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Peter Lougheed: the 'blue-eyed sheikh of Alberta'

Peter Lougheed, the stocky, silver-haired Albertan premier, has replaced Quebec's Premier Rene Levesque as the burr under the saddle of pierre Trudeau's drive for a more unified Canada.

By refusing to accept energy pricing set by the federal government in Ottawa, Mr. Lougheed (pronounced la-heed) has put Canada over a political and economic barrel, earning him the unkindly nickname of the "blue-eyed sheikh of Alberta, Inc."

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Even though Mr. Lougheed has followed OPEC's policy or raising oil prices, he rarely acknowledges its role.

"We have together been successful in shifting the economic base of Canada westward," he told voters in 1979. And truly, the province is experiencing not just a boom but a sudden transformation of its economy and way of life.

Perhaps nowhere else is this more evident than in Calgary, the prairie city just 90 miles from the Canadian Rockies. Two decades ago it was a "cow town." Now Calgary resembles a fast-growing quartz crystal. White and mirror-skinned skyscrapers are being built by US-backed oil companies and Canadian banks counting on Alberta's future as an oil kingdom. Construction is proceeding so fast that the skyline is filled with tall cranes, jokingly referred to as the official bird.

Yet there are few signs of people enjoying their riches in opulence. Vacations in Hawaii are not uncommon, but says one Calgary worker, "The Canadian westerner learned long ago to squirrel away cash for disasters to come." There is a frugality bred in the dust bowl days of the 1930s.

It was those days that helped shape Mr. Lougheed, who was raised in Calgary and got an early start in western Canadian social circles. His grandfather was Sir James A. Lougheed, a prominent and wealthy member of a Conservative government in Ottawa. Young Peter, however, saw his father lose the family fortune during the days of the depression, when the rich east would send used clothing to poor westerners. Those were also days when the Canadian Pacific controlled railroad prices -- a well-remembered irritant in the west.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Lougheed held a summer job with Gulf Oil in Tulsa, Okla., and saw firsthand what happens to an area when an oil boom collapse. He studied law at the University of Alberta and played professional football with the Edmonton Eskimos. After receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School, he returned to Calgary and worked up the ranks of a large construction firm, mingling in the pinstriped circles of the city's Ranchman Club and Petroleum Club.

He came into the premier's office in 1971 promising to build the "greatest, greatest" province and getting a better deal for the west by ensuring it would never be an economic backwater again. Now, he is bidding for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

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When he took a world tour three years ago, Lougheed visited former Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and was graciously welcomed in Saudi Arabia for being a foreigner who did notm ask for money. His supporters joke that "King Peter" is trying to create a "Shangri-la-heed.

He likes to think of himself as a national opposition leader. But it is unlikely that he could ever rule Canada as prime minister without learning French. Besides, he prefers to run rich Alberta instead of debt-ridden Canada.

Not a charismatic leader nor eloquent in words, he practices the politics of subtle protest against the east with warm charm and stubbornness common in this oil Klondike. He is more a boardroom-style manager than a caucus crusader.

"Peter runs Alberta like a corporation," says a close associate, "His ability to bring a team together is superb." His reads British and Greek history and enjoys visits to the the far-flung corners of Alberta, even during its bitter winters.

His efficient Edmonton office in the chocolate-colored, Victorian-styled legislative building overlooks the North Saskatchewan River valley. This is his seat of power in a province where he is virtually unopposed. Strict party discipline and a one-party government have been the rule for Alberta in this century. "The government is not challenged very much. Everybody just wants jobs," says Charles Zagorsky, a University of Calgary professor.

Despite his high popularity in the last election, the Alberta premier does have a growing chorus of critics on one issue: the role of government in private business.

He favors free enterprise but his government has sought to give Albertans a "piece of the action." He raised royalties from 17 percent to 40 percent on oil. To insure air service for his large province, his government purchased Pacific Western Airlines in 1974. The provincial government is also buying up large shares in energy corporations, including half-ownership of the Alberta Energy Company.

This is possible because Mr. Lougheed commands what is considered the largest energy tax fund of any nonnational government.

Once part of the business clubs and "old boy" network of Calgary, today he is often held in suspicion by many conservative businessmen who privately decry his "socialist" actions. "For the first time in British Commonwealth parlimentary history, . . . government is in the marketplace with incredible bounty," said Ron Ghitter, a Calgary lawyer and member of Lougheed's Party.

Local writer Wayne Skene calls Lougheed a "dyed-in-the-wool democratic socialist. He has about as much free-enterprise blood in him as columnists have objectivity." Another brand of critics contend that not enough of Alberta's abundance goes to help people directly but benefits the oil industry, which is mostly foreign-owned.

The Alberta government has avoided out and out public ownership of companies, however, and chooses a Canadian style of "public enterprise," one that works for the "good of Alberta."

"It's Canadian western capitalism," says H. B. Brent, president of Syncrude. "We can't tell the Alberta patriot from the Alberta socialist. I'm uncomfortable with it. It works now but what happens when Lougheed is gone?"

For the new Alberta with economic clout, the 1970s was the Lougheed decade.Many now wonder if his mercantile view of government -- and the investment power of Alberta's overflowing treasury -- will dominate Canada in the 1980s. And will Mr. Lougheed use his "petro-power" to take Canada to the brink of Balkanization?

Mr. Lougheed is viewed both inside and outside Alberta as precipitating an economic and constitutional confrontation never before seen in Canada's perpetual struggle for identity as a nation. his stick-to-your-guns western style so far has left little room for compromise.

But Mr. Trudeau has also played tough in seeking a strong role for Ottawa. The premiers of the two other western -- and resource-rich -- provinces, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, generally support the Lougheed stands.

"A strong west will create a stronger Canada," Premier Lougheed has said. "We are Canadians before we are Albertans."

Mr. Lougheed suggests that "a future premier" may be forced to separate the Alberta from Canada to protect the province from economic dominance. So far, a separatist movement has little support in the west, polls show, although antagonism with the east is high. Canadians show a loyalty to their national diversity. A favorite pastime is debating nationalism. In fact, without an Ottawa to kick around, there is some doubt whether a politician such as Peter Lougheed could have come to power.

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