Calgary at a Crossroads

At the end of what has been a troubled and difficult year for many, I've been asked to comment on how we as Calgarians might be thinking of our various situations as we enter into what looks to be another challenging year.

My advice: let's fall back on our history and remember our resiliency as a people.

I suggest we remember that the West — and Calgary in particular — was established by some of the most intrepid, irrepressible, and independent entrepreneurs anywhere.

Building a small community at the confluence of the Bow and the Elbow rivers — on the edge of a wild and open prairie bordering on a rugged mountain wilderness — our first settlers met all challenges with a plucky determination that has allowed us, decades later, to become one of the finest cities in the world.

Now it's up to each of us — individually — to claim, or reclaim, the same gutsy spirit of those who came before us. We have no other choice.

Digging out 

We simply cannot rely on big business — which is being hammered by commodity price collapses and volatile capital markets — to dig us out of this downturn.

Nor can we rely on our governments — both of which (federal and provincial) are terribly inexperienced.  Their inexperience is showcased by the fact that they are all too often moving much too quickly without consultation or thoughtful discussion — inducing fear of the unknown, and volatile regulatory environments in too many ways.

That's why it's more important than ever for individual initiative.

Before I go on, a simple reminder: The world is not ending. It is indeed cycling.  We're still living, working, eating, and playing. Calgary is not shutting down. But there is a commodity price cycle that is working against us — and which is hitting us and our currency very, very hard.

Yes we're facing some big challenges, but if history predicts the future, we KNOW there will be a brighter day. I'm the first to believe that. But I'm also the first to acknowledge that over the next several years some changes are necessary.

Create something new 

Oil Prices Environment

Wilson says the Alberta's carbon economy is not about the end any time soon and businesses must evolve and create new technologies to remain competitive. (Matthew Brown/Associated Press)

First, our energy industry in particular has to continue to get control of its cost structure in order to compete.

Any business seeing its revenues decline dramatically knows it's important to create cost efficiencies that enable operating cash flow. Innovation is often the solution to higher costs. There is clearly incredible opportunity to innovate in difficult markets. Research and development budgets may be getting cut, but the need to encourage the spirit of innovation never should be questioned.

Opportunities to advance in carbon capture, enhanced oil recovery, multi-stage fracking to name a few — all need to be advanced for our mutual benefit.

I've long been frustrated with the line of thinking that suggests we've got to inject more diversification into the Alberta economy. I would argue that we have spent too much time and money trying to diversify rather than recognizing and embracing excellence in our existing industries.

Now is the time to evolve and create new technologies while bringing technologies of the world home and to use them to our competitive advantage in the various sectors that already drive our economy — energy, agriculture, construction and transportation, among others.

To me, the very vocal and misguided outliers who are proclaiming the end of the carbon-based economy, greatly exaggerate its premature death. I am among many who believe we are not going to lose the carbon-based economy any time soon. Instead of chasing other businesses, let's look inward instead of outward. Rather than trying to be Silicon Valley North, let's figure out how to mow our own grass more efficiently.

Ludicrous spending habits 

Secondly, our provincial government needs to get control of its spiraling costs and ludicrous spending habits.

We have recently learned that health-care costs in this province are upwards of 30 per cent higher than those in the rest of the country. Why? Of course we need to take care of essential services like health and education, but we need to do it efficiently. Alberta needs to get its fiscal house in order so that our province and city (and individual taxpayers) are once again able to compete. Who is going to hold them accountable for that? Clearly, we the citizens must.

Spending issues aren't just for governments.

The silver lining of a downturn is that it forces people to get household spending under control and live within their means. It also lets us discover that a new car, bigger house, or exotic vacation isn't always the path to a happier life.

In fact, the opposite is often the case.

A happy life

WEA Alta Flooding 20130624

Residents and volunteers take a break in a raft as the neighbourhood of Bowness recovered after flooding in June, 2013. Brett Wilson says Calgarians need to come together again as a community to overcome our economic challenges. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

I have long believed that measuring success based on real wealth – like family time, friendships, and physical health — naturally makes us feel richer than we think.

One of the best ways I know to find real and lasting significance in life is to enrich the lives of others. This is something that Calgarians understand well. We overcame the floods of 2013 by working together as an unbreakable community. We can do the same now.

The power to weather this storm lies within each of us.

We can't wait, hope, and dream that someone outside of Calgary is going to change things for the better. We have to do it ourselves — together, and individually. Yes, a better day will dawn. But right now, it's up to us.

If Calgary is, indeed, at a crossroads, I suggest we take the same path we have historically taken. We rise up. We remember our resiliency as a people. And we reclaim the same spirited determination that has always made our city great. If the past predicts the future, we have no other choice.

And we're worth it.

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.