done this work of digging into who is the average Albertan, and in focus groups you ask people to actually draw and portray—correct me if I'm wrong—the average Albertan. I'm curious what you've gleaned from it and if there's been anything surprising there.

The tactic is a little bit different from what we see with public opinion. You can measure the average Albertan by just simply taking the average of individual opinions, and you'll come up with, as I said before, a pretty centrist person. But that's not really measuring who Albertans think the average Albertan is.

We ask them to draw us an Albertan. We don't say "average" Albertan. We say, "Just draw us an Albertan. The first thing that pops into your mind, draw that." They get quite creative and in-depth. What was most startling when we did this was the ubiquity and persistence of three different personas in the minds of Albertans as to who is the quintessential member of their community.

It was either a roughneck, a redneck, or a cowboy. So somebody who works on the rigs, a farmer, or a rancher.

It was probably most eye-opening when we started piloting this on university campuses across the province. I remember walking into a classroom at Grant MacEwan full of students, and two young women sitting on opposite ends of the room drew exactly the same person with exactly the same name. His name was Joe. So I said, "Well, this is interesting. Do you two know each other?" And they said, "Oh, no. Just in class." And I asked them both, "Who did you draw?" And they said, "Well, I drew my dad." They both drew their dad. And I was like, "You're not sisters?" "No, no, no. That's my dad. He's wearing plaid." And we had a little bit of a laugh.

But then you started to see lightbulbs go off in the room. These were two young women who by most measures would be typical, at least in the Edmonton community, who drew somebody that did not look like them. And there are very few people in our focus groups that actually draw themselves as Albertans—and that's a bit disturbing to me. People of colour, women, younger people, would draw that stereotypical Joe Albertan 30-to-50-year-old man in plaid.

That, to me, suggests that there's a real disjunction between who Albertans actually are and who they think they are.

When we're in the focus groups, we ask people to park their own personal opinions about politics and tell us, "How would Joe view politics? How would Joe react to this particular headline or this policy change?" Through those activities we really unpack who Albertans think the average member of their community is.

And that is essentially what drives political culture: It's that voice in the back of your head that's telling you what's acceptable and what's not acceptable; what's politically correct to do, say, or think, and what's not. And it's a lens through which we look at political party leaders and other leaders. Do we take them seriously if they, for example, come out and propose a provincial sales tax? Is that seen as being mainstream or extreme?

And in the last few elections, if the Alberta Liberal Party is any indication, it’s seen as being extreme. So even folks that don't agree with Joe on many things, that don't see eye-to-eye with him because they're progressive or for any other reason, they still are affected by their view of Joe. Joe still has an effect on all of us in this province.

It's so interesting that that archetype lives on—roughneck Joe, farmer Joe. Do you think that plays into some of the alienation we see? If you don’t see yourself as an Albertan, you’re kind of standing outside the story of the place, in a sense.

Well, exactly right. Political culture is a story we tell ourselves. And it's a story that's told to us through things like curriculum. We're leading a study now that's an offshoot of our Common Ground project, called Becoming Albertan, where we're trying to figure out—at what point do kids start to draw Joe? We've had students from Grade 3 up to Grade 12 drawing us Albertans, and we found that Alberta cowboy myth starts to really set in people's minds somewhere in high school. And we're trying to figure out, what is it in high school that makes folks turn away from drawing, say, Connor McDavid and Jann Arden, and to start drawing Joe?

To stop drawing women and people of color, and start drawing exclusively men?

Part of that might be popular culture, but I think a lot of it has to do with the way that politicians have cultivated this myth over time. And politicians don't just cultivate it; they're affected by it too.

I'll give you one example from the second wave of the pandemic. Then-Health Minister Tyler Shandro was at a town hall. He was asked, "Why do we have a provincewide mask mandate? The science is there. Other jurisdictions are moving in this direction. Why don't we do it?" And his response was illuminating. He said: I know the science is there. I know the public opinion is there. But tell me, how am I supposed to sell a mask mandate to the guy in Cold Lake?

And right there, in that moment, you realize who he thinks the typical Albertan is and who anchors his worldview when it comes to politics. That was more subtle. We've seen it far more overtly, with Ralph Klein conjuring up images of Martha and Henry, and Jason Kenney doing the same thing with the same personas, drawing on this notion of who is a severely normal Albertan. When you say those names—Martha and Henry—you have a very distinct image of what it means to be an average Albertan. So politicians are cultivating this over time, and it becomes politicized, it becomes socialized, and it eventually gets embedded in our own political institutions.

Political culture is a story we tell ourselves.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist

It's no coincidence that the UCP is now moving forward with a new culture minister and a task force looking into Alberta identity. You have UCP private members moving motions to make rodeo Alberta's provincial sport. Then there’s the Stampede becoming the symbol of pandemic-era freedom. Some of this stuff is subtle, but some of it's really not—and so it's no wonder that this myth has persisted over time.

It's only when that way of thinking, that way of looking at the world, runs head-on against something that this worldview can't solve—like a global pandemic—that we start to see people question whether those old ways of thinking are actually appropriate.

Western democracies are seeing more polarization across the board. That isn't specific to this region. But in this region, we have seen Wexit, the yellow vest movement and now the convoy movement. We have seen these things take form and take root here. Is it our political culture that fosters these things, or is it just what's happening generally in the world?

That's a really good question. You can tackle it from a number of different angles, and I'm going to take one particular approach.

I'll take you back to Joe the Albertan wearing plaid, working in the fields or elsewhere. Joe as a symbol of Alberta. If we asked our participants, "How's Joe doing?" Joe feels anxious right now. Joe's way of life, his way of living, his livelihood, is in jeopardy—these are the words of our participants. Whether he's working on the rigs, working in the fields, forces beyond his control—the environmental movement, for example, or shifts in natural resource economies and so on—are really impacting Joe. And in his community, in Canada, and in his own family in some instances, Joe feels like his status is being threatened.

To this point, a lot of researchers are focused on individuals who feel that way who then become radicalized into some of these white nationalist and insurrection movements that we see now on both sides of the border.

Our research is looking at how, when a community identifies with that as being their primary persona—what impact does that have on the community's sense of self? And while I wouldn't use the term "group identity crisis," I think we're getting to that point where Alberta can't just see itself as being an oil-and-gas-producing province. There's something that's going to have to happen in transition.

And that transition can be jarring—not just for individuals, but for the whole community. So there's that feeling of individual status loss, but also a collective status loss that really, I think, is driving a lot of the sympathy for the convoy movement as well.

When I look around at what's happening in the world, it often occurs to me that people are trying to make sense of something that, perhaps, doesn't make sense, of something that's confusing and disorienting—the pandemic and being thrown into this topsy-turvy world for the last couple years. And people are going to try and make sense of that in one way or another. In the past—I might be romanticizing this—were we more likely to shape a shared story together? Whereas now you have very divergent stories. Is that new, or is that something that's always been the case when we're faced with crises like this?

I wouldn't say it's new, but it's definitely been a slow-moving process over time. Cas Mudde has talked about modern populism consisting of two elements. There's the anti-elite element that's always been part of populism. This idea that politicians, academics, members of the mainstream media, as elites, can't be trusted. And that kind of sentiment has been cultivated by neoliberals dating back decades now.

The other element of populism that Mudde talks about is anti-pluralist. So there's this pushback against a tolerance within society that respects different worldviews, and people that look and think and act differently as being legitimate members of our political community, our political discourse. So there's a homogenizing aspect of it that says, "If you don't get on board with the values that I'm proposing are at the heart of our community"—democracy, rights, however they might couch it—then you're an outsider and you deserve to be, in some cases, demonized and delegitimized in the political sphere. So I think there's that going on. There's the rise of this modern populism.

There's a book that was written in the late 1990s called The Decline of Deference that looked at the changes in Canadians' attitudes towards institutions like political parties and politicians, academics, and so on. Over time, I think, Canadians have become less deferential to elites. So whereas we may have turned to establishment figures to help solve a major crisis like, say, a global pandemic or an economic downturn, people are now more likely to feel what we call a cognitive mobilization. They feel like they can handle it themselves. They feel like they don't need somebody else to tell them that, because they've got Google, or they've got a high school diploma, or in some cases they've got a university degree, and they feel like they can answer this on their own.

So you combine that with the individualism that's been cultivated by neoliberals and the new populism, and you get a society that's more likely to go its own way rather than pull together. In other words, social fabric is not so much a way to describe society, but rather, now I think the threads are separating and fraying in some areas.

And the big question is: Should we, and can we, put that social fabric back together?

I don't know if you saw the piece by Emma Jackson in The Breach, but she wrote about what the left can learn from the Freedom Convoy movement. She describes counter-protesting a Yellow Vest rally of some sort, and she had this moment of epiphany standing across from somebody who was her ideological opposite. This guy was screaming about how he hates Trudeau, and she said, "I hate Trudeau too"—but they had different reasons for it. They shared this sense of dissatisfaction and this sense of the system being rigged against them, the system rigged against working people. But they had totally different ways of understanding it. And I thought that was so interesting. This weird patch of common ground for two people who, on the surface, are very different.

I mean, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," right? It seems to be tying those two people together, but that's a very thin bond. Michael Ignatieff wrote a piece about 10 years ago on the eve of the Tea Party movement in the United States. He wrote: Politics starts to devolve when we start treating our opponents as enemies instead of adversaries. And by that, he means enemies are people that should be vanquished. They don't have any legitimate place in our politics. "F Trudeau, I hate Trudeau"—that type of absolutist language doesn't foster respect in public discourse.

Now, before I start to get even more phone calls to my voicemail saying, "I'm not going to go and hug a Nazi," I'm not talking about the folks that are spreading hate. There is a limit to tolerance. But in mainstream Canadian society, there's more common ground there than simply: "We both hate this person." And I think we need to move away from looking at our opponents as somebody that needs to be vanquished and wiped off the political map, to: They need to be defeated in legitimate elections.

I'm going to go back to another term you raised—that the system seems to be “rigged.” That type of language leads to another problem that we're seeing on full display with this convoy movement, which is a lack of losers' consent. For years, when the mainstream political class in Canada would lose an election, we didn't see a huge outcry, even if they won the popular vote and lost the election in terms of the number of seats. The system was respected.

We need to start looking for off-ramps for these folks who have genuine grievances.

Jared Wesley,

Political scientist

And until about a year ago, I would say in Canada, we saw no signs of that changing whatsoever, but we're seeing it on the right now. We're seeing it in constituency races with the UCP. We saw it in the race for the PC leadership and the premiership of Manitoba, where one of the losers took the winner to court over it. We're seeing it in right-wing media now, with Elections Canada saying over 200,000 mail-in ballots weren't counted because they weren't returned in time. "Oh, now the system's rigged. We need to count all of those votes." This is very, very dangerous territory. It's probably what worries me most in the short term out of this convoy movement. There are folks that just simply do not accept democratically elected governments as legitimate. And that, as we've seen on full display in the capital riots, is a very dangerous place to be.

I know I'm drawing a bit from this piece in The Breach, but I want to bring up one more point that was mentioned, because I think it's a really good one. Jackson writes that the Freedom Convoy movement “built a mass on-ramp for people with highly divergent views.” And she makes the point that the left, by contrast, is a lot more insular, more of a club where people are expected to already agree on a wide range of views. Do you think that’s part of the appeal of a movement like this—the doors are wide open, in a sense?

One strain of research suggests that a lot of protest movements are held together and they grow because people feel a sense of solidarity. So if you're looking at the common strands that hold all of these disparate ideas together, it's not just vaccine mandates, of course. It goes beyond that. It's people that feel left behind, that just hate Justin Trudeau, the federal government, Laurentian elites, so much that they're willing to drive across Canada and block international roadways. That type of solidarity feels good for a time, and certainly that's where we get the party atmosphere that we hear erupting at these encampments. It's because, for the first time, people feel like they belong somewhere. And they feel like they're in a position of power again. I think that's very alluring.

But to the metaphor that you mentioned from The Breach article—there are a lot of on-ramps to this movement, sure. I think in the weeks ahead, we need to start thinking about the off-ramps. Because while some people have jumped off the convoy when they started to see symbols of hate and so on, a lot of folks are now dug in and entrenched. And they're tired, as you see on social media, of being talked down to by intellectual elites, by politicians, by the Prime Minister, who's writing them off—as Hillary Clinton did, by the way, when she wrote off [many Trump supporters in 2016] as belonging in a "basket of deplorables." Those types of comments aren't helping.

We need to start looking for off-ramps for these folks who have genuine grievances. We need to bring them back into the political mainstream. So the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race is one opportunity for that, and I'm actually heartened to hear that there are some what I call older-establishment conservatives that are willing to stick their neck out and say: You know what? We are the party of law and order. We should be the party of blue-collar workers, and we need to start developing real plans with them rather than simply spewing rhetoric their way and hoping that they vote for us.

I want to dig a bit more into the grievances you mention and how we should understand them. Some of the research you've done around vaccine hesitancy is really interesting. Vaccine hesitancy has played out very predictably along political lines—those on the right tend to be more skeptical of vaccines, whereas those on the left tend to embrace them more readily. But it also plays out along lines of economic hardship, as those with lower incomes tend to be more vaccine hesitant. And that's something that, I think, doesn't necessarily get as much attention. Is that one of the grievances you're referring to?

I think the overall grievance is just: We don't feel heard. I remember there was an interview on CBC the other night where there was a rare quiet moment on the streets of Ottawa, and they found this older gentleman with a very long scraggly beard, and the interviewer was asking him: Why are you here? And he said, "I'm tired of not being heard, and these people hear me." So they may all have individual grievances about vaccine mandates or whatever it is, but ultimately it's the act of feeling heard and belonging that these people are aggrieved about.

People of color, women, younger people, would draw that stereotypical Joe Albertan 30-to-50-year-old man in plaid.

Jared Wesley,

Political Scientist

To your point about vaccine hesitancy, I think we didn't approach the vaccine rollout in a very inclusive way. Our research shows that there's a big difference between being anti-vax and being vaccine hesitant. And I know a lot of people are moving now towards saying, "Well, if you're still hesitant at this point, you must be anti-vaccine." I think people still have legitimate questions about vaccines that are not being answered. Rather, they're being dismissed: "Oh, you still have questions at this point? What's wrong with you?" That's a conversation ender. That's not a conversation starter, and it really only gets people's backs up: "Well, you're going to talk down to me because I don't know all your fancy scientific words? Okay, microchips make sense to me, then."

I'm being a bit facetious, but it goes back to the way we treat each other. I go back to tribalism. Looking at somebody who doesn't take a vaccine as being your enemy is not helping the situation. And I'm not sure how we get back to a place where we can talk to each other again in a rational way. A lot of people have given up hope, saying we live on different planets when it comes to different sets of facts and so on, but research shows that if you have the right person at the right time delivering the right information, we can change people's minds through rational discussion.

I think part of the problem right now in the pandemic is we're not face-to-face anymore. A lot of our conversations are happening over text or over email or, worse yet, on social media with anonymized accounts. And we're not meeting people in common places anymore. That physical distancing is having a detrimental effect as well.

One thing that I've noticed, as people are trying to process what's happening in Ottawa and along the border, is people on the centre-left taking what is understood to be a moral stand. So there are Confederate flags flying, there are these white supremacist elements, and there's this sense of: I'm going to speak out against that. But not only am I going to speak out against that, but if any of my friends express solidarity with this convoy in any way—you're out. I'm cutting you out. I'm curious about your view on that. I have a friend who reached out to me who is very confused on all of this stuff and sees an appeal in the Freedom Convoy movement but is really searching—and if I was just to cut him out of my life, it would just further entrench him, I think.

Well, I start from a point of zero tolerance, no quarter for hate. So if your friend is openly advocating white nationalist views or posting symbols like the Nazi flag or the Confederate flag—I'm not talking about those people. Those people should be shunned.

And I think our Premier should probably start acknowledging that white nationalists are at the head of this convoy, by the way, instead of saying, oh, this peaceful, well-intentioned protest got hijacked by white nationalists. That's not the case. White nationalists have been at the head of this thing from the very beginning, and they're raising millions of dollars. That should be worrisome. And everybody with access to a social media feed, in my mind, should be standing up to that and condemning it outright—that these insurrectionists and extremists at the heart of this movement have no place in Canadian politics, period.

That can be a little bit off-putting for folks that are used to a tolerant society and saying, "Well, we need to respect all views." No. Karl Popper and, before him, Carl Schmitt, has written repeatedly that that's the paradox of tolerance: If you become too tolerant, then the intolerant will take over, so there has to be a line in the sand when it comes to hate.

But outside of that core of the convoy, there are folks who are attracted to it, as we've said, for a variety of different reasons. Now, we can call them enablers of white supremacy by supporting it. We can call them privileged for not recognizing their own privilege in society, and we can dismiss their perceptions of status loss, as we've talked about, as being not matching with reality. Sure, you can do that. That might feel good for the next five or 10 minutes. It might give you a bit of important mental health relief from having to deal with your crazy uncle, cousin, sister or whoever on social media.

But I would ask you: At what point are you going to re-engage?

That absolutist language, I think, locks us into a very staid view of people and their ability to evolve.

Jared Wesley, Political Scientist

I hear a lot of people saying, "No, that's it. I'm not ever going to have Christmas dinner with these folks again. If they support the convoy, that means that they're a white nationalist." I don't see how that helps us bridge the divides that we see in our communities in the long term. At some point, we're all going to have to go back to public spaces after the pandemic is over, where we're going to have to interact with folks.

My last piece of advice for folks: Avoid absolutist language. That is the hallmark of tribalism, of viewing your opponents as enemies instead of adversaries. And I have to catch myself all the time on this. Avoid saying, "All conservatives are X. All progressives are X." Or, "They'll always do this." That absolutist language, I think, locks us into a very staid view of people and their ability to evolve, but also of society.

I think it's important to get back to the basics in trying to understand where other people in our communities are coming from. Not stereotyping them. Not dismissing their claims because their reality doesn't conform to your reality. Certainly, there's a basis of facts we need to strive towards building, but trying to understand where other people are coming from is an important next step that all of us can take to get ourselves out of this moment.

And lastly, I would just say there's an extension to that. I don't think the people that got us into this mess are the ones that are going to get us out of it. So for those folks that are waiting around for today's politicians or today's convoy leaders to magically come up with a solution, you're going to be waiting for a while. And we need to start to think about ways that we as individuals can contribute to the type of society we want to see emerging from this.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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