Why there is no quick fix for Alberta's malaise, no matter how much we want one
'Perhaps the hunt for such a fix is itself a problem that blinds us to a need for a multiplicity of solutions'
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first 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.
Alberta. The future of the province is uncertain and past prosperity is just that — past.
From the beginning of the recession more than four years ago to the sort-of recovery we find ourselves in today, governments (at all levels), economists, academics, institutions, experienced business owners and entrepreneurs have sought solutions.
The search continues.
At the same time, Albertans coped and adjusted. The tectonic shift beneath our feet forced countless personal decisions about jobs, homes, families and expectations. But it's hard to live in uncertainty, at least for long. For many, what started as discomfort grew into concern.
Concern became worry. Anger emerged.
Sensing the collective mood, politicians of all stripes began to employ the rhetoric of "fighting for Albertans" or "standing up for Alberta." (Though whom they are fighting, exactly, isn't always clear.)
Evoking problems with confederation can rally a crowd but can also enhance a sense of impotence. If we are not treated fairly, and we are unable to fix it — even held back from fixing it — then, yes, we are righteous in our anger. But anger isn't a plan.
The leveraging of an us-versus-them narrative — the ill-defined, external enemy — may play well in the echo chambers of social media and from the political podium, but it lacks nuance and substance. Still, it will no doubt play a substantial role in the upcoming provincial election campaign, where rhetoric flourishes as Albertans' emotions are leveraged by those who bid to get, or hold, power.
"While anger is a great strategic tool for winning elections," political scientist Duane Bratt cautioned, "it is a poor strategy for governing."
Whoever wins the election will find governing is inherently about finding solutions to problems, a task made all the more difficult when perception and reality are in conflict.
Yes, times have been better — especially in Calgary, historically a boom-bust city that now feels like it may have seen its last boom. But how bad are they, really? That depends entirely on who you ask. And what measuring stick you use.
"The perceptions are more negative than the reality," says professor Jack Lucas with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. This, after asking 2,000 Calgarians how they feel about the economy and comparing it to the actual, economic data.
Life is changed, but it goes on
In spite of the gloomy mood, our world has not ended.
And any rumours of our near-death were greatly exaggerated. Calgary never lost 7,000 businesses in a single year, as was so widely believed. And no, all the restaurants aren't closing (although many are changing.)
The recession, by most objective measures, ended in late 2016 and the recovery really hit its stride in 2017 — a bounceback after hitting rock bottom. We led the country in economic growth that year, as jobs returned, wages rose and unemployment declined. There was ample evidence things were getting better.
Still, the sense lingered that "recovery" wasn't the right word for what we were experiencing. We had not yet regained what was lost. And there was evidence, too, that things might never be the same as they once were.
Now, even that upward momentum seems at risk. If 2017 was a strong year, 2018 was anemic, by comparison. And the early economic indicators of 2019 have been less than encouraging, so far. The spectre of a second recession looms.
And it must not be forgotten that many Albertans have experienced no recovery, at all.
Many of us are still deeply anxious, if not desperate, about what lies ahead. This may go some way toward explaining why the very acknowledgment of a recovery has gained little traction as a provincial narrative. People don't feel it in their bones.
This, too, will likely inform the upcoming election. The idea of a generation-long recovery is unlikely to sit well with the electorate. Even if it's the reality we might face.
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"In turn, we Albertans must understand challenges ahead, be open to them, and be aware that, at this point, only painful options are available," University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe wrote in a sobering analysis of our long-term economic and demographic trajectories.
"We did little long-term planning when times were good. We did little when times were bad."
The Road Ahead
For more than three years now, a special series from CBC Calgary has attempted to analyze our situation and give voice to our city and our province during these challenging times. First called Calgary at a Crossroads and now The Road Ahead, it's an ongoing exploration of our province in all its complexity.
Call it our attempt at bootstrap social science.
Through the series, patterns have emerged. And yet, several hundred articles from dozens of writers later, the core question remains: What is the road ahead?
And further, who has what agency in all this? What power does government really have? How much control do individual Albertans have over their own futures? What can we do about our situation?
"What's dangerous is that we're being programmed into believing the government is the root of all our issues," said economist Peter Tertzakian in a recent Calgary Eyeopener interview. The executive director of ARC Energy Research Institute cautions against single-source remedies to a complex economic situation.
There is little evidence any one thing — whether it's the ethereal idea of finally "being afforded some respect" from the federal government or the tangible and much longed-for new pipeline — would, in itself, restore a sense of rightness in Alberta.
It should also be said, Albertans are a diverse bunch. While we sometimes speak of ourselves — or, more often, are spoken about — as culturally monolithic, not everyone here is angry. Not everyone thinks Ottawa is The Great Satan. Not everyone (in what remains, despite the downturn, the richest province in the nation) thinks we are hard done by. Or that being hard done by gives social licence to outrage.
As columnist Jen Gerson put it: "The grievances we feel are legitimate and they deserve a fair hearing — but we need to cool our jets. Seeing every act of the feds as maliciously contrived to deliberately harm us risks becoming a pathology."
There are many here who understand the perception in the rest of Canada that a people who still enjoy higher wages than those in any other province are unjustifiably outraged that their Cadillac lifestyles are under threat. There was, early in the downturn, an acknowledged problem with our own self-perception.
"During the oil boom of a few years ago, some Calgarians embraced the unfortunate trends of hubris, arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness," economist Todd Hirsch wrote back in 2016.
"Those all need to be thrown in the 'What Not to Wear' pile and burned. The 2016 fashion trends for Calgary's character look good on everyone — humility, reasonable pay expectations, generosity, and charity."
Three years later, hubris seems to have fallen out of fashion and been replaced, for many, with frustration and anxiety. For others, vague acceptance.
It may be that not enough time has passed for us to clearly understand our situation. So far, no unified field theory of how to go about reigniting Alberta's economic prosperity has emerged.
But maybe this is the point. That it would be a fool's errand to expect that someone, somewhere, will generate a vision of the problem, and therefore the solution.
The quick-fix dilemma
Perhaps the hunt for such a fix is, itself, a problem — one that blinds us to a need for a multiplicity of smaller solutions.
A quick fix would be easy, of course, if there were one to be found. A vast number of small fixes, by comparison, is much harder to envision and execute. And, perhaps even more difficult to accept, it would require a long time.
It could also be that the desire for a singular solution is the source of our anger. We long for a return to good times, but our expectations aren't met. Hopes dashed, we grow angry, which leads to more desperate searching for a solution, which leads to more expectations. A vicious cycle.
Even if we have no ready answers, we can explore the choices we face, both individually and collectively.
"Because this is happening to one, it is happening to all," wrote Pastor Tara Livingston. "Calgary is that kind of town."
But to seek a fix in only financial terms is to misunderstand how society works. To measure our province exclusively in terms of dollars, to seek answers only in the arena of economics, is to disregard many questions that need consideration.
It also risks overlooking potential solutions.
"We are a people who promote fresh starts and new ventures," Rev. John Pentland wrote about Calgary a few years back. "For me it begins with looking into our souls, both the individual and collective soul of the city."
The soul of a city is hard to define. It's a complex thing, experienced differently by different people, and yet a common thread that connects them.
In a meditation on that topic, singer-songwriter Lynn Olagundoye spoke about — and directly to — Calgary's soul.
"You are the flavour that gives Calgary it's kick," she wrote. "You are the steady beat that has become the heart of this city. You have inspired us to come together and share our stories, our talents and our gifts. Regardless of our colour, race, religion or orientation, it is through you we can come together and experience our oneness and discover our flawed perfection."
Interesting idea, that. Flawed perfection.
So, in an attempt to answer that pesky question — What is the Road Ahead? — we're going to explore our flaws, our aspirations, our agency and our choices.
But before we puzzle out where we're going, we need to look back.
At the road behind us.
When optimism surrounded us like air
It might be hard to remember now but, five years ago, the optimism in this province was virtually everywhere.
It was so pervasive, it became the new normal. A sort of expectation of outcome. And it wasn't until it was gone that we realized what we had.
At the start of 2014, stock sales in the oilpatch were off to their best start in years.
Prices for West Texas Intermediate were spiking over $100 US a barrel. Labour shortages were a headache. Energy company Christmas parties were legendary; bonuses were common.
The boom bled into everyday life. Home values rose, vacancies plunged and retail hummed. Salaries soared and opportunity abounded.
There's an argument to be made that trickle-down boom economics led to what was seen as the land-of-milk-and-honey Alberta Advantage. The benefits weren't evenly distributed, of course. Individual hardship and poverty remained, something often forgotten in our nostalgia for the lost golden period.
Still, there was an undeniable and widely felt sense that times were good.
Voices of caution in this period were often marginalized. While the gravy train was chugging along, most of us wanted to ladle up the good stuff. Jobs were aplenty. A fella without a high-school diploma could make six figures working up north. A young woman with a petroleum engineering degree could almost write her own ticket downtown.
The public conversation was peppered with phrases like, "in a province as rich as Alberta we should be able to…" Certainly, there were a lot of bread and circuses to go around when it came to government expenditure, and the way many of us chose to spend our own cash.
Calgary's biggest challenge seemed to be managing the boom. The city's rapid growth was forecast to continue unabated and plans were made on that assumption.
Then, it all went wrong.
A bust that still echoes
The energy market, the lifeblood of Alberta's economy, started to sputter.
It was an incredibly complicated series of global events, government and industry decisions, actions and reactions. But the short version is this: Rising oil production began to collide with slowing economies, contributing to a global oil glut that sent crude prices on a long, punishing spiral.
In December 2014, American benchmark prices fell below $60 US a barrel.
A dip turned into a drop, which turned into a plunge.
By February 2016, they were in the low $30s.
The oil-price crash took those legendary Christmas parties down with it. In corporate Calgary, champagne-pouring acrobats were replaced with far more modest affairs, if the events weren't cancelled entirely.
That is, if you were lucky enough to still have a job.
Employees showed up at work to find their swipe cards wouldn't work at the front door. "Termination Tuesdays" became a thing. Tens of thousands of people walked out of their offices with their personal effects in cardboard boxes.
If you live here, you know the rest.
The trickle-down bust affected nearly everyone. Construction slowed. Shops shuttered and staff were left looking for increasingly rare work. In a downtown hair salon, stylist Francis Byron watched it through his window every day.
"That guy used to come here all the time, but now he cuts it at home himself," he said. "Some people come in here and they have tears in their eyes."
Byron also noticed one of the psychological effects of the downturn: a loss of personal agency in people's lives.
"They have absolutely no control over what's going to happen next," he said. "And that's scary."
As psychologist Donna Sales wrote back in 2016: "Working hard, being a 'good person' and doing things 'right' does not make us immune to unwanted or unexpected events. Our control is limited."
Feeling like you have a lack of agency, an inability to control your own life, can be profoundly unsettling. It's human to seek security.
And while the collapse of oil prices was felt on a personal level, the impact was also profoundly collective. In the span of a few years, the province went from collecting nearly $10 billion in annual royalty revenues to running $10-billion deficits. It's worth reading those numbers twice to understand the magnitude.
Collective suffering can unite a disparate group of people like nobody's business, and Albertans, who had ridden the boom together, now endured the bust together. Apocalyptic language was in the air. Lamentations, public and private, grew to a crescendo, fed off each other.
People, invariably, looked to government, and the economic upheaval lit a fuse in Alberta's already destabilized provincial politics.
'Look in the mirror'
When he was sworn in on Sept. 15, 2014, Jim Prentice became Alberta's third premier in the past six months. If Albertans thought this would finally bring some stability to their government after the chaotic departure of Alison Redford from the province's helm, they were in for a surprise.
Prentice quickly negotiated the stunning defection of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight other MLAs. The unprecedented move gutted the rival party's caucus and, it appeared, consolidated the Progressive Conservatives' grip on power.
Armed with political confidence, Prentice tried to steel Albertans for the turbulent times he saw ahead. Most of us weren't ready to accept it, but the storm was coming. The oil-price crash would punch a "$7-billion hole" in the province's budget, Prentice told us, over and over. Something had to be done.
His proposal? Spending cuts and tax increases. A painful but necessary pill to swallow.
But Albertans, at this time, were still in the early stages of trying to reckon with the province's rapid economic decline. It was hard to wrap our minds around how bad things had suddenly become.
And then during the campaign, live on CBC Radio, Prentice uttered those four, fateful words.
When it comes to the source of our financial woes, the premier told Albertans: "We all need only look in the mirror."
It will go down as a moment in Alberta's political history — a before/after occurrence. The kind of comment that ends up in the Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes.
The reaction was immediate: outrage and indignation. Though, it must be said, there were those who agreed. They might not have been popular, but arguments were made that our good times had created a sense of entitlement and no appetite to give that up.
A stunning defeat
Later, in a Calgary Herald interview, Prentice tried to clarify what he had meant.
"Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs," he said. "Collectively we got into this as Albertans and collectively we're going to get out of it and everybody is going to have to shoulder some share of the responsibility."
In retrospect, it has been often argued, to tell a people so suddenly beset by trouble that the situation is (at least in part) of their own making, is poor politics, to say the least.
Albertans looked in the mirror and then voted Prentice and his party out of office.
It was the stunning defeat of a 43-year PC dynasty. A seismic shift that would later swallow up the party, itself.
While the personal motivations for casting a ballot are varied and complex, whatever the reasons, suddenly there was a new sheriff in town.
For the first time, Alberta had an NDP government.
One that wanted to sell a different plan.
But that is part two of The Road Ahead.
This is part one of a five-part series.
- PART TWO | The reality of the recession bites some Albertans harder. What that means for the election — and whoever wins
- PART THREE | The growing pains Alberta faces as it sheds its boom-and-bust past
- PART FOUR | Calgary's moment of choice: How the city can break its mould but preserve its soul
- PART FIVE | How Calgary's maverick mythology, as mask and reality, can influence the roads ahead
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: firstname.lastname@example.org