The new two solitudes: ‘Alberta and the rest of Canada’567 views
‘Albertans are aggrieved. They’re anxious. And they’re really feeling left out,’ pollster Angus Reid says
Sumara Diaz was laid off in February, and she counts herself among the lucky ones.
It was the first layoff of her 17-year career in Alberta’s oil and gas sector, and she’s well aware that many of her colleagues have been through the experience multiple times.
She’s spent the last eight months hunting for jobs, networking and trying to stay positive.
She doesn’t expect much from others — she finds it hard to ask for help — but she says a little support from the rest of the country for the tens of thousands of other Albertans like her would be nice.
“Alberta has always been the strong province that has helped the other provinces,” Diaz said.
“You would hope people would think the same way: ‘OK, now it’s our turn to help Alberta.’ But the mentality out there is: ‘Well, you guys have made all this money. You’re in oil and gas. What goes around comes around.’ And I’ve heard that from people. I’ve heard that from people I know.”
And she’s far from alone in that sentiment.
‘Feeling left out’
In a countrywide survey of Canadians’ attitudes conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with CBC, Albertans stood out in their responses to questions about national belonging.
More so than people in virtually any other province, Albertans said they feel disrespected, ripped off and generally mistreated by the rest of Canada.
Survey respondents were asked if they agree with the following statements:
- My province is treated fairly by the national government.
- My province contributes more to the country than it gets back.
- My province is respected by the rest of the country.
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said the survey results reveal a growing rift between Alberta and the rest of the country.
“Albertans are aggrieved. They’re anxious. And they’re really feeling left out of what Canada is supposed to be,” she said.
A new ‘two solitudes’
The title of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel Two Solitudes has served for decades as a reference to the divide between Canada’s anglophones and francophones, but Kurl sees a new schism in our country’s culture.
“That has really shifted westward,” she said. “If you think about those two solitudes today, it really is between Alberta and the rest of Canada.”
Darren Sartison feels that sense of isolation every time he thinks about getting Alberta oil to tidewater.
As president of Groundswell, an information technology consultancy based in Calgary, he doesn’t work directly in oil and gas, but the sector accounted for 50 per cent of his total business at its peak. Now, it’s down to about 20 per cent, as his cash-strapped clients increasingly look to offshore firms in India for their IT needs.
Like many Albertans, Sartison sees new pipelines as key to improving the fortunes of the oil and gas industry, and thereby those of the province.
He said he’s routinely baffled, however, by the opposition from other Canadians, who seem more willing to accept oil imported from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela than to pump it in from Alberta.
“It’s very frustrating, because [new pipelines] would help everybody out,” he said.
“Why can’t they see one plus one equals two? It’s just such an obvious equation here. Why are they not putting it together?”
Mark Salkeld, president of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, took his frustration a step further when he asked the federal government earlier this year, via a written budget submission, to tie have-not provinces’ equalization payments to their acceptance of pipelines.
Once the story made the news, Salkeld said, he was inundated with hate mail, but he stands by the tactic.
He described it as an attempt to shake Canadians out of an accidental or wilful ignorance about what drives their economy — as well as their home appliances.
He, too, sees pipelines to tidewater as critical to Alberta’s future, so oil producers can sell to markets outside the United States, which is rapidly transitioning from their biggest customer to one of their biggest competitors.
”It’s very, very frustrating,” Salkeld said of Canadian pipeline opposition.
“There’s a real strong sense of parochialism in this country and it’s getting tiring. It’s about ‘not in my backyard’ or ‘I want a piece of the action,’ when this is a national issue.”
More support than Albertans realize?
Despite his frustration, Salkeld doesn’t believe most Canadians are anti-oil. He just thinks they take their energy for granted and a “vocal minority” drives the most strident opposition.
And he may be on to something.
The national poll found a “seismic shift” in Canadians’ opinions on energy versus the environment compared with a decade ago, with 68 per cent now saying they see Alberta’s oil industry as “an overall asset because of its contribution to the Canadian economy.”
A majority of respondents in every single province agreed with that assessment, as opposed to saying the oil industry is “an overall liability because of the environmental risk.”
Even in Quebec, where pipeline opposition is strongest, 55 per cent of respondents described the oil industry, in general, as an overall asset to Canada.
If that offers any comfort to Albertans, it comes at a time when they could really use it.
Pessimism about Alberta’s future
While most Albertans still feel secure about their own futures, there is a growing unease about what’s looming for the province as a whole.
“In Alberta today, people are far less optimistic about the future of their province and the future of their country, relative to people in other provinces,” said Kurl.
“They’re very worried about the next generation, which is a theme you see across the country, but it is pronounced in Alberta.”
Survey respondents were asked if they were optimistic or pessimistic about:
- The future of their province.
- The future of Canada.
- Their own future.
- The future of the next generation.
Despite a job hunt stretching into its ninth month, Diaz still counts herself among the dwindling group of optimistic Albertans.
She believes the worst will soon be behind the province, and companies that have cut to the bone will soon need to start hiring again to maintain their operations, and hopefully start new ones.
But some support from the rest of Canada could help speed things along, she noted, particularly when it comes to getting pipelines built.
“This is boom-and-bust industry; we all know it. The boom is great, but when we’re in a bust we have to work together to get back out,” she said.
“When it gets better, we’re going to be there to help them, like we always have. So, right now, we need the same help.”
The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Sept. 6 -12, 2016, among a representative randomized sample of 3,904 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. The sample plan included large oversamples in certain cities and regions, which were then weighted down to provide a national snapshot. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.