Thomas Trofimuk’s most recent novel, Waiting for Columbus, was published in 2009.
Related Letters and Responses
Having watched the intellectual evolution of John Richards for 35 years, I have always been impressed by his ability to perceive new social patterns, challenges and potential solutions well before others do. In this article, he does not disappoint (“Canada’s Candide,” October 2007).
First, though, a quibble. In my opinion, Vancouver and Toronto have grown much closer to each other over the past couple of decades while distancing themselves from most of what lies between, including Calgary. To the horror of Vancouverites, especially those originally from the east, Torontonians have adopted English Bay, Kitsilano and Shaughnessy as their spiritual coast, hoping one day to end up there the way people used to hope they would go to heaven.
It is Calgary, rather than the twin cities of Vancouver and Toronto, that confronts an existentially Canadian predicament. Richards is right that Calgary’s brains and energy have made it a city that is ready to rule. What others, including the bankers of Toronto who chose not to invest in the Alberta oil patch during its early days, have often failed to see is that Calgary has had to reinvent itself a number of times over the past century. Rail town, cow town, spiritual headquarters of Social Credit during the Depression, oil town and now a financial, cultural and political metropolis, Calgary’s rise is the great Canadian success story of the past six decades.
I don’t agree that Calgary lacks physical charm. Its rivers, neighbourhoods, transition from prairie to foothills and its outlook on the Rockies give the city the look of a place that is continually in the process of movement and creation.
In a setting that cannot escape the problems of resources, global markets, revolutionary technology and environmental degradation, Calgarians have always had to live by their wits. Therein lies the city’s next historical conundrum as Richards suggests.
Richards is quite right to deride the placebos Canadians have been fed to coddle them as they confront the climate change crisis. His own list of proposals, while debatable in its details is a least a serious one.
It may well be true that Stephen Harper will be most remembered for how he confronts the climate change question. That is also the challenge that confronts Calgary.
To make its next historic leap, the business, intellectual, cultural and political leadership of Calgary will need to look beyond the oil sands and oil itself. To succeed, it will need to devise a program that will allow Alberta to benefit from oil the way Norway has, as a stepping stone to the future, while providing leadership to Canadians on the environment.
Could Stephen Harper devise such a program? Based on past performance, it doesn’t seem likely. But Richard Nixon did reach out to China, as Richards reminds us. Nixon, though, was much more corrupt, dissolute and opportunistic than Harper, which made him malleable, and he did have Henry Kissinger at his elbow.
Still, the idea of an environmental political saviour from Calgary is an intriguing one.
Rarely have I been so discouraged by the written word, but these two articles did it (“Canada’s Candide” by John Richards and “A Province Poised for Leadership” by Roderick Fraser, October 2007). It was the complacency that piled on in sentence after sentence, paragraph after unrelenting paragraph. The details of these essays were, as you would expect from two mature men with distinguished career credentials, impeccable. Yes, I agree with Mr. Richards, Mr. Harper got the equalization argument right. Yes, Mr. Lougheed has said for many years we’ve forgotten who owns Alberta oil. Yes, it’s clear Calgary is playing a different role from Vancouver on the national political scene. But taken as a whole, both essays were like listening to the captain and executive officer of the Titanic explaining in sonorous, confident terms the wonders of their great ship as it steers directly for an iceberg.
The marvels of the Alberta economy are going to mean nothing when Calgary and southern Alberta dry up like a prune, which is what all the climate change science tells us is going to happen when the Bow River glacier evaporates and the underground aquifers are exhausted. And northern Alberta is going to have no water to come to the rescue with because the Tar Sands is polluting the northern water stock faster than it can be replaced. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the entire Canadian economy has been hijacked by the carbon-hyper growth of Alberta. A whole generation of young people has been taken from eastern Canada, leaving it disconnected from its own past and future, unable to develop sustainable local models because the youth who should be doing that creative work are employed in the carbon industries of Alberta. Nonetheless, everything in Alberta, according to Mr. Fraser, is just peachy-keen because the Heritage Fund is increasing greatly in value and Alberta is calling the national tune.
The complacency of all this is staggering. With the Alberta population exploding, the province needs to be investing massively in hard services that will endure long after the paper value of the Heritage Fund has evaporated into the ether. Instead Mr. Fraser takes Albertans’ desire to have the Heritage Fund used for “long-term” investments as a signal to crank more money into overheated capital markets, instead of into in-the-ground investments like rail, public buildings and the imaginative retooling of services to deal with climate change. Without these investments now, when the boom ends, the province will be stuck with a grossly inflated population and inadequate infrastructure to support it. The Heritage Fund will evaporate along with the oil that has been extracted from the sands. And that’s just another tip of the iceberg.
Climate change isn’t just about droughts, hurricanes, permafrost and Arctic ice decline. It’s about changing the terms of reference on which humans have depended for millennia. Mr. Richards rhapsodizing about Vancouver hiding away in its northern rainforest nirvana and Mr. Fraser rhapsodizing about Alberta poised for leadership write as if we were still living in the 1950s and competing against each other for the biggest piece of the good-life pie.