How Calgary's maverick mythology, as mask and reality, can influence the roads ahead

Like all cities, Calgary has its mythology. Not mythology as in untruth, but as in grand narrative.

Putting our money where our myths are, as we search for the many paths forward

A view of downtown Calgary from inside the Wonderland sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a five-part series that's a little different from what you usually read on CBC. In it, we add new reporting and analysis to the work of dozens of writers who have contributed to our Calgary at a Crossroads and Road Ahead projects over the past three years. The goal is to take stock of the turbulent times we've been through while exploring where we're headed next — and how we might get there.

The series was initially published in February. We're resurfacing it in March for those who may have missed it.

Like all cities, Calgary has its mythology.

Not mythology as in untruth, but as in grand narrative. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we come from, and how that should shape and determine our future. It's the way we market ourselves to ourselves — and to the world.

And, in keeping with most communities, our narratives tend to be comforting, self-flattering. We are mavericks. We are risk-takers. We are go-getters. We are entrepreneurs. We come from a long line of "Heroes, Hustlers and Horsemen."

As Calgary historian and writer Aritha Van Herk put it: "We thrive on upheavals, pipe dreams and celestial imaginings, over-extension and excess, believe the stories that circulate with the chinook wind, the temperature rising and falling, the river's beautiful and reckless rustle underneath the whoosh of tires."

Van Herk wrote the book, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, back in 2001. It's perhaps fitting that she penned the above in a 2016 article called, "A meditation on Calgary in our turbulent times."

These last few years have been a difficult time for many individuals in this city and for all of us, collectively.

Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs during the recession. Here are a handful of them, who took part in a local photographer's portrait project in 2016. (Michael Heywood)

But our myths are tricky things. As we attempt to conform to certain collective ideas of who we are, we can limit ourselves. Still, a positive myth can infuse individuals with the courage to act.

We are in a long, slow (and possibly faltering) recovery from a deep economic downturn. As we've explored in the last few years, the bust brought us to a metaphoric Crossroads, and later we began to chart The Road Ahead.

It has been something of a long dark night of the soul. It has left many of us changed.

"A good-old fashioned downturn, like any adversity, brings out people's true character," said Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB, back in 2016. "The mean people will get meaner. But the nice ones will become more generous, thoughtful and kind."

There is certainly kindness. But there is also anger.

Anger pointed outward, and occasionally turned inward.

Perplexed and angry

Perhaps there is no better time than a difficult time to reflect on our nature, to question some of our own myths, our self perceptions, our social DNA.

And, at the same time, explore how it all impacts the complex array — the multiplicity — of possible actions we can take and possible solutions to our problems.

As we've seen in the first and second parts of this series, perception deeply affects how people feel about the recession and recovery. This, too, could be rooted in our nature.

"It is typical of this city that it succeeds in disregarding even irrefutable facts, that it is convinced by its own incredible exaggerations and deceptions," writes Van Herk.

"We trade in creative disbelief. Calgary doesn't believe that the boom will come, and then it doesn't believe that the boom will end, although both boom and bust are inevitable — a cycle that has wheeled through this city at least 10 times."

Calgary skyline shown with the Husky Tower 1981. (Canadian Press)

We've gone through this before, yes.

But, as we've said earlier, this time, for many, it feels different.

And if we are perceiving the downturn and slow recovery differently, as less of a boom and bust and more of a profound and fundamental shift, it is perhaps understandable that the perceptions and reactions are different.

Rex Murphy wrote of Calgary three years ago that "the city is caught in a storm brought on by the decline of oil prices. And the years of international and national campaigns against oil, against pipelines make coming out of that storm ever so more difficult. The anti-oil campaigns mean that some people see the decline as a good thing have indeed been wishing for it — though actually saying that out loud won't happen except in the higher reaches of the green world."

"Were I a Calgarian," wrote Murphy, "all these elements would leave me both perplexed and a little angry."

That was in 2016, and what with project cancellations, more job losses in the energy industry, and the Trans Mountain delays, anger here has grown.

And that anger, if left unchecked, could inhibit our ability to devise a comprehensive strategy on how to improve our situation, and follow through on it.

'This is a god-awful place'

"This place radiates negativity," energy economist Peter Tertzakian said at a recent Calgary Chamber of Commerce event.

"I don't know how many conferences I have been to where oil and gas executives and other peripheral people around in the ecosystem say, 'This is a god-awful place, it's not investable. Government, you fix it. Blah, blah, blah."

"Now I'm not trying to downplay or diminish the issues we have here," he continued. "But to get a megaphone out and tell the rest of the world that this is a god-awful place to invest is a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Tertzakian compared this attitude to those he's seen in Texas, where, despite challenges, people who have gone bankrupt are saying, "How can I get around these things and get back in the game?"

Energy economist Peter Tertzakian speaking at Calgary Chamber of Commerce event about the industry's future prospects in the city and province. (CBC)

He was speaking of people in the oil and gas industry. But the question could be applied more broadly. How will we get back in the game? Not just in the energy industry, but across the overall economy?

In this special Road Ahead series, we've looked at how we perceive our economy and our political parties. We've looked at economic diversification efforts, and how we market an image of ourselves externally. We've looked at whether our young people perceive this as a place to build careers and lives, to be in it for the long haul.

"In a sentence, we're builders," wrote Monte Solberg, a former Conservative cabinet minister from Medicine Hat. "We want to build farms and ranches, families, cities, oil companies, social enterprises and family businesses, but there are also rules. We respect initiative and hard work. We respect 'taking responsibility.'"

The idea of responsibility is tied in with our own agency. And with avoiding, as Tertzakian says, the fallacy of placing all blame and responsibility for solutions on government, alone.

Rather, it's also about trying to figure out what each of us can do, ourselves.

Now, it would be foolish to think we can all innovate, self-employ and beadshop-in-the-basement our way out of hard times. Personal economics don't work that way. Each person's individual financial and personal circumstances can inhibit, often deeply, their ability to take action and make change.

Stil, there are still people out there who can, despite the downturn, continue to be mavericks.

But there's also a (perhaps surprising, in this place) risk aversion to putting our money where our myths are.

'It's an attitude'

In the past couple of years, Calgary has seen many successful new startups.

Some in the energy sector, where new businesses have developed or adopted technology to improve exploration and production. Others have made strides in renewable energy, high tech and genetics research. Many are small, home-based businesses. People finding a way to make self-employment profitable.

Overall, though, the number of small businesses in Calgary has slid, falling from 56,688 in 2015 down to 55,333 in 2017.

But this is the nature of risk. Some pay off. Some don't. And there are success stories out there.

Take Rosario Fortugno, the 20-something CEO of InOrbis Intercity. It's a startup company that provides car trips from Calgary to Edmonton in Tesla vehicles.

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"I've kind of always had a passion to create a business," said Fortugno, who swapped his career as an electrical engineer to study for an MBA at the University of Calgary. "I don't think it was a choice for me. I think it was almost a necessity."

Calgary investment banker Brett Wilson, speaking about our entrepreneurial spirit, says: "It's an attitude. It's about confidence. It's about a belief. It's about experience."

It is.

But it's also about risking cold, hard cash.

Last year, Arlene Dickinson, one of the city's best-known entrepreneurs, said the city's startup community can still struggle to attract the capital needed to grow to the early or middle stages of their development. Some have to go to the United States to hunt for investment dollars.

"We're a little too risk-averse still," she said. "We're a little too safe with our bets."

Despite Calgary's reputation for bold risk takers, lately, entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson says 'we're a little too safe with our bets.' (CBC)

This flies in the face of Calgary's primary myth, one steeped in the history of our wildcatter past — the oilmen of a bygone era who would roll the dice and drill in unexplored places, not knowing if they'd hit a gusher or a duster. It's the idea that we are bold risk takers when it comes to business.

This reputation for go-getter entrepreneurship is an important one, because our businesses need the cash, both from here and from outside the province and country.

This also ties into Tertzakian's warning about the dangers of communicating a message of economic negativity — in the energy industry, in particular.

It's a double edged sword, he said.

The anger, frustration and feelings of helplessness with what he describes as "geopolitics" here in Canada are understandable. And, as he said in an interview on the the Calgary Eyeopener: "It's positive that we are venting that anger, because ... now the 'I'm mad and I'm not going to take it anymore' is elevating the issue across the country."

However, he added: "The anger … and the frustration is heard outside the country as well, and we are very dependent on outside investment. And if outsiders hear this ruckus, they are scared away."

"I can put numbers to it," Tertzakian continued. "We have had typically, for the past 10 years, up to 2018, between $10 and $15 billion of equity and debt investment coming into the industry. Last year ... it was $1 billion."

Ascribing levels of causation to these numbers could be debated, but it's certainly worth thinking about what kind of story we tell about ourselves today, and how we nuance that message to the outside world.

The number of jobless people in Edmonton climbed in November to 7.7 per cent while Calgary saw some slight improvement in getting people back to work (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"I don't want to sugar coat it," Tertzakian said.

"I think the next two to three years are still going to be really tough. It's this disruptive period of of turmoil with a cocktail of technological change, social issues, geopolitics, all wrapped together. But, as we head into the 2020s, I think there is every reason for optimism."

That's our energy industry. And, as we say in the third part of this Road Ahead series, there is also a lot of work being done to diversify our economy and get that message — that Calgary is larger than oil and gas — out to companies that may want to move here, as well as to potential investors.

Choices are being made. Here.

'What recession?'

While private capital may be a bit hard to come by, the City of Calgary is investing on much smaller scales than what, say, the energy industry may have been used to.

The city has set up the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund and gave it $100 million to help spur growth and create jobs in strategic sectors.

One of the recent investments was of $4.5 million to a robotic logistics company that will use the money to scale up its manufacturing facilities. Earlier in the year, the fund gave $1.5 million to a firm that provides Silicon Valley startups with software engineers who work remotely from Canadian offices.

ATTAbotics is a Calgary startup that designs and manufactures automated storage and retrieval systems to store, access and move warehoused goods using robotics. (ATTAbotics/Startup Calgary/Vimeo screenshot)

The fund also provided the University of Calgary with $8.5 million to support specialized programming for entrepreneurs and early-stage companies working in the new Life Sciences Innovation Hub. It's expected that will assist 20 to 40 companies a year in the university's research park, and that hub could create between 1,300 and 3,100 new jobs for Calgarians over the long term.

Adam Legge, director of the Global Business Futures Initiative at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, says most economic development comes from within. He's encouraged by his discussion with today's entrepreneurs, including local artisans and new immigrants, who have chosen to start businesses here.

"Data shows that 80 per cent of economic development is organic anyway; it happens from the people in the companies that are already here," Legge said.

"I see entrepreneurs in the city sort of saying, 'I'm not going to get bogged down in this recession. I'm not going to get bogged down in things.'"

"And some of them," he added, "are in fact saying: 'What recession?'"

An interesting thought.

But, for many, it's one which will not resonate. And it may be, itself, angering for those who are still unemployed, or underemployed. For those who thought an expensive education would lead to jobs — jobs that may no longer exist. For those who saw a future within a once-roaring energy industry evaporate.

The frustration is understandable.

Compounded by what many see as a lack of sympathetic response for these economic concerns on a national level, anger grew, made visible through public rallies and highway convoys.

The 'United We Roll' convoy of semi-trucks prepares to leave Red Deer, Alta., on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, on its way to Ottawa to draw attention to lack of support for the energy sector and lack of pipelines. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"What happens next? Western anger needs to go somewhere," Solberg wrote, on the feeling shared by many Albertans.

"Either it goes into a new vision for Confederation that shows respect for Western aspirations or into some firebrand's vision for a divided Canada, a vision that is almost certainly fated to fail. Western separation is not many people's first choice. It's also not very realistic, but while the bad news pours down on Western heads — too much of it initiated by Ottawa — the only dignified response is righteous anger."

Tertzakian says "the path forward, in part, is by hopefully being able to bring the polarization back to something manageable with the geopolitics, and to get something done on that front."

Pipelines and possibilities

A CBC poll published last year showed 47 per cent of Albertans think pipelines or the economy are the most important issues facing the province. All other issues were far behind.

But for these Albertans, there was some measure of good news on Friday. The National Energy Board gave the green light to the Trans Mountain expansion, throwing the final approval for the long-lingering project back into the hands of the federal government.

This won't bring immediate relief to those who have been waiting — and waiting — for shovels to hit the ground. They'll still have to wait. But the ball has been advanced one step closer to the goal line.

But, while additional export capacity of a twinned Trans Mountain line would be a welcome addition to our oil industry, it's unlikely to be a silver bullet to slay our economic woes.

Those investments in smaller and more diverse businesses mentioned earlier (and explored in detail here) become more important to the future. And in that, for individuals, one of our grand narratives offers precedent and perhaps some inspiration.

The concept of the risk takers.

Horses graze near Fort Macleod, Alta. Prairie people, whether at the end of a dirt road or in a Calgary suburb, see the world in similar ways, writes Monte Solberg. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"The West. Those who come and those who stay all see adventure and opportunity in a place where whether you make it hinges on a bet," wrote Solberg.

"Will there be just the right amount of rain and sun to produce a good crop? Will the auction mart pay a good price for your calves six months from now? Or will a well, drilled thousands of feet down, and then thousands of feet over, hit a reservoir of oil big enough to justify the multi-million-dollar investment?"

And as Solberg says, this isn't just "Prairie mythology."

In 2015, he noted, Alberta had 50 small businesses per 1,000 people, the most of any province. By the end of 2017, battered by recession, that number had fallen, yes, but only slightly — to 48.8.

This is the thing about foundational stories and myths. They can, in theory, become actualized in some degree, as we cleave to them and try to live up to the ideal. Believing ourselves to be part of a shared history of entrepreneurs and risk takers could perhaps encourage us to actually take those risks.

Yet this is also where, perhaps, some of the Alberta anger could come from.

We had a perception of ourselves. An expectation of outcome. We grew up with our stories, old and new, of Calgary as the place to come to "be part of the energy." And then the downturn hit. It all went wrong. The story and the reality no longer matched.

This 'Calgary: Be Part of the Energy' sign welcomes visitors entering the city from the west. (Google Maps)

Still, Calgary is a young city, and its story, its identity, is still developing.

As urban sociologist Harry Hiller wrote back in 2015, Calgary is a city in which — in part because of our boom and the prosperity that led to our growth — we have a situation where "a new population mix struggles to find an image that represents a city still in the search for a new identity."

And that search leads down many paths.

"There can't be a single path forward," said Jyoti Gondek, a first-term city councillor who previously taught urban management at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.

"There's no single path because the city's become increasingly complicated."

Change in mindset

Calgary's past may have been built by hitching the city's fortunes to one, big industry, but Gondek believes as a city grows and matures, it inevitably needs to broaden its horizons.

To do so will take a shift in mindset, which is never easy.

As a city, Gondek thinks we're at an adolescent stage in our development. We've done well for ourselves up to this point, but getting to the next level requires pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone.

This, when Calgary's comfort zone, for so long, has been oil and gas. And, as our ability to rely on it so heavily fades, there's a natural desire to look for the next, big thing.

In 2018, we were grasping for something — some might say anything — that would single-handedly pull us out of our funk. Maybe the Olympics? Maybe Amazon? A positive pipeline ruling? Some oil-bearing rail cars? Killing the carbon tax? The new library helped for about a week. Then, we were back into the doldrums.

This is where Gondek says our mindset needs to change, because the reality of our situation is that there is no single, saving grace. No silver bullet. No deus ex machina.

Prior to becoming the city councillor for Ward 3, Jyoti Gondek was an urban sociology academic, serving as director of the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. (CBC)

"The dots that we're trying to connect are not linear," she said.

"And I think that's the big thing about Calgary. We are a very accommodating city. People call us a diverse city. We just need to be accepting of the diversity of ideas and how we're going to get there. Diversity of tactics and action is what we need right now."

And perhaps a greater diversity in the way we think of ourselves.

Van Herk, quoting Samuel Beckett, wrote about another way to think of our downturns — our hard times.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

"Failure" she wrote, "can be an elixir, an incentive and not the checkmate that stops the game. Once we measure that analeptic and strategic re-set, then we can figure out as well where failure connects to our courage."

Again, we are back at the idea of perception.

The Wonderland sculpture, perceived from a different angle, in front of The Bow building in downtown Calgary. (davebloggs007/Creative Commons)

And that's what this Road Ahead exploration has been about. The complexity of perception. The complexity of our economic and social situation. We stand faced with innumerable choices as individuals, institutions and government. Each interrelates in an intricate web of cause and effect. To tug one strand is to cause ripples in all the others.

The renowned sociologist Benedict Anderson spoke of "imagined communities." These social constructs are not based on geography, but rather on a sense of shared identity.

That's what we are speaking of here: the meaning of being a Calgarian and an Albertan, whether you've lived here your whole life, or you're newly arrived, or you're long gone but still feel some part of the collective identity, some tie, in your heart.

The stories we share about ourselves, so we know who we are.

Bringing all our assets to bear

Jim Gray is a legendary figure in Calgary's oilpatch.

He's one of our city's "grand old men," an Ontario-born geologist who bet on Calgary and won, and then committed to his new home despite its numerous recessions, recoveries, systemic changes and changes in this province. A stalwart.

Gray says the challenge faced by Calgary will bring changes to our city. But he believes the community has many enviable assets and its residents are up to the task — if they pitch in, work together and show the resilience the community has shown before.

During the flood, thousands of Calgarians lent a hand to total strangers to clean out their homes and deal with the aftermath. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

"This is a crisis and [if] we can bring that traditional, Alberta and Calgary 'can-do' spirit to the table, then we can persevere — we can win — but it's going to take 10 or 15 years. It's all hands on deck," he said.

"We've been dealt a pretty good hand but we've got a lot of headwind, too. So it's going to be a challenge."

Writing the next story

Identity is a moving target.

As Van Herk wrote: "The question is not so much how we wish to be seen … but what we see in the mirror, the way we must look ourselves straight in the eye and begin again, not with the accommodation of mythology, but with the knowledge that there are boots and bootstraps, and there is work to be done."

"We know we're not mavericks. That's a moniker, a stage name, a disguise. We are proud and stubborn but not stiff-necked. We're ready to investigate and we're ready to co-operate and innovate. So maybe we are mavericks."

Nothing about Calgary, it seems, is simple.

But this is the complexity of identity.

While the roots of how we see ourselves may remain the same, there will be growth and change, as new stories are told.

This is the final part of a five-part series. Read the others here:

The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's ongoing, special focus on our city and province as they pass through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face and possible solutions, as we explore what kind of future we want to create. And we're looking for your perspective. Have an idea for a future story? Email us:


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