“Canada is a federation, that we have different understanding what the country looks like, and that nobody has a monopoly on what our national myth; and ours are Cowboys.”
Dr. Barry Cooper is not just a professor of Political Theory at the University of Calgary. Counted among his interests are Canadian public policy, climate change, environmental policy, third party campaign advertising, classical political theory, filmmaking, hunting, and even fishing. He is a man of mystery, self-denying of his fame. When he is not enlightening students on his particular perspective on Canadian politics and political theory, he hunts and fishes with good friends Dr. Tom Flanagan, past advisor and campaign manager of PM Stephen Harper, and Dr. Ted Morton, current Member of the Legislative Assembly; both members of the Political Science department at the University of Calgary.
Dr. John von Heyking, our own resident Political Theorist in the University of Lethbridge Political Science Department, presented Dr. Cooper to speak for the Uleth community. Dr. Cooper was Dr. von Heyking’s Graduate program supervisor, thus there was only slight surprise on behalf of myself at the boys club familiarity Dr. von Heyking bared in his introduction.
After his talk (see page six for more), I sat down with Dr. Cooper to discuss his views on partisan academia, Albertan culture, and the Friends of Science.
Alberta, a distinct and separate culture
Meliorist: Why did you go into academia?
Cooper: Well, I was always smart and good at school. I was a jock too, but I enjoyed reading books. My dad was a surgeon, and he said ‘you can do anything, except be a lawyer’. This was a generation when doc’s and lawyers didn’t like each other, and he wanted me to be doctor but I quit Chem 300 in third year and I didn’t tell him until I couldn’t get back, and I didn’t want to irritate him again, so I decided to go to graduate school. Back then, if you had a fairly good GPA you could, there was lots of money available and I had good grades so I got a free ride and did graduate school in the States.
Meliorist: So, you have worked at other universities in Canada and you graduated with your Doctorates in the States, so what drew you back to Alberta to teach?
Cooper: When I was a kid, I used to spend summers here working. I went to UBC and when I was there, I worked on fish boats. I enjoyed working on fish boats, but there aren’t any fish boats anymore because there are not any fish. I preferred it actually, because I preferred to get paid. When I was working here [Alberta], I would get paid a dollar a day and I preferred to get a little more, so although it was more fun, it didn’t pay.
Meliorist: So, you came back to Alberta to teach because you missed the culture? You mention in your talk the ideas of Albertan, and western culture, the ‘cowboy spirit’. It seems very appealing to you.
Cooper: I was the first person, well, not literally the first person; but when I was a UofT and another guy was at York, I started teaching Canadian Political Thought in the same year, sometime in the mid-seventies. I began it because I couldn’t understand my students. I couldn’t understand why they were so obsessed with Quebec. They always thought about the West, as being, first of all, out there and not in. We’re in and they’re out. So then I said, we (Albertan’s) think of you as being backwards, back east. They didn’t think that was funny.
So, I started teaching this course on political thought to understand why I thought so differently about the same issues they discussed at length. It wasn’t about Liberal, Conservative, whatever, it was about that their assumptions were quite different, because I grew up with different stories. Both the literature and the literary criticism, they’re much different. In terms of the literary imagination, compared to Southern Ontario, which is what I call Loyalist, it’s anti-American. Part of the Laurentian value that Canada is bilingual, Quebec is like the two Canada’s of the nineteenth century. Upper Canada and Lower Canada, Canada East and Canada West. Those political structure reflected the garrison mentality, or survival. It was something that was foreign to the way I would think, and it would be expressed in detail in conversations I would have with students when I was in Toronto, and that puzzled me. So then, it became a kind of problem, an intellectual problem. How did this come about, that you have these very distinctive ideas, what I call myths in the book.
Meliorist: Alberta does have a very strong culture of being political vocal, and you seem to have a very strong history of being politically outspoken, especially when it comes to decisions made by certain parties. How does this affect your teaching, and your style of educating your undergraduate students?
Cooper: I don’t teach Canadian politics.
Meliorist: Do you think that students take your classes because you have been a controversial subject?
Cooper: No, no. I know that my colleagues in the Canadian government subfields would object pretty strongly, because most of what I think they do is not very interesting. If I were teaching a course on Canadian politics, the syllabus would be different. So, they’re not going to let me, even if I wanted to.
Meliorist: What would be in the syllabus?
Cooper: There would be a lot of literature. There would be books like Mallorys. It would be mostly focused on Alberta, versus the rest of the country. I would talk about what was wrong with Macpherson – and there’s a lot that’s wrong with Macpherson – and how that set the agenda for the way Easterners look at Alberta.
When I was in Toronto, we have these discussions, in public, and I would say ‘You don’t have a clue what culture in Alberta is like. Ya know, when was the last time you got on a horse?’ When he talked about the petty Bourgeois alienation of Alberta grain farmers, of which there was a certain amount of it, he said nothing about cowboys, and the grain industry is important, but culturally ranching is at least as important as farming.
Partisan political commentary and the role of academics
Meliorist: You have voiced very public opinions of partisan choices and government choices, not just the Liberal or Conservative parties. Do you see value in academics getting involved in trying to influence policy?
Cooper: It’s almost impossible to have the same command of information with respect to public policy, because so much of it is necessarily secret. As it is, with respect to interpreting texts. Most of what I have said about Canadian public policy is based on texts, like the Gomery report. It’s emphasizing certain statements that Gomery made, and what the significance of the statements were, or what the Prime Minster – particularly Chrétien – personally, I think he was a coward – but it wasn’t personal. He actually said these things. He said ‘Canadian Military are boy scouts with guns’. Well, that is an incredibly stupid thing to say, and it’s not just that I disagree, it is just stupid. The Canadian military are not boy scouts. They are guys that go out and kill people, to defend the country.
That nevertheless was revealing about the guy, why did he think that? Partly, it’s because of Quebec, not partly, I’d say quite a bit actually. It’s nothing to do with the number of Francophone’s in the Canadian forces, it’s likely about a quarter, likely less. Francophones join the military; they do, just like everyone else does. It has nothing to do with their culture, it’s their politics and the political advantage that Quebec politicians, whether they are federal or provincial see in being free riders.
Meliorist: You are a vocal member of several organizations that have feature – the now infamous – Calgary School, well known across Canada. It is a group of academics from the University of Calgary Political Science Department, and they have been very involved with influencing public policy, especially [Dr. Tom] Flanagan and [Dr. Ted] Morton. Does this influence the way that the political science department at the UofC operates? Does this influence the way you interact with your students or with the university itself.
Cooper: I’ve written two columns on the myths about the Calgary School, because on a lot of public policies we disagree as much as any group of people would. We get along with one another; some of us get along better than others. Morton and I just went hunting, and Flanagan and I go fishing. As far as I know, Flanagan and Morton don’t do either. I think I am probably good friends with more of them than they are with one another. There is not much internal coherence, what there is, is a certain intellectual challenge to the perceived wisdom with respect to the Canadian public life. It’s not really that it’s Conservative, I mean some are more liberal than I. There certainly are distinctions about social conservatives and social liberals; though I think we all think that you should not spend money you don’t have, so there is a fiscal conservatism there. Morton is much more social conservative than libertarian. There is not the kind of coherence that is often contributed, except with respect to be critical of the received orthodox. How that happened, I think it was serendipitous.
Meliorist: So, it is more of a coincidence then?
Cooper: A lot of coincidences, yah.
Meliorist: You guys have formed a pretty strong reputation for yourselves.
Cooper: Can’t help that. A lot of it is journalists. Jeff[rey] Simpson is the first guy that talked about this, and he was invited by Roger Gibbons, who was a typical liberal middle-of-the -road, average, mediocre academic. He invited Jeff to come up here and tell the bullshit. Before Tom got to working with Stephen [Harper], before Bercuson and I got to writing about confederation, about the late-eighties. He was so astounded that we were not giving the kind of Liberal, NDP view of things. He would talk to his friends in the Eastern media, and that’s where it came from. It’s anti-Albertan, its not like they admire all the great work that we have done. It’s a way of marginalizing and silencing any arguments.
On First Nation, Métis, and Inuit federal policy or, in his words: “Indian Policy”
Cooper: What I said today about Indian policy, that’s extremely upsetting to a lot of people. I know lot’s of Indians, and they say ‘Yah, yah, it is, this is what’s happening.” You can’t do anything about if you’re not focused on what the problem is, the problem is dependency, being dependent on bureaucrats.
Meliorist: So, then, what was your response to [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s statement at the G20 conference that Canada does not have a history of colonialism?
Cooper: I think that nonsense. What do you think the Mounties are? They were Red Coats. Where did they get their red coats from? Not from Canada. The British way of dealing with aboriginals in Canada is no different than their way of dealing with Aboriginals in India, or in Africa. Basically, it’s bureaucratic management. Unlike the Americans, who have fights. At least with fights, with Long Knives and the Apaches. I have American Indian friends who celebrate the destruction of the 7th Cavalry. They say, ‘at least we showed them once’, and it gives them a sense of pride. I mean, there are some Métis I guess who think that of Crazy Louis and Batoche, but not very many. I think most think that is was a terrible tragedy. I think it was an interesting minor skirmish, what the British used to call the turbulent frontier.
Partisan politics, Cooper backs Martin
Meliorist: Has being vocally partisan helped your academic career at all? Has it benefited you in anyway? Do you feel you have received any gain from this partisanship?
Cooper: No, I have not received any gain. For all I know, some other difficulties I have had may have been because of this, I don’t know. I certainly haven’t gotten any benefits from being critical of Chrétien, and I think Paul Martin really did initiate the change, it wasn’t Stephen Harper. I think he was basically a decent human being, in a way I can not say about Chrétien. Nobody has ever said what a decent guy Jean Chrétien was. That tells you something.
(Un)Friend of Science?
“…the University of Calgary had received a huge sum of money from the government of Alberta to deal with how are we going to sequester CO2, and this was like hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Meliorist: You are involved in the Friends of Science…
Cooper: No, I am not involved with the Friends of Science. I did one project for them. It was the making of the DVD.
Meliorist: Which landed you in quite a bit of hot water with the University [of Calgary].
Cooper: Yes, it did.
Meliorist: The audit did not come out favorably for you.
Cooper: No, the audit was fine. The audit said there were, there were some reporting procedures that had changed, not because of anything I did. They were changed because, well, there were two reasons they were changed. One is, the most important one, the University of Calgary had received a huge sum of money from the government of Alberta to deal with how are we going to sequester CO2, and this was like hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meliorist: When was this?
Cooper: A couple years ago, just before this other thing.
Meliorist: 2005 or 2006?
Cooper: Yea, and for reasons best known to themselves, they thought this project [Friends of Science DVD project], the total cost on it, I dunno, a couple hundred thousand dollars and I mean it didn’t come to me, it came to produce the DVD. The DVD was done by the Friends of Science. The University of Calgary would have guys like David Suzuki – I call them Climate Change Alarmists – that’s a polite way of saying it.
They had given a number of lectures at the University with the University’s logo on it, and since the money for the DVD came through the University I thought it would be perfectly legitimate for the University logo to go on the DVD, I didn’t know that.
Meliorist: Didn’t you create the Trust Account in the University on behalf of the Friends of Science?
Cooper: Not on behalf of me, it was for the funders.
Meliorist: The Friends of Science?
Cooper: It was like, I’ve had SSHRC funding, people, friends, other foundations, they have given me research funds. I treated this like any other research fund[ing]. It was not political, it was the construction of a DVD. I ran it the same way, with the same kind of controls on it that I would with a SSHRC account. Apparently, this violated a policy of which I knew nothing. Senior administration said it did. I said, ‘if you guys say so’.
A lot of it [the DVD] was technical stuff. I was managing the production of this product. When I was called in by these guys, I was a little surprised until I realized they thought this was putting this enormous grant that they had not yet nailed down from the government of Alberta in jeopardy, that their behaviour was inexplicable. I still don’t know for a fact that’s why they did, because, they would never admit it. They just said there were accounting irregularities, I didn’t have sufficient controls, the logo was used without permission. It was so vicious, I am not naturally suspicious, but there was so much, it made no sense really. I looked to me as if it was just another research project, it didn’t look that way to them.
The final thing was that Friends of Science took some advertising. They were in Ontario, there were some radio stations, some commercials, ‘if you’re interested in some of the facts about climate change that you won’t get from CBC’, or whatever it was, ‘go on our website’. The Vice President and a lawyer, the general council for the University – she was a very pretty woman – they were extremely upset about this, because these things appeared during the 2005 (sic) election campaign, and some guy who was on the David Suzuki Foundation board in Vancouver complained during the elections.
Meliorist: Because it contravened the Elections Act?
Cooper: Because he alleged it contravened the elections act.
Meliorist: Right, but the Friends of Science didn’t register as a third part advertiser?
Cooper: No, they didn’t, and they didn’t do it for a very good reason, because it wasn’t third party advertising, because every party opposed the Friends of Science position, every party. I’m a expert witness on third party advertisement. The lawyer said ‘this was third party advertisement, didn’t you know it contravened the elections act’? I said, ‘look, I know more about the Canada Elections Act pretty near anybody in the country, I’ve been an expert witness on third party advertising, this was not third part advertising. There is no way in God’s green earth’. They said, ‘we’re going to have get outside opinion’, and I said ‘well, you have the best opinion in the room’, she said, ‘no’. The guy [presumably, the outside opinion] said it was kind of ambiguous. They went to a [Elections Act] tribunal, and they said no, this was not third part advertising, but no one told the university, but they told Friends of Science this. One of the guys sent me a PDF of the letter they got from Elections Canada, so I sent it to the Provost and the pretty lawyer.