Calgary at a Crossroads

Despite having lived in Ontario for more than a decade, I still consider myself to be — first and foremost  — a Calgarian.

For this reason, it pains me to see so many negative and disheartening stories about my hometown and its prospects in these difficult times.

Not only do these stories convey an outdated view of Calgary, they completely ignore the character of Calgarians.

Survival of the Fittest

If the legendary naturalist Charles Darwin were alive today, I would urge him to study Calgary instead of the Galapagos Islands.

Being a Calgarian is like taking an advanced course in the survival of the fittest – being forced to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Nowhere in the world are people subjected to such sudden or dramatic shifts in every aspect of their lives from the weather to the economy.

In my view, though, it is this exposure to volatility which makes Calgarians so resilient, optimistic, innovative and entrepreneurial.

Unfortunately, these qualities will be in great demand this year as all of Alberta continues to struggle through ominous economic trends — akin to a perfect storm.

Even those hardened cynics of successive cycles of boom and bust appear to recognize that the current situation is somehow different.

'Disbelief and disorientation'

With offices across the country from west to east, I have the frequent opportunity to consult with business and political leaders.

DIRTT Environmental Solutions interior

Doing It Right This Time (DIRTT) Environmental Solutions designs and produces pre-fab commercial interiors. This photo is of one of its interiors at Gilliam Collegiate Academy in Dallas, Texas (DIRTT Environmental Solutions)

During my travels, I have detected a mix of disbelief and disorientation among those trying to adjust to the dizzying turmoil of the past year.

Many appear to be in a trance. Outside of Alberta, this translates into a combination of wariness and worry — as investors and economists understand that anything that hurts Alberta hurts the rest of Canada.

In Calgary, the traditional frontier confidence appears shaken by falling oil prices, wholesale political change, and a raft of global factors beyond anyone's control.

I, for one, do not share the pessimistic appraisals I encounter in the press and public. Within every crisis there is an opportunity  — the trick is finding and seizing it.

Not just an oil town

When my family came to Calgary from India in 1974, my parents had no prospects or connections. They were forced to start from nothing.

Within a matter of years, they had founded what would become a very successful insurance brokerage — a company my brother leads today.

My family's story is not dissimilar from those of countless others who chose Calgary as the place to build their lives because it is a place that rewards hard work.

Calgary may be an oil town, but isn't merely an oil town.

It is also a world-leading hub for professional services, agriculture and agri-food, financial institutions, and innovative technologies.

Yes, the global energy markets are in decline  — that is undeniable — but that is why this is the perfect time for us to focus our efforts on cultivating our economic diversity.

'When oil and gas prices are high, there is no incentive to seek out opportunities in different sectors'
-Goldy Hyder,  President & CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies

This is not a new idea. In the darkest days of probably every previous downturn a chorus of voices has risen to call for greater diversity – only to grow quiet when the good times returned.

When oil and gas prices are high, there is no incentive to seek out opportunities in different sectors. It is easy to stay in our comfort zone.

Yet, the return to the "good old days" seems farther off this time and some even wonder if they will ever return.

While we cannot predict if that will be true, we must prepare as if it is.

Difficult choices ahead

I have heard some commentators suggest that Alberta will be a victim of the increased international focus on climate change issues.

Alta Climate Change 20151122

Premier Rachel Notley unveils Alberta's climate strategy in Edmonton in November. The new plan will include carbon tax and a cap on oilsands emissions, among other strategies. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

Why? With the greatest concentration of energy experts in the country, if not the world, why can't Calgary be a leader in sustainable solutions? With our large populations of engineers and geologists, why can't Calgary export its expertise to other extractive sectors — both within the country and around the world?

Fortunately, many of Calgary's post-secondary institutions have focused themselves on these and related opportunities.

The key now is to leverage and commercialize those efforts. Of course, I'm not naive — I recognize that diversification means making difficult choices.

Need to divert efforts to other sectors

We must forego some of the policies that have proven successful in the past, in favour of those which are untried and untested.

While we must continue to invest in energy — especially infrastructure — we must divert some of efforts and resources to other sectors.

To do so, we might need to embrace approaches that we have traditionally viewed as anathemas. In the past, Albertans have always been averse to seeking help from others, especially from other governments.

I believe Premier Notley deserves credit for reaching out to Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Wynne of Ontario and Premier Couillard of Quebec and, just as importantly, I believe they deserve credit for responding in kind. 

When people in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal ask me what I miss most about Calgary, I always say its yahoo can-do spirit.

I tell them about how when we had the winter Olympics in 1988 there was no snow, and, yet, the games were deemed the "best ever." 

It's that Stampede spirit we need to tap into now. Calgary is the heart of a country that is richer than its resources wealth – and it is a heart that will always be strong.

Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics

World figure skating champion Brian Orser carries the Canadian flag as he leads the Canadian Olympic team into McMahon Stadium in Calgary during the opening ceremony of the XV Olympic Winter Games on February 13, 1988. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.