Wednesday, 30 October 2019


It’s the Tar Sands, Stupid

The Midas touch is classical antiquity’s most ironic myth, a gift as a curse. Sisyphus with his eternal rock and rolling stone merely exemplified the absurdity of fruitless labour. Both of these misguided kings are alive and well today in the Canadian province of Alberta which has continually mismanaged the random hydrocarbon boon provided by some compressed Jurassic ferns.

Last week the recently minted and recently elected United Conservative Party (UCP) presented its first budget to the people. The finance minister wore a new pair of cowboy boots for the occasion. Alas, his language signaled the same old and tired excuse for another cycle of austerity measures tried and true. “Boom times” would not be returning anytime soon. It was distressingly apparent that the boom mentality, sparked initially by Leduc No. 1 and later the tar sands up north, was still driving these plains and mountains.

Today Alberta is projecting herself as a bi-polar, alcoholic diva raging around her neglected ranch house, off her meds and out of vodka. As was the case with the rhetoric (or lack of it) in the national general election campaign which concluded 21 October, there’s been no visionary discussion here about growing and diversifying the economy. No, we’re waiting for the price of oil to rebound. See, according to the UCP, Alberta has “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” Trouble is our largest crude customer, the United States, is pretty much self-sufficient these days.

But there’s a magic bullet! Harry Potter’s Philosopher’s Stone and Avenger Infinity Stones all combined in one cowboy hat. If the Trans-Mountain pipeline were twinned along an existing right-of-way, Alberta bitumen could reach Pacific tidewater and new Asian markets. Trouble is those Liberal mandarins in Ottawa exercising federal jurisdiction by approving the project twice and then buying it to ensure its completion after frustrated corporate investors began to bail. Another problem, and a legitimate head-scratcher, is that eastern Canadians prefer tobuy their oil from model states such as Saudi Arabia rather than Alberta. This type of situation demands the premier, a would-be statesman, mount a charm offensive and not throw a tantrum ranting his misperception of Quebec’s special status within Confederation.

Alberta has a relatively low level of post-secondary engagement compared to the rest of the country. This trend does not augur well for a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex global economy. It is in a large part a side effect of Alberta’s exploitation of the tar sands, big money in exchange for a modest skill set. To the hive mind of the UCP it only makes sense to cut provincial grants to advanced education institutions until the price of a barrel of oil rebounds. An educated workforce, an economic future beyond bitumen, what’s with that? Some academics have sniffed that Alberta’s five Christian colleges did not have their grants tampered with but a review of the numbers suggests a school like Burman University with its 400 students is already flying too close to the ground and that any funding reduction would be fatal.

The vast majority of Canadians reside in densely populated urban areas. Canadian cities are underserved by their provincial legislatures and the federal parliament, their voices subservient to a higher echelon of largesse. Revenue Avenue downtown consists mainly of property taxes and speeding tickets. Because Alberta has a spending problem and not a revenue problem UCP government logic dictates that municipal funding be cut, and that important infrastructure and transit projects in her major cities be delayed. Sure, their need will be much more acute in a few years’ time and costs will have gone up but by then the price of oil will have risen like Christ, black gold gravy.

And there’s another cross to bear (or ignore) in the meantime. Labourers used to decent dollars don’t hang around remote abandoned work camps. They migrate to populous places seeking work. If no one’s building hospitals, repairing roads and bridges or laying rails, there’s not much to do with one’s time. Social services have been cut; this budget de-indexed the Alberta Works family benefit allowance. When the welfare, as embarrassing and shaming as it is to accept, is subsistent and the food banks’ shelves are sparse, when things appear to be breaking down from the top, there’s only a few ways left to turn and none of them are good.

The climate in Alberta hasn’t changed; the same misguided wishes keep providing the same fruitless result.         
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