Go West, young money

November 22, 2008
The Globe & Mail

Calgary oilman Jim Gray remembers exactly when the nightmare of the National Energy Program began. "October 28, 1980, at 4 p.m.," he tells author and Globe and Mail business writer Gordon Pitts, is the moment that, for better or worse, still haunts the soul of Alberta.



The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite

By Gordon Pitts

Key Porter, 360 pages, $34.95

Calgary oilman Jim Gray remembers exactly when the nightmare of the National Energy Program began. "October 28, 1980, at 4 p.m.," he tells author and Globe and Mail business writer Gordon Pitts, is the moment that, for better or worse, still haunts the soul of Alberta.

Combined with a bursting market bubble, the NEP destroyed the blue-eyed sheiks of the Peter Lougheed era and threw tens of thousands from their jobs and homes. The survivors were forced to watch as the state-owned Petro Canada buildings rose to be Calgary's tallest structures. The company has long since been privatized and its reputation rehabilitated, but most who were here in the 1980s still recall when its towers were known as the Kremlin, their base as Red Square. Gray's quote is appropriately placed near the heart of Stampede! because, as Pitts makes clear, the moment is central to modern Alberta's story of devastation, reconstruction and, perhaps, redemption.

Refreshingly, Pitts doesn't dwell on past resentments and sets an optimistic tone about the future of the West, pleading responsibly for an end to regional squabbling. Better than anyone to date, he efficiently articulates the class struggle between Central Canada's historic derision of the vulgar world of resources (how smart do you have to be to dig things out of the ground?) and the West's equally rugged contempt for business cultures of inheritance and entitlement (how hard do you have to work to inherit daddy's money?). It is a balanced overview of the forces and people behind the steady shift west of Canada's power base and its inevitable acceptance of itself as a resource superpower.

Pitts asks the reader to imagine a 2020 world in which the TD is now the Calgary-Dominion bank, the Calgary Flames have won four straight Stanley Cups, the Alberta Heritage Fund is worth $100-billion, Quebec is irrelevant, the University of Alberta has recruited a third Nobel Prize winner, the nation's last auto plant has closed and Newfoundland and Labrador is an independent nation.

But it is all too much of a tease for what follows.

Part I is a series of compelling vignettes that form the foundations of the argument that Pitts's Canada of 2020 is within the realm of possibility. The author's journalistic skills are effectively used to outline the brute force of the oil-sands megaproject, the demise of manufacturing, the slow but elegant decline of Montreal from business centre to cultural playhouse, Newfoundland's hardscrabble destiny and the memories and myths that inform the Great Canadian Whole.

Part II introduces Canada to its new bosses and, again, the parts are fine, although this is where some of Pitts's points, like Canada's regions, begin to argue with one another. The reader, for instance, is never certain whether Pitts considers Alberta's entrepreneurial inclinations mythical, in the sense of overblown nonsense, or proved legend.

Some will quibble with individual characterizations (Gwyn Morgan, for instance, as a social conservative?) and argue that Stampede! would have been enriched with a morsel more of the Doug Mitchell crowd and the Tom Flanagan-style public policy players, and a tad less of the Murray Edwards types, perilous as it can be to underestimate the latter's influence.

Few will argue, though, with the rehabilitation of Fred Woods, the Midnight Oil executive who became a poster boy for the nouveau riche when the plans for his $10-million home became public. Nor will many object to the inclusion of the story of the Harvie family's sale/donation of 1,700 hectares of their ranchland in order to preserve it as a park standing permanently in the path of suburban development.

Part III is where one expects Pitts to pull this book together and prove his vision of Canada in 2020. Inexplicably, Stampede! bucks the reader off with even more vignettes and what appears to be a late addendum on foreign investment. All of the foundation laid in the preceding 330 pages is ground into a mere 11 pages of summary, which allows the original thesis of an Ontario in decline, an irrelevant Quebec and an independent Newfoundland to vanish. Pitts tells us what might happen, and why it might happen, but we never find out how it might happen.

There are some valuable yet truncated points, for instance, about high-speed rail linking "Edgary" and about an endowment fund for the arts. Pitts's desire for Albertans to "get over it" when it comes to the NEP is not unfamiliar. Certainly life is more fun when you don't constantly have to shoulder-check for the next sucker punch, but Pitts's forecast of the death of the Ontario auto industry in tandem with the rise of powerful commodity-based provinces seems to argue against the need for the West to drop its guard. Pitts needed to take us further down that dark alley in order to convince us we will all get through it without mugging each other.

Stampede! fails to become the book it might have been, but it remains a compelling read for people serious about Canada and the welcome revelation that the West is not a threat - it is a promise.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with Cardus and former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Calgary Herald.