The Two Albertas

Old differences split the province, but are mostly ignored in the East

People in the rest of Canada often perceive Alberta as a monolith. You know those Albertans: they all vote Conservative, they have all that oil money and want more, they do not care about the environment, they pay no sales tax, they are more American than Canadian, and now that they are running the federal government they are ruining our image as a progressive, peace-loving country. Of course, there is also an admiring counter-narrative of Albertans as the most entrepreneurial Canadians who are driving the national economy and reducing the emphasis on government while increasing personal economic freedom and restoring the military to its proper place in Canadian society.

Central Canadians are probing westward in an effort to engage constructively with the emergent power of Albertans. Too often their starting perception is that Albertans are a unified block of like-minded people that can be accessed through either Calgary or Edmonton on the assumption that if you have been engaging with the one you have covered the other. This view of Albertans is a potentially calamitous misunderstanding. Albertans only behave monolithically for the purpose of keeping Central Canada at bay. It is time for people from other parts of the country to take a closer look at this enigmatic province.

The Battle River

There are, in fact, two very distinct regions in Alberta dominated by Calgary and Edmonton. The dividing line is the aptly named Battle River. Preston Manning, the founding Reform Party leader and son of a long-serving Alberta premier, shared with me the legend that Alberta is cursed to be divided by this river, a small watercourse that is hard to spot on a map. Rising in the foothills southwest of Edmonton, lazily meandering east past Ponoka, Wetaskiwin, Camrose and Wainwright before it rolls into Saskatchewan, the Battle River cuts the province in two. Do not let its size fool you. It demarcates the very different mindsets and spheres of influence of Calgary and Edmonton. Manning said, “You can always tell a federal politician doesn’t get Alberta when he gives the same talk in Calgary and Edmonton.” He added that Edmonton tends to look north while Calgary tends to look south. Knowing which side of the river you are on is key to being well received by Albertans.1

The Battle River got its name because it was the contested zone between the Cree and the Blackfoot. It roughly formed the line between parkland forest to the north and the great plains to the south and marked the northern limit of plains bison, which were at the heart of Blackfoot culture. That meant it formed a line between the fur trade and the buffalo economy. The Cree saw opportunity, became the great fur-trading intermediaries for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and thus were adept at dealing with Europeans. The Blackfoot wanted nothing to do with the fur trade or Europeans and were happy hunting buffalo, which supplied all their needs. As the Cree grew in power, they expanded south out of the woodlands onto the Great Plains. The Blackfoot fiercely resisted both the Plains Cree and white fur traders.2 The result has been the inverted history of Alberta.

The standard Canadian narrative is that we are all huddled along the Canadian border and have slowly probed north and west in search of natural resources establishing northern outposts as we go. This is the opposite of what happened in Alberta, where the north was settled before the south. The first settlement in Alberta was Fort Chipewyan in 1788, which is located just south of today’s Northwest Territories. Fort Edmonton, where the city is now, was established in 1795 by the Hudson’s Bay Company beside an earlier fort set up by the rival North West Company. It thrived as a fur-trading centre.

All early 19th-century efforts at establishing fur-trading posts south of Edmonton and the Battle River in the Great Plains went nowhere because the Blackfoot were not interested and had the power to keep Europeans out. It did not matter to them that their territory had been conveyed by the king of England to the Company of Adventurers trading into Hudson’s Bay. The Blackfoot closed the fur-trading route over Howse Pass to British Columbia, and thus forced the map-making David Thompson to find a new route to the Pacific further north over Athabasca Pass. Even though the fledgling country of Canada acquired all the Hudson’s Bay land by 1870 to serve as a colony of Canada (not Britain), there was in fact no Canadian presence in Alberta south of the Battle River at the time of Confederation.

Of Ontario origin, Methodist missionaries John and George McDougall first began working in northern Alberta in the 1860s. They then ventured south of the Battle River in search of souls to save. When camping they met a group of Sioux-speaking Stoneys who were out on the plains hunting buffalo. The Sioux and Blackfoot were enemies, but the Stoneys had been able to establish a foothold on the east slope of Alberta, wedged between the Blackfoot-dominated plains and the mountains. The Stoneys invited the McDougalls to set up a mission among them, in part to help keep the Blackfoot away. Thus Morleyville, the first community below the Battle River, was established in 1873.

Morleyville—now called just Morley—is located halfway between present-day Calgary and Banff, neither of which existed then. It was a multi-week ride from there to get eastern supplies from Winnipeg via Fort Edmonton. It was only a few days’ ride to Montana, where it was possible to bring goods by steamboat up the Missouri River as far as Fort Benton. So the McDougalls looked south to Montana for supplies. They invited additional families from Ontario to join them at the Morley mission by journeying from Canada through Chicago, St. Louis and Fort Benton. The few families huddled at Morleyville among the Stoney encampment were, then, the only Canadians in southern Alberta.

A Unique Relationship with the United States (But Not the One You Think)

Canadian control of southern Alberta was not a foregone conclusion. Whisky traders from Montana had encroached on the area of present-day Lethbridge to set up Fort Whoop-Up, which traded rot-gut whisky to the Blackfoot in exchange for furs. This alarmed the infant nation of Canada, which did not want to lose control of its new colony in the Northwest. The North West Mounted Police Force led by Colonel James Macleod was created to drive the Americans out, reaching Fort Macleod in 1874. The NWMP then set up Fort Calgary in 1875. Thus, with the McDougalls and the Macleods, a Scottish character and a pattern of engaging with the Americans while keeping them at arm’s length became engrained in the early history of southern Alberta.

Treaties were signed between aboriginal people and the government of Canada. The natural division in Alberta is reflected in Treaty Number 6 around Edmonton and Treaty Number 7 around Calgary. It is a major point of pride that Treaty 7 enabled the orderly settlement of southern Alberta in marked contrast to the violence of the American wild west. In southern Alberta, law and order predated settlement and there were no wars with aboriginal people. (Treaty 6, which extends into Saskatchewan, was more turbulent because of the Plains Crees’ involvement in the Riel Rebellion.)

The state of mind of the early immigrants to southern Alberta was that they were engaged in the worthy work of expanding the British Empire as part of the Dominion of Canada. As Elizabeth Boyd McDougall, the first European woman in southern Alberta, put it, “the Indian missionary pioneered the country, made peace, opened the way for settlement, prepared the way for government and was the real foundation layer to empire.”3 Thus the setting-based stories chronicling the distinct relationship with Americans found in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing or Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow: A History, A Story and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier resonate more deeply with a southern Albertan reader than the Ontario settings found in the excellent writings of Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies. They are all great writers, but there is more than one Canadian Anglo-Saxon narrative. Similarly, the Big Sky paintings of Montanan Charlie Russell often speak more to southern Albertans than do Group of Seven images of red maples, and this is reflected in the Glenbow Art Museum collection. The Edmonton Art Gallery (now called the Art Gallery of Alberta), on the other hand, was founded with the gift of an impressive Group of Seven collection.

While several parts of Canada have strong ties to Scotland, the West is particularly strongly linked and southern Alberta perhaps most of all. The St. Andrews Society and Calgary were founded the same year and the society’s president, George Murdoch, became the town’s first mayor. One hundred years ago, after noting Nova Scotia and Ontario, George Bryce wrote in The Scotsman in Canada something that catches the character of many southern Albertans to this day: “yet it is to the broad and hospitable West, with its Scottish-like climate, its hearty warmth for the industrious stranger, its liberal expenditure for educational advantages, its predominant religious atmosphere suited to his taste, that the Scottish immigrant is especially attracted.”

Alberta is the only province that is close to debt free, which is as much a reflection of its Scottish thriftiness as its oil and gas revenues. The name “Calgary,” the Robert the Bruce statue in front of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium overlooking the city (an exact replica of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, that is found in Stirling, Scotland, at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn), elite institutions such as Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School and the Glencoe Club, and the Calgary tartan all reflect a deep Scottish connection. Long-time Calgarians still tear up whenever a Highland band marches by in the Stampede Parade.

Railways and Immigration Divide Alberta

The national decision to assert Canadian sovereignty close to the border by routing the Canadian Pacific Railway through Calgary instead of Edmonton had an enormous impact on Alberta’s internal division. Calgary became a regional agricultural hub for grain farming and livestock. The Calgary Stampede became the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” drawing cowboys from Texas north. Canada’s first national park was established at Banff (another Scottish name) and mountain recreation became an essential aspect of life for affluent Calgarians. By contrast, the rich soil, longer growing season and colder winter around Edmonton lent itself to mixed farming and a greater interest in civic development, there being no mountains close at hand to escape to.

While Edmonton also had Scottish influence through the fur trade, French Canadians were common too. Francophone settlements such as St. Albert were established near Edmonton and Catholic missionaries spread out in search of souls. There are still several communities in northern Alberta where French is the first language. But the greatest divergence in Edmonton’s character from that of Calgary came with the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway that ran north of the Battle River. The railway that would become known as CN opened up vast new areas for farming around Edmonton in 1905, but there were too few Canadians to come homesteading. Some Americans came from Iowa, but the biggest group came as a result of a forward-thinking plan from Clifford Sifton, the minister of the interior in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government. He realized that the conditions around Edmonton were similar to those in Eastern Europe so he sought “hardy peasants in sheepskin coats” from Ukraine and places nearby. They came en masse, thrived, and by World War One became a dominant group north of the Battle River. By 1960 Edmonton was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada, while Calgary remained dominated by Scots and others from the United Kingdom with neighbouring Saskatchewan being a major source of in-migrants.

Edmonton served as the jumping-off point for an all-Canadian route to the Yukon gold fields in 1898 and later developed a Klondike Days Festival as an answer to the Calgary Stampede. While there were certainly other ethnic groups than Ukrainians in Edmonton, just as there were others than Scots in Calgary, Calgarians disparaged Edmonton as “the Yukon City: there is a Uke on every corner.” Edmontonians called Calgary “Cowtown” and remarked on the stink of the stockyards as a characteristic of every visit to the city. Even though all the stockyards are gone, this label for Calgary continues to roll contemptuously off Edmontonians’ lips.

When province-hood came for Alberta in 1905, Edmonton had stronger ties to the Liberals in Ottawa and emerged the big winner, getting both the provincial capital and the university. This was deeply resented in Calgary and the absence of government largesse deepened the entrepreneurial identity of Calgarians.

The worst way to engage Edmontonians is to tell them how things are done in Calgary. They pride themselves on their superior intellectual culture based on the University of Alberta’s strong reputation as a research university, the support shown for the arts and their view of themselves as more worldly than crude Calgarians. Some attribute what they perceive as the greater sophistication of Edmonton to the predominance of European immigrants. Calgarians, for their part, are hardly aware that Edmonton exists and are more likely to engage with other cities in Canada or the United States. To tell them that you are engaging with Edmonton will be met with complete indifference.

Uniting Against Vestiges of Central Canadian Colonialism

If the Battle River divide between Calgary and Edmonton is so deep, then why do Albertans sometimes behave monolithically toward the rest of Canada? That is easy to explain. Albertans will unite to defend their economic freedom and autonomy. They will put aside any difference to avoid being told what to do by Central Canada.

This tendency to circle the wagons against the “East” (which to them means the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa triangle) is a direct consequence of the unique Canadian colonial history of Western Canada. Remember that Alberta (and neighbouring Saskatchewan) were once part of the vast Northwest Territories that were acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company around the time of Confederation. The purchase was done to create a colonial domain for Ottawa. Its only purpose was to serve the growth of newborn Canada and it came to provide a market for the fledgling manufacturing industry under Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy.

The other colonies that were bound together at Confederation (including British Columbia in 1870) were all colonies of Great Britain, not of Canada. The various colonies in the Maritimes and Upper and Lower Canada ensured their identities and interests were protected in the division of powers between the provinces and the federal government when the British North America Act was passed. Even when Alberta and Saskatchewan were granted provincial status in 1905, the federal government retained control over Crown lands and natural resource wealth. Every other province controlled its Crown lands. This was a major irritant and source of political tension between Ottawa and Alberta until it was finally rectified by the transfer of natural resources in 1930. It has never been forgotten in either Calgary or Edmonton.

Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s most honoured premier, always called himself a Canadian first and Albertan second. He was often called Peter the Red for his love of social policy, the arts and his tendency to create Crown corporations. But when Ottawa announced it wanted to tax oil exports from Alberta in the “national” interest he saw red. In a speech to the Canadian Club in 1973 he said words that reflected the provincial mood perfectly: “We are going to be forced to take certain action we do not want to take … We have to try to protect the Alberta public interest—not from the public interest of Canada as a whole—but from central and eastern Canadian domination of the West.”

Despite Albertans’ love of the country they helped expand, there have been several potent symbols of colonial grievance toward the “East” through time: the Crowsnest Pass freight rate; the higher price of manufactured goods that Albertans paid compared to Montanans; the eastern banks that foreclosed on farmers during the Dust Bowl years of the Depression; risk-averse Easterners who would not invest in the province’s oil industry, which forced Albertans south to the United States to find capital; and, of course, the National Energy Program. While old colonial grievances may seem likely to be diluted or ignored by the massive inflow of immigrants (Calgary is now over one quarter visible minorities and slightly under one fifth Scottish), the tendency remains. The new iteration is a growing regional hostility over the development of the oil sands/tar sands.

Like many Canadians, Albertans are torn between the enormous economic benefits of the oil sands and the negative environmental impacts they have. But that nuance is lost when they hear Ontarians and Quebecers spouting piously about environmental concerns. They know about Hamilton’s steel mills, the pollution of Lake Ontario, Sudbury’s former moonscape, about Hydro-Quebec’s flooding of almost every river in southern Quebec and the grim condition of the St. Lawrence. The exploitation of nature to build wealth is a recurring challenge in Canadian history, not a unique event due to Albertans’ supposed American character. It just happens to be going on in Alberta now. We will never get the nuanced national dialogue we need if the issue continues to be framed as a problem with “those greedy Albertans” instead of the challenge of balancing all Canadians’ love of nature with their equal tendency to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

So like the mystery of the Holy Trinity where three are one and one is three, it would behoove all Canadians to understand when Albertans are one and when they are two. Remember the Battle River and the very different characters of Calgary and Edmonton. Engage Albertans in building Canada without lecturing them about what that means or by insinuating that they are Americans. They will love you for it and behave generously. Albertans are, after all, inclined to be builders of Canada first.


  1. See also Preston Manning’s “Federal-Provincial Tensions and the Evolution of a Province,” in Forging Alberta’s Constitutional Framework, edited by Richard Connors and John M. Law (University of Alberta Press, 2005.)  

  2. See John S. Milloy’s The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (University of Manitoba Press, 1988). 

  3. See McDougall Reflections: The Future of the Indians of Canada by the Rev. John Chantler McDougall and Elizabeth Boyd McDougall, published in 1996 by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society.