The following is a brief roadmap that is of cultural significance to no one but me, but bear with me for a minute. There is a point.
I grew up near a small Saskatchewan farming town of about 25 people (ok, village) (ok, hamlet) (ok, shut up), the name of which apparently means ‘dead horse’ in Cree, to give you some idea of its ranking in the pecking order, right on the rugged line where farmland ends and the endless northern wilderness begins. I bussed 20 miles to school in a town of about 800, which – with its drug store, hospital, pavement, motel, and wealth of elevators – was inhabited by urbanites that were hard to relate to, since they spent their days wallowing in such comfort.
Three hours down the road was Saskatoon, and, well, there was just no talking to those people. They talked about civic issues and bad parts of town and how crazy the mayor’s latest policy was and you could tell with one look that their shoes, no matter how old, had never sidestepped an incoming headless chicken nor even seen stubble. And if they thought their mayor was crazy, they had no idea.
All of these people in all this chain of escalating sophistication looked on with spite and fury at Regina, the “undeserved” power centre of the province, which was nothing more than a hotbed of political machinations, rampant crime, prostitution, and other standard capital-city skulduggery. Or so we decided on coffee row anyway, though it didn’t matter what we thought, because we also knew they didn’t give a damn about communities that had fewer citizens than Regina has KFC franchises.
Next door was Alberta, home of endless wealth and jobs and an excellent place for young farm kids to go work on a rig for the winter and return in time for seeding with a new truck and a missing finger. Alberta’s power, compared to Saskatchewan’s at the time, seemed infinite.
Next door to Alberta was BC, gateway to the Pacific and a mystical land where all our grain went to get on ships if all went well and which was known as Lotus Land for reasons I couldn’t fathom but assumed the place must have been some sort of Orient-oriented drug den. I eventually checked it out, and that was the first time I experienced a true international city, with a global view that was far more interested in what other jet-set-cities were thinking than in what Regina was.
A step up the Canadian ladder, size-wise, we have Toronto, a true megalopolis so wrapped up in itself that I once heard a Toronto disk jockey say on the radio that Canada’s borders effectively ended at the city’s outskirts. The rest is a bunch of bush.
Next up in stature, not geographically or demographically, but in power posing, is Ottawa. Ottawa’s ruling class looks out to the world – not the same way Toronto’s or Vancouver’s does, because those cities, while much bigger, don’t rub shoulders with the true global power elite the way Ottawa does. As such, Ottawa’s gaze tends to be (especially these days) towards the global geopolitical machine. Some would argue that Ottawa is in fact concerned with the well being of all parts of Canada via their MPs, but if they said that to me, I would laugh in their face.
What does this have to do with anything? Well, maybe nothing, and maybe everything, depending on what you want to see happen next in your part of the world.
The rambling above is to illustrate that the problem of being ignored by those that wield power is nearly universal, and that the peripheral is rarely important. Alberta may be ignored by Ottawa, but Moose Jaw is ignored by Regina, Fort St. John is ignored by Victoria, and Wawa is (most definitely) ignored by Toronto.
So Ottawa’s elite rolls its eyes when they hear the west banging on their pots about oil or grain, just like the reeve of Rural Municipality #274 rolled his when the RM’s northern hicks keep complaining they need gravel on the grid all the way down to the correction line. I’ve got three bad culverts in town and the barber is threatening to quit and they think I have time to worry about that combine-track?
This isn’t a defence of anyone or anything. It is how the world works. I don’t know of a solution to the condition. But a few things are clear: we are starting to see what does not work, and we know that we have to get on with it.
As far as what does not work, well, just shouting about the problem eternally most certainly does not. If it did, there would be an awful lot more shouting going on at all levels. We know that legislative change of anything is next to impossible; I sigh when I hear that “we need proportionate representation” in politics, or “we need to fix the constitution.”
The only jurisdiction that has any hope of success on one of those venues is Quebec, and, yes, we just have to suck it up and let that one go too. Pretending we can play Quebec’s game successfully is beyond unlikely, in the short term anyway. I would love to see a serious movement increase Western Canada’s leverage, but where would that come from? Western Canada includes Vancouver and Victoria and sizeable chunks of here and there that see bigger government as a good thing, and many in the middle just don’t want to see Canada broken up.
The whole topic isn’t hopeless, of course. We just have to think about it in different ways. A big challenge for not just the oil patch but the west in general is that we have a “get it done” mentality, and a not inconsiderable pride in independence – in our ability to succeed, not by political machinations but by a good old fashioned can-do attitude. That’s why we seldom see useful coalitions in the business world. Most people that would benefit are far too busy working and trying to get ahead to sit around painting signs and crafting social media strategies to outfox governments and public opinion. A dozen anti-pipeline people can form an organization, get funding, and be on the CBC in two days. Twelve thousand independent oil patch service workers are too busy busting their butts to contemplate anything but.
Concentric circles of power therefore are stacked against any kind of progress for resource-rich/vote-poor regions. But there are a few paths available that might bear fruit.
First is a twenty-first century communications strategy that actually explains the value of our natural resources, including (and especially) oil and gas. We are making headway there, slowly, after decades of dithering about whether social media is, as one old-crank energy CEO told me in 2011, “for kids and idiots”. The Canadian Energy Centre, after a tough start and born on the podium of the now not-quite-popular Jason Kenney, is doing some great work. The CEC has hired Heidi McKillop, a young filmmaker that made “A Stranded Nation” and understands proper messaging; her work makes the human connection to our fuel supply in a way that has not been successfully done before. It works; a CEC video has hit nearly half a million views on YouTube in a week.
Second, First Nations are leading the charge into resource development in a remarkable way. Despite a century or two of ‘management’ by governments of various types, it is amazing to see the eagerness of many FN to become involved with resource development, as partners. Nothing could be better for Canada, including all the FN, than to see such development succeed. (And if I ever wallow in pity at having grown up in the wilderness in a disrespected way, my experience pales next to the average FN person.)
On top of these, the resource sector can and should keep its foot on the emissions-reduction accelerator, with or without pledging allegiance to the climate emergency. What is critical is to continuously drive down emissions, waste, pollution, and reduce environmental footprint. By focusing on a holistic view of environmentalism, the war will be won even if a few minor battles on the ideological battleground are lost.
Then again, maybe those potential ‘solutions’ don’t turn your crank. Maybe you think enough is enough, and ‘asking for dialogue’ and other forms of reasonableness are getting us nowhere. You’re not crazy, not after listening to Trudeau’s gauntlet-throwing at the 30,000-strong COP26 Celebration Of Fossil Fuel Consumption. Here are a few…random observations. A few years ago, small handfuls of activists shut down a large part of Canada’s rail system because they were upset with a proposed natural gas export facility that most FN wholeheartedly supported. Was kind of interesting, wasn’t it, how easy the blockades were to put up/maintain, how our leaders (and even RCMP for crying out loud) refused to do anything about them, and how effective they were at kind of mashing up the concentric circles of power?
And on a note that may or may not be related…ever notice what French farmers do when a government policy gets shoved down their throat that they don’t like? The whole lot of them put their tractors on public display, so to speak, filling the roads, all at the same time, and then they just kind of leave them there for all to see. The effect is odd; even Paris’ most sophisticated and blue-blooded elites decide right about then that maybe they are interested in tractors after all. Kind of funny, that.
Maybe next time activists decide to blockade something in the name of an ignorant attempt to save the world, instead of sitting there and getting mad, maybe think about helping them. A lot. Everywhere. Be good neighbours, give them a hand. Just sayin’.