A different view of Alberta

“Many eastern media turned to Ted Byfield when they wanted to hear the views of Albertans. And as a third-generation Albertan, I was concerned because he did not reflect the opinions of any Albertan I knew,” says Jackie Flanagan. It’s the 32nd annual National Magazine Awards—held in 2009—and Flanagan’s baby,Alberta Views, has just won Magazine of the Year. (Applause!) “And if Alberta Views has done anything to correct the false image that Alberta has in the rest of the country, I am very grateful.”

Since it was launched in 1997, the Calgary-based magazine, which Flanagan founded, has developed a rep for challenging the stereotypical image associated with Alberta. Byfield was the ultra-conservative, Christian fundamentalist and editor-in-chief of Alberta Report newsmagazine, which folded after three decades in 2003. He did more to shape the mythical angry maverick Albertan than almost anyone else. In early 1999,Maclean’s carried a profile of Byfield, calling him a “force to be reckoned with in the West,” and describing his written world as having “no shades of grey—just bold assertions of right and wrong, good and evil.”

Flanagan’s own written world began one year earlier as a quarterly. Her goal: to water Wild Rose Country and start pulling out its weeds, myth by myth. Known for its long-form journalism—each issue has four feature articles of approximately 3,000 words—the magazine runs stories about the province’s culture (there is one!), environment (we do care!), economy and politics (let’s de-Klein!), as well as fiction and poetry. These days, the magazine puts out 10 issues a year and has a modest but growing circulation of 20,000.

Ironically (as some say), the money backing the magazine comes from Flanagan’s divorce settlement with Allan Markin, the chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Limited—one of the biggest independent crude oil and natural gas producers in the world. But without this black gold, Alberta Views might not exist, and wouldn’t have won NMA gold.

Rooting out traditional stereotypes of Alberta—that it’s full of greenback worshippers who scoff at Greenpeace—hasn’t been easy for the magazine. Chris Turner, a Calgarian who won gold at last year’s NMAs for his Alberta Views article, “The Big Decision,” which asks whether Alberta should develop nuclear power, says the way his city and province are talked about in the national media is “appallingly” one-dimensional. “When Alberta Views won its NMA, I sent Evan [Osenton, associate editor of the magazine] a congratulatory email,” Turner remembers. “It said, ’Well, you have finally convinced at least a couple of Toronto’s media elite that there is more to Alberta culture than cowboys on a Friday night.’”

Turner also remembers a story meeting in 2007 with a few Globe and Mail editors, regarding his new column on sustainability. “I think there’s an interesting story to be told about the innovations around sustainability that the city of Calgary is doing,” he said. They replied, “Really, the city of Calgary? What—what are they doing?”

“Well, you know, among other things the CTrain [the city’s LRT system] is wind powered…” They were, but of course, blown away. “The headline could have been ’Holy shit, Calgary has wind power,’” Turner laughs. “How could that be? We were sure they burned oil for fun out there.”

Out there. Albertans’ rep as rednecks and earth-destroyers worries Flanagan. That’s why Alberta Viewspublished the May 2009 issue, “Smoke & Mirrors,” discussing the myths created for, and perpetuated by, Albertans. One feature, “Martha and Henry Retire,” by Sheila Pratt, a senior writer at the Edmonton Journal, opens a window to let some smoke out. “[Ralph] Klein often referred to his favourite couple [Martha and Henry] as ’severely normal Albertans’…To be anyone else, by definition, was abnormal or un-Albertan,” she writes. Martha and Henry were the invented regular folk, the “master narrative” that the Klein era flagged as archetypal Albertans. But Pratt argues for the un-Albertans, saying they include “a lot of people—arts-loving urbanites, ethnic minorities, upwardly mobile professionals, environmentalists, the working poor, aboriginals, soccer moms worried about their kids’ class sizes…”

They definitely include Alberta filmmaker Geo Takach, who also wrote an essay for “Smoke & Mirrors” called “Mythologized & Misunderstood.” Takach tells me that ” Alberta Views is one of the few publications where you can find myths about Alberta debunked. And not just debunked for the sake of rhetoric or pushing for the province, but you can get cold, hard facts.” He’s talking about articles like “The Big Decision,” in which Turner wrote: “So let’s have a discussion, by all means, about Alberta’s energy future and the place of nuclear power in it…Do we really need a nuclear mainframe to get us there? Are we really so lacking in foresight? In courage? Why not lead?”

Stories like Turner’s, Pratt’s and the entire “Smoke & Mirrors” issue revitalize Alberta—getting some fresh air into Canada’s collective lungs, instead of just blowing the old smoke in our face. But some critics thinkAlberta Views’ fresh air is thin.

Not surprisingly, Ezra Levant, a self-described “turbo-capitalist,” is one of them. Levant published his own Alberta magazine, the Western Standard (2004-2007), which was from the Alberta Report mould. He refers toAlberta Views as an “artsy liberal magazine,” saying, “I’m a right-wing guy. I read [Alberta Views] if I want to know what the Liberal Party is thinking.” But, he adds, “That’s fine, though. I love it. That’s the great thing about the diversity of the media.”

Still, Levant pointedly disagrees with the message of Flanagan’s NMA speech: “She says Alberta Reportdidn’t represent Alberta. Well how many seats do the Liberals and NDP hold in Alberta out of 83—is it six or something? So I actually think that Alberta Report was a better reflection of Alberta than her NDP, Liberal magazine.”

That attitude is part of the problem, argues Flanagan: “I don’t believe in that polarization of right and left, black and white, good and bad. The notion that people are enemies and that one has to triumph over the other.”

But debunking the myths and clearing the smoke is just one corner of Flanagan’s written world. Alberta Views is about the rally for “positive social change” (think Turner). “We’re not big-L liberal. We’re progressive. We’re for everyone,” she says, listing the Marthas and Henrys, the Levants and Byfields, artists, activists, environmentalists and oilmen.

Maybe then, the true frontier spirit of 21st century Alberta isn’t “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” Not more Alberta firewalls and regressive closed-loop mentality. Rather, it’s a spirit of “we’re all in this together” that Flanagan says is the real Alberta, the real Canada even, that Alberta Views believes in.