Alberta Bound

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Prairie Skies

By Richard McGuire © 2002

Alberta is arguably the most beautiful of the Canadian provinces, and certainly is one of the most geographically diverse. From the rolling prairies of the east to the jagged snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the west, from the boreal forests of the north to the near-desert-like badlands in the south, Alberta is a visual feast.

The rich landscapes are the most impressive, but Alberta’s people have also left an interesting culture that is unique in Canada. Unlike more easterly provinces where families have lived for generations, most people in Alberta have either come from somewhere else, or their parents have. It is a province of first, second, and third generation immigrants. But while these heritages are celebrated, Albertans have created their own identity, and there is often social pressure to "fit in."

Province of Immigrants

Many Albertans whose ancestors came a generation or two ago are of central or eastern European descent. Ukrainian heritage is celebrated in many parts of the province, especially to the east of Edmonton. Germans, Austrians, and others settled the province in the first part of the 20th century. Alberta also has a strong American influence, with many, notably Mormons, settling the province from the United States, and bringing with them values of strong individualism and social conservatism. In the north especially, but throughout the province, aboriginal peoples live both on and off reserves – Cree, Blackfoots, and others. French from eastern Canada were among the earliest settlers, and in some communities French is still spoken. The Métis people descended from mixed French and aboriginal ancestors. Many French place names may be found in Alberta, even though pronunciations have often been anglicized: Beaumont, Lac La Biche, Morinville, Grande Prairie, Grande Cache, Castor, to name just a few.

In more recent years, a broader mix of immigrants has come, mainly to the urban areas of Edmonton and Calgary. Mill Woods, in southeast Edmonton is a United Nations of Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and people from just about every country of the world. Sikhs from India are especially noticed, and now samosas and pakoras are eaten along side with Ukrainian pyrogies and kubasa.

Perhaps it’s Alberta’s frontier history, or perhaps the influence of American settlers, or both, but Alberta has a distinct political culture of deep conservatism and strong individualism. This is the Bible belt, and religion has a strong influence on politics. It is no coincidence that such political leaders of the past as William Aberhart and Ernest Manning came from Evangelical Christian backgrounds. This mix of Christian fundamentalism, social conservatism and libertarian economics is epitomized by the weekly news magazine Alberta Report.

While for the most part Albertans are welcoming and friendly, this Evangelical conservatism has an ugly side – for years high school teacher James Keegstra taught his students in Eckville about supposed Jewish conspiracies to control the world, and few challenged him; white supremacist groups such as the Aryan Nations move easily between Alberta and northern states such as Idaho; anti-Semitism has deep roots in Social Credit ideology, and although Social Credit has largely faded into oblivion, its legacy continues in modern Alberta-based political movements such as the Canadian Alliance, however much they may distance themselves from such views. Intolerance toward visible minorities, and others such as gays, though not general to all Albertans, occurs often enough and is usually linked to Evangelical Christianity.

‘Tribal’ political culture

Alberta’s politics is sometimes described as "tribal." Except in Edmonton, diversity of opinion is not well tolerated. There have been a few changes of government in Alberta’s history, but for the most part Alberta has been a one-party state – dominated for many years by Social Credit, and in recent decades by the Progressive Conservatives. Opposition has usually been confined to a handful of members, and there is a tendency to view opposition as "anti-Albertan." Only in Edmonton, the capital, does real political pluralism exist to any extent.

Much of Alberta politics is centred around grievances, both real and imagined, toward Central Canada. Alberta was blessed with a rich oil wealth that made it one of Canada’s richest provinces for most of the second half of the 20th century. Albertans still view with strong resentment the federal National Energy Policy of the early 1980s, which was seen to have confiscated a large share of Alberta’s petroleum birthright. A colonial relationship to Central Canada has existed throughout Alberta’s history and can be seen in the Laurier government’s decision in 1905 to create two separate provinces in Alberta and Saskatchewan rather than a single province that might challenge the power of Quebec and Ontario. Today, many Albertans perceive themselves as misunderstood by Ottawa. The threat of Alberta or Western separatism has frequently been in the background, but has never achieved the same strength as separatism in Quebec. Still, it is a given in Alberta politics that the big bad bogeyman of the federal government will be raised to rally Albertans every time there is a provincial election.

There is a down-to-earth quality among Albertans that is appealing. The pretentious social climbing and snobbery that is so common in places like Ottawa and Toronto is shunned in Alberta. Albertans tend to be plain-speaking, and they like to deal with others as equals, and on a first-name basis. Visitors often comment on the friendliness of Albertans, and it is certainly true.

Cultural diversity

Cowboy culture thrives in Alberta. Though it is often somewhat artificial as when businessmen and others don Stetsons during the Calgary Stampede, the real thing also exists, especially in the rolling foothills of the Rockies. Rodeos are popular entertainment in small towns, and country music radio stations and bars draw a large audience.

Edmonton is more culturally diverse, and is noted for its festivals throughout the summer – its Fringe Theatre festival and Folk Music festival, for example, are among the best in North America. Indeed theatre and all types of music thrive in Edmonton.

The best time to visit Alberta is the summer, though this is also the most crowded time, especially in the mountain parks. Winters are extremely cold and harsh, though it is a dryer cold than elsewhere and so is less unpleasant if you are well dressed. Summers, on the other hand, are very pleasant, and usually without the extreme humidity of Central Canada. Springs are short and muddy. It is not unusual to get a late snowstorm in mid to late May. Autumns are crisp and pleasant. The yellow poplars and aspens are pretty, but less spectacular than the flaming red and orange maples of Eastern Canada.

Visiting Alberta

Distances are great in Alberta, so it takes time to see the province, and a car is almost essential. Edmonton to Calgary is about three hours on a fast highway, for example, and more distant communities such as Peace River, Fort McMurray, or Medicine Hat take much longer to reach. Fortunately roads are very good, and speed limits a reasonable 100 km/h in most places and 110 km/h on the freeways.

The Rocky Mountains in Alberta are probably the most spectacular of anywhere on the continent. Jasper and Banff national parks draw the most visitors. The townsites themselves are full of souvenir shops and crowds (especially Banff), but a short distance outside, you can easily be alone with nature. Hiking the back country trails is the best way to experience the Rockies, but for the less energetic, there are shorter walks and numerous drives. The Icefields Parkway, which runs 230 km between Jasper and Lake Louise, is one of the most beautiful highways in the world, especially if you are lucky enough to drive it on a sunny day. It passes numerous mountain lakes and glaciers in both Banff and Jasper parks. Wildlife is abundant. You frequently see wild sheep, deer or elk beside the roads, and sometimes you see mountain goats, bears, and numerous other animals. Camping is the best way to experience nature, especially in the back country sites, but other accommodations, including several first-class hotels, are also plentiful.

Most tourists go to Banff and Jasper national parks, but equally spectacular and less crowded are Waterton Lakes National Park in the province’s southwest corner, and Kananaskis Country, including Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, southeast from Banff.

A very different landscape may be seen in the area around Drumheller and eastward. Here, especially along the Red Deer River, are found the strange land formations of the badlands, with hoodoos and other shapes. This is dinosaur country, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller shows some of the amazing dinosaur finds from the area. One of the best places to experience this landscape is at Dinosaur Provincial Park north of Brooks. In this dry, almost desert-like country, you’ll even find small cactus plants growing wild.

Calgary-Edmonton rivalry

There is a fierce rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary as Alberta’s only two major cities. Edmonton is the political capital, while Calgary is the economic capital. Their populations are similar – according to the 2001 census, Edmonton’s metropolitan area had a population of 937,845, while Calgary’s was 951,395. Both cities are transected by rivers – the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton and the Bow in Calgary.

I like both cities for different reasons. Edmonton is more culturally diverse, and has a richer assortment of festivals, theatre, arts, music, etc. I also found Edmonton less monolithically conservative. Calgary has an entrepreneurial spirit that I admire, nonetheless. Its system of roads and public transportation is far better designed than Edmonton’s. Calgary also has two big advantages over Edmonton – the Rocky Mountains are only an hour away (in contrast to almost four hours from Edmonton), and Calgary gets warm Chinook winds in the winter that can quickly raise temperatures to a more comfortable level.

Whether as a place to visit or a place to live, Alberta is one of Canada’s most interesting provinces. Its landscapes are among the world’s most beautiful. The people are down-to-earth, and friendly, if somewhat conservative. And with so many Albertans coming from elsewhere, anyone willing to make the effort can easily fit in.

Note about the pictures: These were taken during the period from 1982 to 1997 when I lived in Alberta. They are not intended to be a complete picture of the province. Some areas I never got to -- e.g. Fort McMurray. Although I visited Calgary many times, it was usually on business and I seldom took pictures. Unfortunately, therefore, some important areas of the province are not represented here.


Exposed to the Elements

Edmonton Skyline

Alberta Legislature

Edmonton Folk Music Festival

Edmonton Fringe Festival

Heritage Days

Tae Kwon Do

Ukrainian Village

Refinery Row

Elk Island National Park

Peace River

Ponoka Rodeo

Evening Boat Trip

In the Badlands

Dinosaur Provincial Park

A Bygone Era

Icefields Parkway

Glacier in Retreat

Bow Lake

Misty Mountain



Castle Mountain

Mountain Goats

Mountain Sheep

Animal Traffic Jam

Wapiti 1

Wapiti 2


Thompson Highway

Summer Afternoon

Waterton Lakes

Upper Kananaskis Lake

Around the Lake

Manmade Lake

Lower Kananaskis Lake

Morning in Paradise

Kananaskis Country

Up the Mountain

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© 2002 Richard McGuire
Last revised
March 13, 2010