How propaganda became memory: Pierre Trudeau, Alberta and the National Energy Program

On this day 40 years ago, prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s finance minister and deputy PM, Allan MacEachen, rose in Parliament to introduce a new national budget.

Warning that Canada could become increasingly dependent on foreign supplies of oil and subject to the vagaries of the world oil market, Mr. MacEachen said in his budget speech that “the federal government feels compelled to put Canada’s energy house in order.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney soon after entering Alberta provincial politics (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Therefore, the powerful Cape Breton-Highlands-Canso MP continued, “I am tabling tonight the Government of Canada’s National Energy Program.”

The National Energy Program, soon to be known universally as the NEP, was founded on three basic principles, Mr. MacEachen said:

  • Security of supply and ultimate independence from the world oil market
  • Opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry, particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion.
  • Fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians.

Some of these points – if not necessarily the bit about protecting Canadians outside Alberta from the worst of high international oil prices by basing domestic prices on an average of the price of imported and domestic oil – sound remarkably like the demands of Alberta Conservatives nowadays.

Yet almost ever since, Alberta Conservatives have worked tirelessly to vilify the NEP and ensure today is remembered as a date that will live in infamy, even if most of us don’t actually remember the precise date. Mr. MacEachen is barely remembered; Mr. Trudeau is usually blamed.

So, for example, back in the late summer 2015, not long after Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party had shocked everyone by being elected in Alberta and not long before another Trudeau would become prime minister, defence minister and Calgary MP Jason Kenney launched the Conservative Party’s campaign in Alberta with a story scary enough for Halloween.

Albertans, he said, “remember that the last Trudeau who was prime minister destroyed single-handedly the energy economy of Alberta and Calgary leading to massive layoffs, huge numbers of bankruptcies and a massive recession in this province because of the National Energy Program.”

This, of course, was mostly baloney. But like an old hymn we’ve all sung a thousand times before, by 2015 we Albertans didn’t need a hymnbook to remember the words.

Justin Trudeau on a visit to Edmonton just before his election as prime minister (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In those days, Mr. Kenney still had his eye on first prize – inheriting Stephen Harper’s job as Conservative prime minister of Canada – so like a good preacher warming up his flock before the offering plate passes by, he had a little twist to give his homily an up-to-date spin.

“I frankly don’t see much difference between Pierre Trudeau’s policies and Justin Trudeau’s arrogant, anti-Alberta attitude that he’s expressed more than once,” Mr. Kenney huffed.

This may all sound a little hyperbolic to anyone with even a tenuous grasp of history. The NEP had its flaws, and not just from Alberta’s perspective, but it’s hardly the scary ghost story Conservatives have been telling and retelling around Alberta campfires for generations.

Still, there’s always a willing audience for this kind of nonsense among people who absorbed their hatred of the NEP and the Trudeaus with their mothers’ milk, as Mr. Kenney well knew.

This is what happens when propaganda becomes memory.

If you’re old enough, though, cast your mind back to the mid-1970s. If you’re not, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – which nowadays we Albertans like to brand a source of “dictator oil” – had managed to quadruple the price of oil, creating severe economic problems for countries like Canada.

Rachel Notley, then Alberta’s NDP premier, in the fall of 2015 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Mr. Trudeau’s government tried to address the situation, first by establishing Petro-Canada, then by bringing in the NEP to ensure Canadian oil security, increase Canadian ownership of our own resource, and capture for all Canadians some of the huge windfall increases in oil revenue flowing to Peter Lougheed’s Conservative Government in Alberta thanks to the massive OPEC price increases.

This was not received well by Mr. Lougheed, or the foreign-owned oil companies that dominated the Alberta oilpatch, which saw the potential for a decrease in their windfall profits.

The PM’s plan might have worked but for the tumble in oil prices and the global recession of 1981 and 1982, which notwithstanding Mr. Kenney’s charming faith in the singular power of Pierre, was not caused by the elder Mr. Trudeau and had precious little to do with the NEP.

All the economies in the world suffered through the same situation. In Alberta, our Conservative-dominated political class cynically blamed the Liberals and the NEP for Alberta’s economic troubles, and have continued blaming them ever since with such fervor that this convenient fantasy has taken on the quality of inerrant Biblical revelation.

Brian Mulroney, Conservative prime minister from 1984 to 1993, used the widespread belief in this imaginative interpretation of history to try to ensure such things as national energy self-sufficiency could never happen again, by selling off Canadians’ share in the industry and entrenching prohibitions on export taxes and controls in the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who drove a stake through the heart of the NEP (Photo: Yousuf Karsh, Public Archives of Canada).

Remember that every time you want to yell at Quebec or British Columbia for not seeming sufficiently enthusiastic about carrying our somewhat democratically inclined bitumen through pipes in their front yards, or every time you want to blame another province’s government for a market system that lets corporations choose where they’ll buy their oil.

Mr. Kenney’s speechifying didn’t really work as intended in 2015. The faith of Albertans’ in the NEP myth may have never faltered, but the rest of Canada had moved on.

Justin Trudeau became prime minister. Mr. Harper quit. The time didn’t look right for another Alberta resident to replace him, so Andrew Scheer became leader of the Opposition. Alberta’s oil boom went bust.

For his part, Mr. Kenney decided to come to Alberta and save us from ourselves. He persuaded enough of us that an application of a bit of the old Conservative austerity snake oil could bring the boom back one more time.

Alas, with each passing month it becomes a little more apparent that Alberta’s last boom may well have been its last boom.

In Alberta times don’t seem to have changed all that much, though. Alberta Conservatives are still blaming the NEP and Trudeaus in Ottawa for things that happened outside Canadian control and for their own failure adapting to a changing world.

Everywhere else, though, times have changed. The world is moving away from fossil fuels and almost everyone knows it, whether they like it or not.

And here we are, stuck with Jason Kenney. Canada doesn’t want him. And try as we might, after 40 years we can’t even blame the NEP for our misfortune!


How propaganda became memory: Pierre Trudeau, Alberta and the National Energy Program