Current Torontonian writes on his Calgary past, and the city's present

'It is an economic calamity that is exacting a very human price.' With reflections from someone who spent 15 years as CBC Calgary's bureau chief, Fred Youngs offers the perspective of someone who's left the city but finds Calgary hasn't left him.

'When the price of oil fell off the cliff, it took a chunk of the city’s confidence with it'

The sight of stationary cranes, of a Calgary not at work was a jarring one for Fred Youngs. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

This story was originally published April 20.

Editor's note: Fred Youngs spent several years running CBC's news operation in Calgary. Although he now works for the CBC in Toronto, his job brings him "home" from time to time. On his latest trip here, he was struck by the change in the city and wanted to share his observations.

How much Calgary had changed, or how deeply collapsing oil prices had cut into the city where I once lived, struck me when I noticed the cranes. Or more accurately, when I noticed the dearth of construction cranes in the downtown.

When I lived in Calgary, cranes were a barometer of the good times of the boom. There were too many to count. And, really, why bother? There would be more tomorrow.

Now, looking towards the downtown from the north bank of the Bow River, I counted six. Just six. And in the middle of the afternoon not one actually appeared to be operating.

Calgary not at work is a jarring sight.

When Calgary carried Canada

I left Calgary for Toronto in 2006 — a year when the city was humming, when oil was going up and up and up. There was no shortage of work, and there was no shortage of people willing to work hard. There is too many of the one and too little of the other today.

I had been at CBC News in Calgary for 15 years. I used to joke that the oil boom was a spectator sport for people like me who weren't employed at an energy company. That was a journalist's cynicism.

The truth is if you lived in the city, you benefited. We sold our house for twice what we paid.  My university-aged kids were not happy to leave behind part-time jobs that paid nearly $20 an hour plus perks.

Most of us — in and out of the oil industry — were on one giant fun ride.

There was a flood of new Calgarians — six figures worth year after year. The city blossomed with new homes, new office towers, new malls, a new hospital, new bike paths and walkways along the river, flashy new community centres with rinks and libraries, even a new purpose-built shelter for the homeless built by a group of philanthropists led by Art Smith. (If that surprises you, it shouldn't — conservative Calgary is also that progressive.)

Over 40 km of bike lanes are officially open for the summer across the city. (Erin Collins/CBC)

One year, in one of the craziest moves ever by any Canadian government, every man, woman and child got a cheque for $400 because, hey, it's Alberta. Yeehaw!

Calgary — along with the rest of Alberta — was carrying the Canadian economy on its shoulders.

The city had grown to be at least on par with Toronto as an economic hub of the country. It was sending trainloads of cash to the federal treasury. It was about to become the political heart and brain of Canada.

So what does Calgary feel like today to someone who remembers it 10 years ago?

Tangible angst and anxiety

It feels different, really different.

There are lingering signs of the boom-time attitude. The Encana Building and the stunning sculpture in front of it is one. There is an amazing new National Music Centre. (Check yourself again if you're surprised the city of cowboy culture loves its arts too.)

But then there were those cranes, and other smaller things, that told a larger, different story.

Like the taxi driver who said his business is down 80 per cent. That might be a bit of hyperbole, but his point is that there just isn't the flock of outside business people flying into Calgary to make deals — and he's feeling it.

Or like the Stephen Avenue mall restaurant where I ate one night. It was packed and noisy, with lots of drinks flowing. It felt like an oil crowd was there, and the staff were run off their feet. But our server said it wasn't often like that; there was a conference in town, and the restaurant just doesn't expect big crowds anymore.

Restaurants along the once vibrant Stephen Avenue are rarely busy now, observed Fred Youngs when he was in Calgary. (Richard White)

Even the Calgary Herald — one of the newspapers in the crumbling Postmedia empire — seems to be throwing in the towel. There's a big For Sale/For Lease sign on the side of its fortress-like building on a major highway.

I was in Calgary when the NDP brought down its first budget. It painted a grim picture. Oil revenues — once the lifeblood of Alberta — now bring in less provincial revenue than VLT gambling machines.

There were reams of analysis and coverage. Tangible angst and anxiety ran through all of it. How will we get out of this? Where are we headed? What should we do? The never subtle Calgary Sun's front page captured that anxious foreboding in its headline: DEBT SENTENCE!

There are, of course, signs of the Calgary I left.

People still bike and walk the lovely network of paths along the Bow where the green water is a tangible connection to the Rockies. Drivers still stop for pedestrians — unlike Toronto, where they like to nose into the crosswalks while people are in them. There's still no sales tax, even when there could be no better time to mount a compelling argument for one.

But when I left Calgary, it felt like there was an electrical current vibrating through it, a current that was powering up just about anything anyone wanted to do. And often, they did.

Calgarians swaggered. They had a brash, can-do, will-do, got-it-done attitude. And they reveled in their new place in the Canadian political and economic spectrum.

Now? Well, it feels tentative and shaken.

Crisis of confidence

When the price of oil fell off the cliff, it took a chunk of the city's confidence with it.

This downturn is not, as some Canadians seem to feel, just desserts for living high for so long. It is an economic calamity exacting a very human price.

Calgarians have been through the boom and bust cycle of oil prices before. But this one feels deeper and more profound and fundamental. And it seems like they have — at least for now — lost their connection to that powerful, energizing current that drove this city and its residents through much of the better part of this century.

I hope they find it again soon. For Calgary's sake, I hope — and believe — a lot of Canadians do too.

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.


Fred Youngs was a journalist for CBC News in Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto. He was senior producer and executive producer for CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network) in Calgary from 1991 until 2006. He left the CBC earlier this year.


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