Revisiting whether ours is a petro-democracy


In Montreal last week, I watched, on the edge of my seat, as Alberta changed over its government for the first time in over four decades. I exchanged text messages with friends still living in the province, watched live coverage online past Alberta’s midnight and my 2 a.m., plugged into Facebook and Twitter, and read every morsel of news about every riding that I could find. I missed being a reporter, of course — and I have greedily gobbled up so many excellent pieces of analysis over the last few days, some of which I offer links to below — but more, I was sad to have missed being in Alberta on such a historic day.*

I also thought back to last year, when I was invited to participate in a Petrocultures 2014 panel, hosted by McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, discussing whether ours is a “petro-democracy,” or a democracy too influenced by the oil industry. You can watch the video from this panel here, but as a former political and environment reporter, and now as someone whose research is dedicated to better understanding the entanglements and responsibilities presented by the province’s oil sands, my answer was pretty straightforward:

Yes, Alberta’s is a petro-democracy.

And, no, Alberta’s is not a petro-democracy.

The latter answer seems particularly, starkly, correct a week after Albertans woke to their new government. Yet the term “petro-democracy” deserves continued attention, as it serves no one to believe that its markers and implications only affect governments and people “elsewhere,” or on the right. The term matters because it insists we draw our eye to how governments work when oil, international industry interests, domestic and foreign labour, land claims, and the environment are in the mix.

Claims of petro-democracy are critical, suggesting both an absence or failure of democratic processes and an over-arching over-reliance on the oil industry as an economic engine. Boiled down to an “oil-impedes-democracy claim” (Ross, 2001, p. 325), petro-states are typically characterized by three “effects:”

  • the “‘rentier effect,’ which suggests that resource-rich governments use low tax rules and patronage to relieve pressures for greater accountability” (Ibid., pp. 327-328);
  • the “‘repression effect,’ which argues that resource wealth retards democratization by enabling governments to boost their funding for internal security” (Ibid., p. 328);
  • and the “‘modernization effect,’ which holds that growth based on the export of oil and minerals fails to bring about the social and cultural changes that tend to produce democratic government” (Ibid., p. 328).

I would argue it is easy to read such a list for the answer you want to find. Read the list as a recipe for how authoritarian governments work elsewhere; Ethical Oil, as a book and movement, consistently testifies to Canada’s liberal democracy as standing alone among, or remarkably contrasting, the governments of most other oil-producing states. Or, drawing on Andrew Nikiforuk‘s work — as Meenal Shrivastava and Lorna Stefanick (2012) have — read it as a recipe for how Alberta came to have a 44-year-old government, the “distinction of having the lowest provincial voter turnout in the country,” a “role in preventing Canada from meeting its climate-change goals,” and a heavy hand in allowing more temporary foreign workers to support the growing bitumen extraction industry (p. 9).

But we can’t stop at either of these readings. Both allow a potential narrative of placing petro-democracies in other spaces or other times; both skirt how government works now or here, how the conflicting interests of oil and citizenship must constantly be navigated. Settling upon petro-democracy as a marker of another government (whether that of a previous regime or a foreign regime) invites a kind of disinterest in questioning how things work, or even an apathy with regard to bothering to weigh in to make change. It also elides attention to cultures of resistance and self-determination that have flourished in Alberta despite the province’s growing reliance on bitumen extraction.

One example that I discussed last year is the Pembina Institute. It is a strange place to begin thinking through cultures of resistance, as the Pembina Institute does not in any way describe itself as anti-oil sands. The consistency with which the national environmental think tank illuminates concerns and solutions has won it great attention and respect, and it is a go-to for journalists seeking measured rebuttals, critiques, or nuance of government or industry policies and plans. But consider its roots: the Pembina Institute was launched in 1985 in the small oil town of Drayton Valley, Alberta, as a response by local residents to a sour gas blowout that killed two people and prompted, for those residents, a need for further investigation and research into the environmental impacts sour gas pollution and other kinds of energy-related pollution produced (Pembina Institute, n.d.).

Greenpeace’s campaigns in Alberta, on the other hand, have consistently, performatively, illuminated environmental concerns in a decidedly anti-tar sands fashion, drawing international and local attention to the heart of Alberta’s bitumen extraction sites — including, but not limited to, this 2008 speech jam and this 2009 site blockade. There are those who dismiss these moments as stunts, and there is a measure of truth to this — they are indeed carefully constructed and camera ready. But political speeches, rallies, press conferences, press releases, etc. are all also carefully constructed in order to dispatch clear messages to mass audiences. Negotiating the limits of media coverage in order to re-orient the agenda is political and it is necessary. Also, it is worth noting that somehow, as Alberta neared this year’s provincial election, the Edmonton Journal named Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema among the city’s top movers and shakers, bucking the notion that stunts are worthy of little attention, and instead recognizing a decade’s efforts as necessary and agenda-defining.

And then there is Fort Chipewyan, where First Peoples downstream of the tar sands have pursued court cases to curb further development while maintaining a constant and varied media presence that reminds Canadians of the potential health implications of ongoing extraction. In recent years the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has also capitalized upon the nature of celebrity-driven media culture to secure a prominent place on the national agenda, drawing the likes of James Cameron, Neil Young, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Leonardo DiCaprio to the region and its efforts.

Alberta is home to persistent examples of environmental advocacy and indigenous resistance that ought to serve as inspirations, and ought not be overlooked going forward. One might conservatively (ahem) guess that the work of these communities and organizations will continue, and this work will continue to invite consideration, engagement, and responsibility. As governance changes in Alberta, holding onto questions about petro-democracy may well continue to be quite useful.

Further links and readings

Karen Kleiss’s solid analysis, “How the Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty fell”

Meenal Shrivastava’s and Lorna Stefanick’s pre-election blog post, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, could the Tories really fall?” discusses how petro-states invite voter apathy, but invites the question: when oil prices plunge, is apathy finally dispatched?

Rachel Notley’s victory speech, and Dean Bennett‘s story for the Canadian Press, “Rachel Notley says it hit her a week before election that she’d be premier”

“Premier-designate Rachel Notley tells energy industry it’ll be ‘A-OK'”

“Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation response to NDP Majority Victory in Alberta”

Greenpeace’s response to the NDP win, entitled, “A Historic Day for Alberta and the Power of the People”

It is a bit bold to plug my former colleagues and journalism mentors, but the Edmonton Journal‘s election-centered politics podcast, most everything Graham Thomson has written in the last six months, and Paula Simons’s pitch-perfect Twitter presence.

— Trish

* The NDP win this week was history-making for its dispatching of the Progressive Conservative government, though I personally always feel a little uneasy when I say things like “made history” or “legendary.”

I also can’t help comparing the government change to what has been written about the PC party’s entry into the history books decades ago, and wondering what culture shift Rachel Notley’s win will come to represent for those who look back. In his 2009 book, Ralph Could Have Been A Superstar: Tales of the Klein Era, Rich Vivone paints an evocative picture of the culture change Peter Lougheed represented when he put an end to 36 years of Social Credit government in 1971. The study in contrasts between the So-Cred era, marked by a “pervasive religious moralism,” and the Lougheed era, which “promise[d] to lead Alberta into the 20th century” (p. 68), begins thus:

I arrived in Edmonton for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in the September of 1964, stepping off the train at the CPR station on the northwest corner of 109th Street and Jasper Avenue, a kid from small town Ontario hungry for the freedom of a strange city and excitement of university life […]

I had been warned not to expect much, since Alberta was Canada’s Bible Belt and if I didn’t listen to the Back to the Bible Hour on Sunday mornings, I would be doomed. I hoped it was a joke. […]

The Lord’s Day Act ruled. The province shut down on Sunday. Jasper Avenue, the centre of the city, was dead quiet the day I arrived. No restaurant open for breakfast, no newspaper to find a place to live, no movie theatre to kill an afternoon. […]

Bars were separated into two sections: Men’s and Ladies & Escorts; a man traveling alone couldn’t go into the women’s side unless the bartender could be convinced that a lady was expecting him. Restaurants that served liquor were heavily regulated and provincial government inspectors prowled the bars at night to enforce severe liquor laws. Stores were closed by 6 p.m. on weekdays. Students at the University of Alberta behaved themselves. The activist 60s hadn’t arrived.

The Bible Belt was alive and thriving. (Vivone, 2009, pp. 67-68)


Pembina Institute (n.d.). About Pembina.

Ross, Michael L. (2001). Does oil hinder democracy? World Politics 53: 325-61.

Shrivastava, Meenal and Lorna Stefanick (2012). Do oil and democracy only clash in the Global South?: Petro Politics in Alberta, Canada. New Global Studies 6(1): Article 5.

Vivone, Rich (2009). Ralph Could Have Been A Superstar: Tales of the Klein Era. Kingston, Ont.: Patricia Publishing Inc.

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