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Jen Gerson: A Word to My Haters
Alberta's real advantage isn't its tax structure.
The Journalism Gods gifted me some of the most colourful and vicious feedback I have ever received this week. CBC Calgary published a column of mine which critiqued Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's doomed strategy in the wake of the Keystone XL cancellation. The column ended up being surprisingly popular, or at least well read, and I was inundated with hundreds of emails — more than I have ever received for any single piece I’d written. Truthfully, most of them were kind and supportive notes.
A few, however, were not.
"You stupid arrogant leftits (sic) fucking millenial (sic) cunt. Leave this province you piece of shit. I hope you die in a horrible accident or a prolonged battle with cancer. What goes around comes around. Now go suck Notley's asshole," from Bob Smith. Someone by the name of Richard Scott Kane offered this gem: "People like you should go to the nearest hospital and donate your carcass to the burn unit. Do something postive for once in your life. You are a waste of skin anyways so donate it to the people who really need it." Then there was: "USELESS CUNT" from one Barry Borutski. Message: CUNT.....CUNT....CUNT.....CUNT.....CUNT....CUNT....."
This went on. I even received a death threat from one gentleman named Dave, whom I will not torment further as he later apologized rather abjectly.
You get the picture; a lot of these guys were angry at me for offering the truth that Alberta’s energy sector isn’t going to keep growing the way many had hoped, and that there isn’t much we or Trudeau can do about it. (I think that’s the truth, anyway.) They have hung on to their hopes and believed the promises of politicians who said that they would somehow make it all better. That clearly isn’t happening. These people are furious, but none of them could pinpoint what I got wrong. It was inchoate rage.
This isn't a column intended to shame such people, exactly. These responses rarely bother me. Rather, I'd prefer to respond to some of it.
Firstly, a lot of the people who were angry about what I wrote were deeply triggered because they seem to associate Alberta with her rulers; a pointed attack on the tactics of the UCP is therefore confused with an attack on the province. This conflation has been deliberate. If a politician can convince you that he is the embodiment of your provincial identity, then he's made you a partisan by default. You will defend his failures and protect his ego like you would defend your own.
I think that's manipulative. The UCP doesn't embody Alberta any more than the Liberals embody Canada. We elect politicians to serve as leaders, not avatars. Even a pointed critique of a leader is not an attack on the province or the country — and it certainly isn't an attack on the people within it.
The second reason why these letters didn't bother me is because I see in this anger a kind of grief.
The world is changing, and anger is part of the process of coming to terms with that. Whether you believe in climate change, or buy into the idea — as some Albertans do — that we're victims of an international conspiracy of Marxist environmentalists bent on creating a new world order, is irrelevant.
The world largely accepts the threat posed by climate change. Governments and investors are acting on those threats. We have two choices: We can accept that reality, and take a role in steering the conversation about how to manage the global risks of carbon emissions. Or we can scream and yell and fund war rooms and conspiratorial inquiries — in which case, we will be marginalized, mocked, ignored, and ultimately crushed by that change.
Electric cars appear to be creeping closer to the tipping point of mass adoption. GM has announced that it plans to have all of its products and plants “carbon neutral” by 2040. Solar and wind power is increasingly competitive, and we may yet see significant opportunities in nuclear power. Yet, as the rest of the world tries to envision a greener world, Alberta is doubling down on the old; it recently announced plans to revoke a 1976 policy that prevented open-pit coal mining along vast swathes of the Rockies.
Everybody likes to fight, but nobody likes to lose. Would we rather fight, or win?
Accepting reality does not mean accepting doom. Alberta will be mining oil and gas for the foreseeable future. TransMountain is going to get built, although it will probably be the last of its line. Alberta will continue to be a wealthy province, although perhaps not quite so super-charged by oil and gas booms.
And maybe accepting that reality creates the space we need to imagine what kind of province we wish to become in the long run. We need to start thinking about a future that is less dependent on oil and gas, indeed, it would be downright irresponsible and un-conservative to fail to plan for that future.
I'm not a pessimist about Alberta. Anyone who knows me knows that I am an unapologetic evangelist for Calgary — and I can even be drafted into a defence of Edmonton, if it's absolutely required of me. (Good tacos!)
COVID-19 is driving young people away from major urban centres, and work is now less tied to geography than at any point in history. Calgary's downtown office vacancy rate is a record-high of 30 per cent. There is a clear opportunity for a city like Calgary here. To submit to despair would represent a catastrophic failure of imagination.
When I speak to my friends who are trying to raise families in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, I am ceaselessly baffled by the kinds of financial and material compromises they make every day. I want to scream at them: "Hey, guys, you can live in a decent house with a nice yard near a charming shopping area for a fraction of the price of your current one-bedroom condo!"
For young families especially, there is no better mix of opportunity and quality of life in all of Canada than what you can get in Alberta. I believe that's true even today. It's why I'm here.
But in order to seize this opportunity, our leaders need to spend less time pandering to the past, and more time offering us a vision about how to build the future. If you want young people in this province — young people with talent and ambition — you need to build a province that offers an attractive place to live. That's more than just jobs, it's also a vibrant arts scene, good schools, recreation, unique shopping zones, walkable communities, and lots of alternative transportation and transit modes. These are not luxuries. They are absolutely essential if we want to compete to attract people in an era in which we can no longer rely on high salaries to do the work for us.
And many of the options proposed above — like more bike lines, or changes to zoning — aren’t expensive, but merely controversial among people who are trying to recreate the successes of the past.
Why not try something radical? Buy up all that empty office space and offer it at cost to qualifying start ups or companies willing to move west. It would be expensive in the short term, but a government willing to take on such a portfolio might make its money back in the long term.
Our dependence on oil and gas left us wealthy but blind; it created a downtown core that hollowed out in the evenings. We had money, sure, but no soul. And when the money dried up, there was little reason to stay.
Our cities have improved enormously in the 10 years since I've moved here, but those big oil head offices aren't coming back. We can't build to the specs of 1995. That's a recipe for a province that will age out and decline. We need an Alberta for 2035.
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, those renters and families who fled larger cities are beginning to look for a place to land next. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the case for ourselves, and for our province. But our rhetoric, indelibly fixed in nostalgia for a dying era, is not serving us.
There is a wonderful quote from Winston Churchill worth repeating here:
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
Our finest hour was not 2005, nor 1995. This is our moment. We must rise to it, or we must fail.
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