The Parkland Institute: Alberta's Unofficial Opposition

By Owram, Kristine | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

The Parkland Institute: Alberta's Unofficial Opposition


Owram, Kristine, Canadian Dimension


In an oil-rich province with a seemingly undefeatable Progressive Conservative government, it can seem more than a little difficult to challenge the status quo. Gordon Laxer knows this, but it didn't stop him from creating the Parkland Institute, a left-wing think tank he describes as Alberta's "lone alternative voice."

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Laxer, a political economist, author of several books on Canadian economic history, and current director of the Parkland Institute, was first inspired by the events of the 1993 provincial election to fight back against the lack of political dissent in Alberta.

"[Then Liberal leader] Laurence Decore was saying 'we need brutal cuts,' while [Premier] Ralph Klein was saying 'we need major cuts.' The Liberals basically did a right-wing runaround the Conservatives in that election," explains Laxer. "There was a lot of fear around at the time, especially in the public sector. You had all these people getting laid off, and they would say, "Well, I'm sorry I lost my job, but the premier had to do it because there's this incredible debt crisis."

EXAMINING POWER AND WEALTH: AN ALTERNATIVE RESEARCH INSTITUTE

This acceptance of the political situation frustrated Laxer. Before the next election, he, along with other like-minded people, decided that the province needed a public-policy research institute that could act as an alternative to right-wing organizations like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute.

From this decision emerged the Parkland Institute, with a mandate to "examine power and wealth differentials, social and class-based conflicts, and ways in which public policy and public choice shape and are shaped by these factors." The Parkland Institute has a public membership, and most of its research projects are done by volunteers. By 1996, plans for the institute were underway and, by 1997, it had entered into the public eye as part of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.

This attachment to the university did not go uncontested, however, and the notion of being part of any institution created some initial controversy.

"There was a debate amongst the 15 or 20 people who were initially involved in the idea of having a research institute and what role it could play," explains Laxer. "Some people wanted to be inside the university, while the grassroots, community-based people interested in bottom-up democracy wanted to stay outside."

However, the faculty's offer of initial funding to get the institute off the ground was too good to refuse. "We kept it in the Faculty of Arts, even though we wanted the Parkland Institute to be part of an Alberta-wide research network," says Laxer. "But we have managed to do that anyway. We have representatives from the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge, Athabasca University and from outside the Faculty of Arts at the U of A, as well as members from outside the academic community. Besides, we get lots of benefits from being part of the University of Alberta, including credibility."

CREDIBILITY AS A NECESSARY FORM OF DEFENSE

From day one, this credibility has been essential in helping the institute weather attacks from the government. Because they wanted to wait until they had something specific with which to announce their opening, the institute didn't go public until they had co-published Shredding the Public Interest, a book written by current Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft contesting the idea that social spending was out of control when Klein became premier in 1992.

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"So we announced the foundation of the institute at the same time that we announced the release of Taft's book," explains Laxer. "And Ralph Klein rescued us from what may have been obscurity by denouncing Taft as a Communist the next day. …

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