EDWARD BERNAYS knows what makes you tick. And what ticks you off.
The father of modern public relations, Bernays “was one of the first to understand that symbols are powerful.” He cleverly shaped mass opinion, writes Jayme Simoes, because he knew “you can wash aside an old symbol with a new one if you are reaching a new generation.”
Alberta’s NDP government pulled a page from the Bernays’ playbook and launched an anti-racism campaign. But I think Bernays would be disappointed; the provincial government’s narrative echoes the current ‘economy of grievance’, and misses an extraordinary opportunity to take a negative and turn it into a positive (more on this in a moment). This is what Bernays brilliantly accomplished over and over again.
ARE YOU RACIST?
Everyone has a blind spot. And since I may not know if I’m a racist in need of remediation, I checked in with people of colour, trusting them to fill in the blanks.
I have a Muslim friend, who came to Calgary from Yemen to study and then stayed here. She has experienced racism. Brutal, in-your-face, “go back to where you came from” epithets, but only when she wore a hijab. Without the head covering, she found Alberta to be extremely welcoming; to the point of patronizing, complimenting her ‘break away’ from Yemen’s oppression. Racism exists in Alberta, she says. ”I think folks with turbans or a yarmulke and sidekicks would have similar experiences to a woman with hijab or a person of colour.”
My Sikh friend, a refugee from the days of Idi Amin’s terror in Uganda, has experienced racism twice in Alberta–once overtly–in her 46 years of being here. She lived in Fort McMurray during the early days of investment in the oil sands. The culprit is ignorance and stereotypes, she says. Affirmative action and diversity quotas won’t cut it. Meritocracy is a way forward; it’s a trajectory that’s rewarded her with success.
But what if you’re First Nations living in the oil patch?
MYTHS, STEREOTYPES & GOVERNMENT NARRATIVES
Social media ‘friends’ have reported ugly incidents in our province, where young people of First Nations or Metis heritage, for instance, are regularly harassed by security guards while shopping; stereotyped as thieves and riff-raff. It’s a familiar story. And it’s one the NDP provincial government, by way of legislation, is determined to eliminate. But what if the narrative of government having to rescue the downtrodden & oppressed is actually contributing to the stereotype–making things worse–regardless of good intent?
Matt Vickers has a story to tell. One at odds with the government of Alberta’s narrative.
Vickers is a First Nations entrepreneur. He has an office in Red Deer. Vickers and his business partners have a brilliant plan to build a twinned electric railway to move Alberta’s natural resources (including oil) to tidewater. Vickers has secured the investment guarantees, as well as ‘social licence’ along the entire right of way–a 27-billion dollar project!–yet can’t get Alberta’s provincial government on side. “It’s frustrating,” he says. “It shocks me why politicians aren’t all over this.”
Matt Vickers and his colleagues don’t fit the NDP government’s narrative. Matt Vickers doesn’t need to be saved. He wants to be heard. He wants to be taken seriously. He has a do-able plan to help get Alberta’s economy revived–to share prosperity and build partnerships. And the Alberta government isn’t on-board because it’s fixated on a story–a story that is no longer true.
A PLACE TO GROW: ONTAR–EE–ARIO
Ontario did something remarkable.
The recently elected Progressive Conservative government created a new ministry–Energy, Mines, Northern Development and Indigenous Affairs–headed by Greg Rickford. It’s long overdue recognition that First Nations are competent, legitimate voices, and are entitled to develop and enjoy the prosperity of northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire mineral deposits. It’s a welcome break from the stereotype. And if all goes well, Ontario’s fortunes, after a decade-and-a-half of fiscal mismanagement, will be heading north rather than south on the balance sheet.
Edward Bernays knew a thing or two about stereotypes. He was a master of getting people to do things without knowing they were being manipulated. He also knew how to distract people, and redirect attention from unpleasant truths. Making people get along in Alberta by government fiat is not the way forward. It doesn’t work.
It’s time everyone got down to business in our province.
Matt Vickers has a plan…
Donna Kennedy-Glans, Calgary, Alberta
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