It’s imperative that the federal government take the economic woes and resentment felt by the West very seriously. Here’s what can be done
By Phil Elder
CALGARY – OPINION – Monday’s federal election has ignited widespread fury in Alberta. Some Albertans are even talking of reviving the separatist movement, which is as dumb as a bag of hammers.
We should remember that almost 31 per cent of Albertans who voted chose parties other than the Conservatives, who are on the wrong side of history when it comes to global warming.
I’m no apologist for Alberta’s oil patch. I consider the development of the oil sands a terrible idea for environmental reasons, such as soil, air and water contamination, as well as because this work causes or exacerbates global warming. And global warming dictates a considerable reduction of fossil fuel production and fast.
I disagree with what I think are short-sighted statements by people like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta government, who want the future to be like the past. It won’t be and some major players in the oil and gas and investment industries are already acting accordingly.
It would be a huge mistake, however, for Canadians to dismiss these strong feelings of alienation and insecurity as whining by well-off oil executives. Alberta’s unemployment rate in August was 7.2 per cent, compared with the national figure of 5.7 per cent. And uncertainty about the future haunts thousands of households, even if we acknowledge that for years median incomes of Albertans have been much above those of other regions.
Before leaping to solutions, however, let’s realize what’s going on. Albertans’ unease rests on more than economic insecurity. It also stems from feeling less valued by Central Canada, less connected to decision-making and even patronized by self-described progressives who often seem to dismiss them as old-fashioned simpletons.
In fact, few areas of the country have a workforce as well educated as Alberta’s, even if the province’s political culture is more conservative than some.
So a lot of Alberta’s resentment of Central Canada rests on hurt feelings, somewhat like colonial Canada’s toward Britain.
It’s imperative that the federal government take the economic woes and resentment felt by Alberta (and Saskatchewan) very seriously. In politics, perceptions become people’s reality. National disunity is a big problem, especially when not one Liberal was returned in either Alberta or Saskatchewan. How will these provinces’ interests be represented in caucus or cabinet?
And what could the federal government do to help ameliorate Western economic and social distress? If I were prime minister, I’d consider the following ideas:
- The West needs to know it’s respected and that other Canadians value its contribution to Canadian prosperity and progress. There is no us-versus-them problem: we all know or are related to people across the country and have widespread economic ties. Look at the population of Fort McMurray and the many products sent there, and the energy from there that we all use. Individual Westerners want to feel loved. Remember “The West wants in” quote by Preston Manning of the Reform movement?
- Integrate Alberta/Saskatchewan input into caucus and cabinet deliberations. Any hope of appointing a non-Liberal MP to the cabinet to do this? At least appoint a Senator from the region to cabinet.
- Set up a major inquiry to lead an adult conversation on the future of Canadian energy, including the possibility of stranded assets as oil demand declines. Maybe a Senate committee could research this and hold hearings. Or convene and attend a major conference in Calgary with representatives from the patch, unions, non-government organizations, and relevant university researchers.
- Appoint a respected Albertan to head a research team to examine ways to upgrade or process products instead of exporting raw materials (including agricultural output).
- Set up major retraining programs for redundant workers. For example, geothermal power could use expert well drillers and well service personnel.
- Offer Alberta a cost-sharing program to reclaim the many thousands of depleted and orphan wells and to accelerate the reclamation of the huge tailings ponds. I think this is an emergency situation that would create significant employment.
- Perhaps other useful shared-cost programs (to encourage renewable energy?) could be found. Alberta has immense potential for solar, wind and geothermal projects. Energy conservation projects also come to mind.
- Consider beefing up and extending employment insurance to encourage the retraining of workers.
- Visit and speak in Alberta and Saskatchewan frequently, with a prominent adviser in the prime minister’s office (perhaps a former cabinet minister) to honour innovative projects and talk about a future where Alberta is an energy superpower, with emphasis on renewables. Consult with opinion leaders.
- Remember the federal government’s spending power.
- Set up a research and collaboration program through the National Research Council, offering university fellowships on relevant subjects. What long-term uses of oil don’t involve burning the final product?
- Calgary has an immense amount of computing power, especially in the oil patch. Research how this could be deployed in other sectors.
- How about moving some major government infrastructure, such as decentralizing federal departments, to the West?
- Set up a regional economic expansion program.
- Could the Business Development Bank of Canada be a useful vehicle for a special program to encourage retrained workers to start businesses? Also, all federal departments could be asked about programs that could be adapted to encourage Western economic development.
The above are merely back-of-the-envelope ideas by a non-expert. Much more could be done. But I hope Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes Western disaffection seriously and doesn’t think that Albertans are just whining malcontents, even if a lot of noise comes from short-sighted oil people who believe profits matter more than saving humanity from climate catastrophe.
Phil Elder is an emeritus professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary. Phil’s wife, Janet Keeping, was the leader of the Green Party of Alberta from 2012 to 2017.
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