In the early 1970s the tensions between Alberta under Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s federal Liberals had barely started. They both attended a Western Canada Economic Diversification Conference at Mount Royal College in Calgary, and I was one of a small number of Imperial Oil employees who picketed the conference to protest the refinery’s closure. (By the way – you would have to be a lot luckier than I was if you manage to find a reference to this conference online – seems no one has an interest in keeping its memory alive.)
My wife joined me at the main entrance where we must have looked inoffensive holding our signs and standing near the RCMP officer guarding the door when Trudeau arrived. The constable had the unfortunate experience of opening the wrong door on the limousine, which resulted in the Prime Minister letting himself out of the car and gracing the poor policeman with a withering scowl as he ascended the steps to the door. Our PM studiously avoided looking at my wife and myself – or our signs – but we both had a good look at him. He was much uglier and shorter in person than on TV, where he must have worn thick makeup to mask his facial pockmarks. Not that this detracts in any way from the man – a strong-willed, principled, and clever man of action whose like the country could benefit from today.
Peter Lougheed was then Premier of Alberta. We were standing a bit further away from the doors when he arrived, but he did peer out the rear window of his limousine to laugh at our signs. We had a similar reaction from most of the dignitaries attending, which I experienced while I switched places with one of our other pickets to stand at the delegates entrance at the rear of the building. I particularly remember the honcho from Imperial Oil – our boss, whose name may be ever forgotten – the Manager of all Western Canada operations – who stared down his nose at me and told me in no uncertain terms that, “the company would do all that was necessary for the closure of the old refineries and opening of the new one, and that we mere minions should hold our tongues while our betters determined what to do with us.” Of course I don’t remember the actual words, but this is the gist of them.
I’m sure anyone who has had the temerity to attempt to stand up for their rights as citizens of our supposed democratic countries has had similar sentiments directed at them. Corporations do not invite democratic representation – in fact they all actively work to stifle democracy within their organisations. Governments are similarly repressive and only wish to hear from the masses at election time. While I find the current Tea Party movements to be tragically misinformed and mis-directed – a product of the incessant propaganda and false information dished up for decades by media owned by rich corporations – I sympathise with the intent of their protests. If only a wise and steady voice could come out of the cacophony of their protests, the polity could receive a very welcome kick in the pants.
Anyway, to get back to my small engagement with participatory democracy. The one person at the conference who did deign to speak civilly with us was the Rt Honourable Fred Peacock, Alberta’s minister of Industry and Commerce. His words boiled down to the simple dictum, “if we were to influence the fate of the Calgary Refinery we must show energy and resolve to work within the parameters of the business climate of the times.” He brooked no union protests or calls for government studies of the refinery, which we were doing at the conference, but advised a practical and economic action to buy and operate the facility. He treated me to a lengthy harangue by phone subsequent to the conference and I’ll tell you what grew out of that next time.