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"The Bow" symbol of Calgary aspirations, end of bitter N.E.P. memories

A few weeks ago The Bow quietly slipped past the old Petro Canada (now Suncor Energy) Tower to become the tallest building in Calgary. The event, muffled as it was, may nevertheless have finally laid some of the city’s ghosts to rest.

It is astory I’ve been told many times since moving here and one that will reach its conclusion – the one that bears remembering – with the completion of The Bow next year.

In 1973, David Lewis’s NDP controlled the balance of power in Parliament and proposed the creation of a publicly-owned, national oil company. Pierre Trudeau’s minority Liberal government happily complied and by 1975 Petro Canada had been born with a $1.5 billion public grubstake. Given the inherent unpopularity of energy companies, the new firm guided by the inscrutable Maurice Strong was reasonably popular – except in Alberta.

Here, fears that the new state-owned company was a Trojan Horse for even more interventionist policies were realized when on Oct. 28, 1981 – a day that lives in infamy – another Trudeau government (this time a majority that did not hold a single seat west of Manitoba) introduced the National Energy Program. Petro Canada was handed the responsibility for implementing the policy developed by, among others, senior Ottawa bureaucrat Ed Clark, known in those days as “Red Ed.”

And thus began the darkest five years in modern Alberta history. Private sector job losses were in the tens of thousands. Commercial and personal bankruptcy rates soared and housing prices plummeted. Thousands walked away from their homes or, as became popular, sold their property and its mortgage for $1. Calgary’s population, for the only time in its history, declined.

What was considered by many to be the final insult was that in the midst of all this, an unencumbered Petro Canada was building its new office complex smack in the middle of downtown. Its tower, at 215 metres, became the tallest building in the city. The company’s offices were quickly branded Red Square, aka the Kremlin, and became an enduring symbol of Central Canada’s desire to treat the West as a colony.

The installation of Brian Mulroney’s Tory governments brought a swift end to the NEP, but it was not until 1990 that the process of privatizing Petro-Canada got underway. That story ended when it “merged” with Suncor Energy. Today, the NDP’s dream of 40 years ago is gone. Only the retail brand, its political legacy and the memories remain.

Meanwhile, a company founded by Peter Lougheed’s Alberta Tories created another story. AEC’s first share offering – the province retained 50% ownership – was in 1975, roughly at the same time Petro Canada was created. It, too, became more private until by 1993 the province had sold its remaining 36% interest. Under the guidance of Gwynn Morgan, who grew up on a farm in central Alberta, AEC grew until Mr. Morgan executed a massive merger with PanCanadian Energy to create Encana, which is now among the world’s leading energy firms split into two distinct companies – Encana and Cenovus.

Mr. Morgan retired at the end of 2005 and handed the CEO reins to Randy Eresman, but before doing so he put in place the process that led to the construction of The Bow just east of the old Petro Canada Tower. At 1.7 million square feet, it is a massive building that encompasses an entire city block and upon completion will be 58 stories and 236 metres tall – Canada’s largest office tower outside of Toronto.

It is clear to most Calgarians’ eyes that the Bow has surpassed the Petro Canada/Suncor building as the city’s dominant structure. Facebook photos and coffee shop conversations have taken notice but publicly there have been no grand celebrations of its new status.

A party was held a few weeks ago involving those directly involved, but it was deemed impolitic to make too big of a splash. Lingering resentments from three decades past are subdued by the realization that Calgary (complete with a new mayor, Naheed Nenshi) has moved beyond aspiration and into the realm of genuine power on the national stage and prudence suggests the truly powerful utilize their influence discreetly.

One bitter chapter has closed. History awaits authorship of the story to come.

In the meantime, as the sun rises each morning in the east and casts its rays upon the city, the historic symbol of the NEP rests forever in the shadow of The Bow.