Whatever happened to the Alberta Advantage, I wonder? You know, those two gold studded words that once prophesied our province’s deliverance from the poverty of old and vindication of generations of brutal, back breaking work to settle this land with the promise of prevalence. Whatever happened to the dream of making Alberta the promised land of Canada, with jobs for everyone and the proverbial milk and honey pouring from every fissure and crevasse? It would be nice to say that our empire was worn away with time, that our resources ran dry and our gambles proved less fortunate, but that isn’t the truth at all. No, the fall of Alberta was not about an unlucky roll of the dice, for that would seem to suggest that we’d never had control of our own fate. In truth, we were in the ones in the driver’s seat. We found one of the most resource abundant caches in the world where the rest of civilization had passed it by, thinking it nothing more than a desolate, barren land. Then, we let the success get to our heads, and our land may become godforsaken once more.
It truly is mind-bending to see the process firsthand, knowing the history of our province. I mean, to suggest that Alberta would be running historic deficits and fighting tooth and claw with its own doctors and teachers during the Klein era would have been ludicrous. After all, money was literally pouring from our coffers, the late premier even starting to throw free cash at the public in the form of “Ralph Bucks”. And of course, if oil ever went down in price, it was perfectly acceptable to dip into the Heritage Trust fund, because after all, who needs a future when you can live large in the present, right? Wrong. In hindsight, the truly ludicrous prediction would be that this recklessness was somehow sustainable. It wasn’t, and so now we find ourselves a decade later in a once debt free province with growing deficits, almost no fund for the future when similar jurisdictions, such as Norway, have been able to raise hundreds of billions of dollars, and horribly mismanaged health and education systems. We are seeing our home become a have-not province before our eyes, and it is far more terrifying than any nightmare I have ever suffered.
It would be overly convenient to allow the astonishingly incompetent leadership that came after Peter Lougheed to take all the blame for serving Alberta on a silver platter to the mercy of the oil markets, since, as we are still a theoretical democracy, we must all must take an active role in selecting and advising our governments. The real threat to Alberta and perhaps the greatest instrument to its demise has been and will be the hundreds of thousands of citizens who don’t care enough to get off the couch and check off the square box. Alberta had the most to lose or gain from any election and we had the least interested populace. As I said before, our success got to our heads. The complacency of the public became its greatest enemy, and just as the most fearsome dictators are begot of popular apathy, so too was our province’s perilous cancer. Our previous leaders made the fatal mistake of investing in some black substance under the ground instead of the people that stood above it and we let them do it. Our populace’s complete indifference towards the effects that the oil industry has on the environment and the economy will doom us. The problem has come to such an extent that once during Earth Hour, when the plebeians are asked to turn off their electronics in acknowledgement of the fight against climate change, energy consumption in Calgary actually spiked. Well, for better or worse, Calgarians and Albertans at large have been forced to address to the effects of climate change with the recent flood and we can only hope that it isn’t too late to change for the good.
Although the blissful future Lougheed worked so hard for has been completely squandered, we must not forget that we, as Albertans, still possess what which made us so rich in the first place—oil. And, although bitumen has been the curse of our land in the past, it still holds the only key to our salvation. If Alberta is to rise from the ashes of burning prospects, we must learn to distribute our resources in a different way. We cannot give the American oil companies a free pass to rape our land, nor can we afford to allow the rich to pay the same tax rate as the poor. We must learn to live within our means, and perhaps in the short term we’ll have to learn again to shoulder the burdens of government. And although our redemption will only come at enormous cost and tremendous pain, it is possible. We cannot solve the dilemmas of the past, but we can plan the terms of our future. We don’t need caretaker governments anymore, we need visionary leadership. We may not deserve a fine premier to rebuild our prodigious province but, trust me when I say we are truly desperate for one. The oil industry might be a leviathan suckling piglet, but we must make certain that our taxes don’t become the sow. If we continue to develop the oil sands, we must invest in our people, invest in diversifying our economy. We make post-secondary education cheaper, public transit ubiquitous, and green energy the norm. Alberta not only has the expertise to become the world’s capital of innovation, but we have the money too.
Alberta doesn’t only have the ability to survive, but to thrive. All we need is dedicated leadership and an engaged public to elect them. We can’t keep wearing our rose coloured glasses and sipping cheap margaritas pretending our backyards are beach paradises. We can’t blame oil prices for our miseries or our premiers for our shortfalls. We, as Albertans, must come together to build a better province on top of the impure rumble of the old one. We have emulated our American cousins to the point where we have adopted their problems as well and until the day we are willing to lead instead of settling to follow, I will mourn for Alberta. I will weep for my home.
Photography Courtesy of Matthew Jacula