Alberta Politics
Allan MacEachen, left, greets Pierre Trudeau in Mr. MacEachen’s Cape Breton riding in 1974 (Photo: Cape Breton Post).

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

Posted on October 28, 2020, 1:57 am
10 mins

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!

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

  1. Dave

    October 28th, 2020

    As someone just old enough to remember the NEP, the revisionist history around it is fascinating, although somewhat understandable. Every province has its things – complaining about the NEP is sure an Alberta thing.

    I think the problem is the the three things you mentioned – NEP, recession and oil price collapse happened fairly quickly in succession. The NEP happened first and impacted Alberta most, so everything that followed was blamed on it, at least here.

    Now it is true, the NEP hurt the oil industry and some rigs right after packed up and moved to the US or were idled. However the greater blow happened after when oil prices fell. Within a year or two, those Alberta rigs that moved to the US also were idled there where there was no NEP. Yes, our boom ended a bit sooner and perhaps more suddenly, but even without the NEP it would have only lasted a year or two more. However, everything bad over the next few years was blamed on Trudeau, the Liberals and the NEP.

    I fear we are making some of the same mistakes that led to the NEP. At that time we had no elected voice in Ottawa to tell or warn Trudeau that it was not such a good idea. Now, again there are no Alberta MPs in the Federal cabinet. Also not all mistakes were made by the Federal Liberals. As I recall they arrived at a truce agreement with the Lougheed PC’s which relied on splitting the spoils from ever rising oil prices. The problem was this happened just before oil prices started falling – talk about bad timing by both. In fact, there is a very well known picture of Trudeau and Lougheed celebrating that particular agreement with champagne glasses. So, it wasn’t all Trudeau and all the NEP that led to all the subsequent economic problems, which is the part many of us probably most accurately remember. Yet the myth persists and may continue to do so for some time yet.

    Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    October 28th, 2020

    ” The time didn’t look right for another Alberta resident to replace him, so Andrew Scheer became leader of the Opposition. ”

    When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 he looked like an unstoppable force. His ‘sunny ways’ message resonated across the country, and on the international stage. He even took 4 seats in Alberta. I think that, like all the other rats, Jason Kenney chose to abandon the good ship CPC, rather than take on the leadership role and spend the next 2 or 3 terms as leader of the opposition, before getting the boot when the party decided a different leader would be a good idea.

    Seeing how this has played out has made the Angry Midget well, angry. He hates Justin Trudeau for blocking his ordained path to 24 Sussex, and now that he sees how Mr. Trudeau is not as unstoppable as first thought, he is angry with the world for how this has turned out. Making matters even worse, now a pandemic has even disrupted his plan to make Alberta a true right wing utopia. How better to vent his anger than by picking on some low paid laundry workers?

    Reply
  3. Abs

    October 28th, 2020

    What festivities do you think the party in power has planned for this most mythical of days? Prostrating themselves in front of a barrel of bitumen? Maybe a tent revival on the bald prairie? Or will they be too busy pounding the drum for the day of reckoning, soon to rain down on those caught up in Kenney’s health care privatization scheme? It’s a pity that many who took part in the wildcat strike mistakenly exchanged one despotic regime for another when they came to Alberta. Ironic, isn’t it, that some of them likely entered the country under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that Kenney created? Never mind, Kenney will teach them what democracy really means in 2020, and it’s a lesson no one will forget. Narcissistic rage in 3, 2, 1… Perhaps we’ll see an underground railroad to B.C., where the offenders will be granted amnesty from Kenney.

    Puffed-up myths, even when they’re as enticing as Cheezies, aren’t enough to make anyone forget that the Great Purge from the isolation basement is about to begin.

    Reply
  4. Political Ranger

    October 28th, 2020

    The Conservatives really are inept. And incompetent. And in the case of Mulroney, criminal.

    They are the authors of the economic malaise here on the flats. An oil boom, like a oil bust, has nothing to do with local politics and everything to do with global markets and international petro-corps. But a local politician like Klien or any of the rest of the sorry mob of conservatives can try to hitch a Free Ride with the petro-corps or the global petro-market.
    Just keep yer lip zipped and sweep up whatever they leave.

    A National Energy policy would have saved the slobbering idiots in this province, as well as the few smart and well-meaning ones who haven’t yet left, a whole lot of trouble over the last couple generations and for the next few. Any sane policy to get this province out of the hole they’ve dug WILL require a National Energy Programe; the nation has already coughed up over $100 million. Out of charity. Just to keep the rubes and rig-pigs quiet.
    It’s a deep, deep hole and a very serious economic problem. Conservatives are to stupid to even see this let alone begin to plot a way out. This will require a nation-wide and industry-wide and society-wide effort to resolve.
    No room here for conservatives, of any kind.

    Reply
  5. Sheldon

    October 28th, 2020

    “How Propaganda Became Memory” is illustrated by the provincial election of 1993. Lawrence Decore led the Liberal party to Official Opposition status with 39% of the vote and 32 seats in the legislature. The PC’s under Ralph Klein won 56 seats with 44% of the vote.

    Memory of the NEP program had not been supplanted by propaganda.

    Reply
  6. Jim

    October 28th, 2020

    Go back 6 years from 1980 for Trudeau the firsts real crime, don’t hold your breath for Kenney to attack this decision though. It is sad to think what the state of our infrastructure could be if government borrowing was handled in the same way as it was from 1938 to 1974. 1938 was of course the year the Bank of Canada was nationalized. 1974 was the year we were all sold out to international banking interests, no party since then has even tried to get us out of this slavery.

    Reply
  7. Andy Marshall

    October 28th, 2020

    Excellent piece, Mr. C. The whole NEP hysteria that fermented 40 years ago and still lingers today is another symptom of an Alberta paranoia and sense of grievance that has permeated our history for well over a century. I have in vain tried to understand the phenomenon.
    My memory of the NEP years is still dominated by images of Premier Peter Lougheed roiling up Albertans with his petulance and outrage. (That’s why, incidentally, I bristled when comparisons were made during the recent NDP term between Rachel Notley and Lougheed. )
    By inflaming the population to such an extent, Lougheed was partly responsible for the election of the Western Canada Concept (don’t extreme Conservatives have such a bizarre inability to give their political movements a half-decent name?) candidate in Olds-Didsbury in February, 1982. Remember the WCC with its demands for an end to metrification, opposition to firearms restrictions, and the recognition of God as the Supreme Power? That delusional spirit survives in our province to this day, although opposition to litres and kilometres may have eased a bit.
    So, 40 years on, we can’t really blame the NEP for our troubles. But, boy, can we still hate the Trudeau lineage. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, can be another linguistic insult to our frail and pathetic sensibilities.

    Reply
  8. Just Me

    October 28th, 2020

    Of course everyone forgets about the final agreement that became the NEP was that Alberta was to receive an enhanced royalty for each barrel of Canadian oil sold — better than 10% of the total charge per barrel — not mention a treasure trove of subsidies and support programs for the industry.

    Lougheed and Trudeau both signed the agreement and toasted it with champagne. Everyone I know, to this day, denies this agreement occurred with Lougheed’s consent, meaning that Trudeau stole Alberta’s oil. Of course, when I produce the oft-published photo of the event, they declare “fake news” or Photoshop. This is the level of rot that has made Albertans the stupidest people alive.

    Now, Kenney has called for managed production and special pricing and purchase quota agreements from the rest of the provinces exclusively for Alberta oil. Kenney’s love of free-markets seems to break where the survival of his own hide is concerned. I recall that, the early 80s, Lougheed wanted the benchmark for the Canadian price of oil to be lowered to compete with discounted foreign oil. He, too, ran back to free-market principles when “Lougheed’s NEP” went from bad to worse.

    I recall when, then Minister of Energy, the Right Hon. Jean Chretien addressed the Calgary Chamber of Commerce concerning their endless complaints about market forces that were beyond of Ottawa’s reach and control. Chretien pointedly confronted the complaints by calling on those in attendance to “Quit your goddamn bitching!”

    Chretien knew how to deal with Alberta and remains the greatest prime minister than Canada will ever know.

    Reply
  9. Every Teacher Everywhere

    October 28th, 2020

    I have to cough, because calling in sick is not allowed. I am dying, and infecting those I love even more! But being so insignificant, I am embarrassed to die. Dear leader; am I a candidate for your anti-aircraft gun of denial/absolution? Like your hero? His uncle? Will you save me in an outsource model?

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

    October 29th, 2020

    Great blog. What is looked over by those in Alberta, including current day Postmedia columnists is that oil prices collapsed worldwide 40 years ago. There was no NEP in oil producing places, like Texas. Brian Mulroney also eliminated the NEP, in the 1980s. Albertans still try to blame the Liberals for things that they are not responsible for, and overlook the fact that oil prices sank in 2014. There isn’t going to be another oil boom. Albertans have to learn to deal with that.

    Reply
  11. Farmer Brian

    October 30th, 2020

    At different outlook on the CBC:news interactive.cbc.ca/longform/notorious-nep.

    It does amaze me having lived in Alberta all of my 56 years that anyone could be so blind to what Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s intention was when he implemented the National Energy Program. But I certainly appreciate that ideology does occasionally interfere with common sense!

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      October 30th, 2020

      Have a nice day, Brian. DJC

      Reply
      • pogo

        October 30th, 2020

        Your restraint is like a beacon. I would counter that post more harshly, but I guess that’s just my auntifa talkin’! She was not only a great aunt, but an actual socialist! She would twist my ear if we didn’t shop at the Co-op or UFA! Some farmers? No sense of history I guess. Not much better then the cheap suit serenaders that ruined and destroyed the family farm long ago now. May I leave a tune for Brian and his hobby/legacy simulacrum? https://youtu.be/BnNfFxK1i18

        Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      November 1st, 2020

      Mr Brian: I listened to that podcast series you referred to. My perspective on it, however, was somewhat different. In 1980, I was one of those Eastern bastards who was supposed to freeze in the dark, and as a nascent lefty — I hadn’t yet joined the NDP or a union, and my political leanings were still somewhat wobbly, but I was a convinced economic nationalist — I felt a certain amount of satisfaction that Canada was going to have a made-in-Canada energy pricing regime & a Crown-owned integrated oil company to counter the undue influence of what was then known as the Seven Sisters.

      The NEP, however, didn’t last very long: it was already being defanged before the 1984 election, and it was largely dismantled by the Mulroney government that emerged from that election. PetroCan was privatized, and Canadians at large lost protection from future global oil price spikes. However, around about the same time, a short-lived offshore oil boom off the coast of Nova Scotia evaporated like morning dew with a sharp drop in price, plunging the province into an economic recession that led the John Buchanan PC government of the day to impose deep spending cuts in health care and other public sector areas of expenditure — because that’s how Conservatives respond to economic downturns, by slashing spending to make them worse. This, in turn, torpedoed my job prospects after graduation from Nursing school in Halifax, and I ended up in northern Alberta in late November 1985 (genuinely North, not Edmonton).

      Now, 40 years later, the NEP is a distant memory that Alberta Conservatives refuse to allow to rest in peace. It has become an Alberta shibboleth with no meaning in the real world, being that it is long dead. Alberta’s real problem now, isn’t that we don’t get world price for our oil — it’s that we do.

      Reply

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