By James Keller
I don’t love Alberta beef. I don’t even eat Alberta beef.
For reasons beyond the scope of this column, I haven’t eaten a steak in well over a year. I can count the number of hamburgers I’ve eaten over the same period on one hand. I’m not a vegetarian–I still eat and very much enjoy chicken and fish–and, while still recognizing many problems with sectors of the beef industry, my preference is not driven by specifically moral reasons.
However, regardless of my motivation, I feel at odds with what it means to be "Albertan," now more than usual. In the wake of the so-called Mad Cow scare, it has become, at least in this province, very patriotic to buy, eat and in any way support Alberta beef.
I suppose this is understandable. Cattle producers aren’t exaggerating when they say the industry is suffering and, in some cases, dying. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost, as have the jobs and livelihoods of many Albertans. Whether you eat beef or not, there isn’t an argument here: it’s reality.
But something about our reaction doesn’t sit right.
It’s no surprise that a province built on oil and cows, with a community/rural approach to personal interaction, would come together so fiercely to support the cattle industry. It’s an industry that employs, feeds and affects a great number of us. Still, it is shocking how far we’ve taken it all.
People are frequently shunned publicly for speaking ill of the industry. When the federal government fails to come through with the help Alberta would like, they are painted as not only abandoning the industry, but attacking the province as a whole (Western alienation is a powerful thing). Those attending "pro-beef" rallies, or taking advantage of $1/lb beef sales aren’t just supporting the industry, but the entire province. And when two Calgarians show up to the Calgary Stampede with "I Hate Alberta Beef" stickers on their shirts, speaking negatively of the beef industry, they are promptly escorted out.
By not eating, you’re automatically not supporting the industry, you’re not supporting us. Like George W. Bush might say: You’re either with us or you’re with the vegetarians. The Mad Cow scare has become our SARS or, better yet, our September 11.
And this week, it went further over the top.
Desperate for solace and a sign that we’re not losing–which it seems we are–we’ve co-opted Toronto’s already ridiculous SARS concert.
(An interesting note: Premier Ralph Klein, hailed by many as the only possible saviour of Canadian beef, wasn’t even on hand for Calgary’s [read: Alberta’s] franchise of the concert, instead opting for the miscellany of national tragedies in Toronto. Speaking of Western alienation…)
Filling the Saddledome with the Rolling Stones (live, via satellite), thousands of "beef supporters," and even more beef-on-a-bun, Calgary will have fought the good fight.
I’m not sure who the enemy is however, but it could well be one or all of the following: America, Japan, cows, BSE, vegetarians, Ottawa or Health Canada. Not being able to watch the concert before this paper goes to press, I can only hope all of Mick Jagger’s references to severe acute respiratory syndrome were overdubbed with poorly-done British accent replacing "SARS" with "Mad Cow Disease."
Because, really, when you think about it, it’s the same thing. Isn’t it?