Oil's swoon sparks Alberta schadenfreude in rest of Canada

Falling oil prices are hammering Alberta's economy, but not everyone seems to mind. A look into the psychology behind interprovincial rivalry and why not all misfortune is created equal.
Falling oil prices are putting oil producing provinces on their heels, but that's not a problem for everyone. (Matthew Brown/Associated Press)

How best to describe a complicated interprovincial dynamic in which a swift drop in the price of oil can at once cause economic suffering for Alberta, yet inspire so little sympathy in the rest of the country?

Perhaps call it provinziellenfreude*.

With due respect to the Queen’s English, sometimes the German language, which is forever coming up with new ways to convey the layers of meaning in an idea, is better suited for a particular task. Consider schadenfreude, which comes from blending schaden (harm) with freude (joy), and refers to the pleasure that’s taken in the misfortune of another.

It is not sufficient that I succeed. Everyone else must fail- Genghis Khan

Schadenfreude is typically not an emotion most people like to admit feeling. As children, we’re not raised to feel good about another person’s problems. Yet, to deny it exists would be dishonest. Canadians are certainly no strangers to taking a hint of pleasure in the struggles of a province down the block.

The history of regional schadenfreude stretches back to the early days of Confederation.

"It’s bred in the bone," says Dimitry Anastakis, a professor of political and economic history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. "These underlying regional tensions are never that far from the surface."

Right now, the same low oil prices that are knocking Alberta from its economic perch are also once again waking up the familiar call-and-response of inter-regional rivalry. For Exhibit A, Anastakis says, just listen to a call-in radio show or scroll to the comments section of nearly any newspaper or web story that touches on oil.

If lower oil prices mean petro-rich Alberta gets served with a little comeuppance and gasoline prices fall at the same time, then, a common line of thinking goes, what’s not to like?

As a Globe and Mail reader recently offered: "I guess we can start calling Alberta 'Detroit West' now. Where did all that oil money go over the last few decades anyway? Didn't the Conservatives put some aside for a rainy day? Get your umbrellas out in Alberta!"

A commenter on a recent story on was even more direct: "Everybody here, let's all raise our hands in the air and cheer. It's about time that Alberta suffered."

The rebuttals from the Alberta side of the border often make for a smart match: “Hows [sic] Nova Scotia been doing these last few decades? Not so hot economically according to all the Nova Scotianers [sic] I talk to that have been supporting families back home with the money they make right here, in Alberta.”

Us vs. them?

As might be expected, Albertans are starting to circle the wagons against attacks from other parts of the country that seem just a shade too gleeful. While the keyboard stylings of a few commenters, as well as the odd internet troll, are certainly not a robust gauge of the mood of the entire country, the renewed visibility of both camps raises any number of questions. 

Where do feelings of schadenfreude come from? Are they harmless or is something more going on? Has Alberta done anything to deserve them? Does interprovincial rivalry hold real-world implications? Why can’t we just be friends?

Feelings of schadenfreude are much more common than most people would like to think. How we feel about ourselves, says Richard Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, is tied up with our perception of how we stack up against others.

If feelings of self worth don’t exist in a vacuum, then it stands to reason that someone else’s misfortune can offer, at least in an intangible way, a relative boost to one’s self esteem.

"Take the average Kentucky basketball fan. Why do we care, really, that Kentucky wins? We’re not on the basketball court, we’re not actually achieving anything on an individual level, but when Kentucky wins a national championship a lot of people feel pretty good about themselves around here," Smith says. "We actually feel better about who we are as part of that collective Wildcat nation."

Provincially speaking, Alberta’s relative economic decline is an easy win for someone in another region. However, schadenfreude isn’t limited to touchy-feely notions; it can result from more concrete events. In addition to self-worth, it connects with a complex web of feelings involving aspects of envy, competition, self-interest and justice, among other emotions.

Some provinces like cheap energy

Consider, for instance, the relationship between Alberta and Ontario.

The good fortune enjoyed by Alberta due to higher oil prices also put a charge into the loonie, punishing Canada’s export sector in general and central Canadian manufacturers in particular. Now that crude prices are falling, Alberta’s oil-inspired loss is Ontario’s factory-driven gain.

In this case, the tendency to favour one’s own self-interest, even at the expense of another’s suffering, is a feature of schadenfreude that's easy to understand.

The question of whether Alberta deserves any of the low-lying feelings of ill will coming its way is more complicated. To the extent that Albertans may have developed a certain smugness or even arrogance about their economic success matters in how the rest of the country views the province’s current misfortune. What’s more, whether Alberta actually deserves its success in the first place or merely benefits from the arbitrary geological blessing of a vast resource endowment is, according to Smith, another factor that affects the feelings of people elsewhere.

A dollop of envy, he adds, is also likely a part of Canada’s interprovincial schadenfreude cocktail. The fact that Alberta has prospered for so long fosters a resentment that doesn’t get levied at Saskatchewan or Newfoundland, which are also bearing the brunt of lower oil prices, but have traditionally spent more time on the "have-not" side of the national ledger.

'Tough emotion'

"Envy is such a tough emotion to deal with, because if you acknowledge your envy you’re basically saying,'I’m inferior,' and people don’t like to admit that at the individual or the group level because it’s a painful feeling," Smith says. "Anything that gets rid of that feeling is good."

The consensus view of economists holds that low oil prices are a net negative for the country. However, on an emotional level some people may still be willing to embrace lower prices and sacrifice what's ultimately best for themselves if it narrows the perceived gap with another group.

"You’re actually willing to suffer in other ways, but it’s worth it if your envy goes away," says Smith. "You can say, ‘I’m OK with Canada suffering a little bit as a country as long as Alberta really suffers’."

Schadenfreude, which isn’t necessarily an emotion that’s even consciously recognized, is often considered to be passive and fairly harmless, if ungenerous. To the extent that it might turn into a harmful instinct is a matter of degree.

In theory, it could contribute to provincial relations becoming so toxic that the country suffers, but for that to happen the slippery slope of ill will would have to become much icier than it is now.

"It’s a natural human emotion, so there’s no point in browbeating yourself about it, or anybody else, if you detect it in some way," Smith says. "You just don’t want to go too far with it by encouraging it and feeding it. That’s not a path you want to go down."

West vs. East

Regional rivalry is certainly nothing new for Canada.

Ottawa, for instance, didn’t grant the West control of its natural resources until 1930 after a 25-year fight. And the drumbeat of western alienation can still be heard with even the mere whisper of the words National Energy Program, the early 1980s federal government policy that dictated how much Alberta could charge other provinces for its oil.

"It’s a tension that’s always there," Trent University’s Anastakis says. "It’s a tension between the political elites, it’s a tension between ordinary people, and it’s a tension between different industrial sectors."

The long history of East-West tension shows up in 'The Canadian Milch Cow,' a political cartoon from 1915 that depicts eastern bankers reaping the benefits of hard-working western farmers. (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

The question of who’s footing the bill for Confederation through transfer payments is another ever-present aspect of Canadian federalism that doesn’t always engender a lot of goodwill among the provinces. More recently, Ottawa’s policy efforts to turn Canada into an energy superpower are also seen to have a decidedly western tilt. Similarly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s declaration of “the West is in” following his 2006 election win seemed to be, at least for those east of Manitoba, the idea of regional division writ large.

In an election year, how Canadians on either side of the Alberta border feel about the consequences of lower oil prices could take on a heightened relevance.

"We’re probably going to see this tension really raise its head and appear in the next six to eight months," Anastakis says. "Around the election you’re going to see, probably, a different discourse by leaders in certain regions of the country … someone like [Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau is going to be trying to talk about how important the oil sands continues to be, but at the same time he’ll be in Ontario talking about how this is an opportunity for manufacturing to get back on its feet."

In a speech last week, Trudeau — while attempting to walk the finest of political lines by supporting the oil industry while introducing a carbon-pricing plan — seemed well aware of the role interprovincial schadenfreude could soon play for voters.

"My last name is Trudeau and I’m standing here at the Petroleum Club in Calgary," he said. "I understand how energy issues can divide a country."

With an election call around the corner and oil prices still struggling to find a bottom, it seems the latest episode of provinziellenfreude* could just be getting started.

*(Thanks to Peter Schloss of Düsseldorf for his work on the neologism.)


Paul Haavardsrud writes for CBC's western business desk in Calgary. He is also a producer on CBC Radio’s national business desk where he talks about business on Radio One in the afternoons. Prior to that he worked for newspapers. On Twitter, he’s @paulhaavardsrud.


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