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McDONALD: Pipeline furor pits provinces, families against one another

April 20, 2018 - 12:30 PM

 


OPINION


My first experience with the so-called Alberta Advantage was as a high school dropout in the late 1970s.

I was born and raised in Edmonton, yet remained largely unaware of the oil industry and how it held the province in its thrall until I ditched Grade 11 and decided to go get a job.

The Alberta economy was on fire at the time. Jobs were plentiful, workers were not. So I scanned the want ads and picked up a job with a concrete forming company.

It was February 1979, a bitterly cold winter and probably not the best time to be working outside.

My first day on the job, the boss handed me a shovel and told me to grab a wheelbarrow and move a big pile of sand from one side of the site to the other.

It was tough work, made worse by the sub-zero weather and also seemingly pointless: Why was I moving a hill of sand with a shovel when the Bobcat operator on site could have done it in 15 minutes?

When I asked my boss why at the end of my first day, he laughed and said he just wanted to keep me around as a spare in case he might need me for something else.

Moving the sand pile kept me busy and presumably out of the reach of other employers, who were all desperately seeking workers of their own.

The next morning, I kid you not, he told me to move the sand pile again. By coffee time, I was gone and by noon I had another job at a different company.

The point is not that I was doing pointless work, but rather how distorting a petro-economy can be on many levels, a lesson I learned the hard way just a year later when oil prices tanked.

No longer could you tell your boss to stuff it and grab another job the same day. The help wanted ads in the Edmonton Journal were now attracting a couple of hundred applicants, lots of them with plenty of experience gained in the oil patch.

By 1983 I was gone, living in British Columbia, the province that my construction worker buddies and I had sneered at a few years earlier.

If you couldn’t make it in Alberta then move to B.C where the streets were paved with welfare checks. That was the conventional wisdom, always doled out with a bit of a sneer: Who couldn't make it in Alberta with all the jobs available?

My attitude shifted though, once I saw how the other half lived. Alberta had no provincial sales tax, B.C. did. I had never heard of paying for medical service premiums until I moved. Groceries and gas cost more and at no point were jobs so plentiful that you tell your boss to blow if you didn’t like your job.

My parents still live in Alberta and they didn’t understand my new position: Alberta was vulnerable in an all-eggs-in-one-basket kind of way and needed to diversify its economy.

To this day, my mother can’t say the name Pierre Elliot Trudeau without cursing him for what the National Energy Program did to Alberta. Until Trudeau the Younger approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, he was held in similar low regard by mom.

Over the years, my attitude hardened as I watched Alberta alternatively boom and bust. B.C. had forestry and mining but neither was as lucrative as oil and gas and the province was forced to diversify.

Mom’s attitude hardened too, which lead to some interesting dinner-table debates during my frequent return visits. The world was moving on from fossil fuels, was my line. Yeah, but we’re not done yet, was hers.

Now despite my dinner-table pontifications, I would describe myself as the missing middle, the people in this province who aren’t sure what to make of the Kinder Morgan pipeline dispute — neither a tree hugger nor a wildcatter, I like to think I can see both sides of the argument for or against expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline.

But the recent move by Alberta to shut off oil threatens to push me firmly into the tree-hugger camp.

Does Alberta Premier Rachel Notley really think she’s going win the hearts and minds of British Columbians by threatening us with $2.50-a-litre gasoline?

Perhaps it’s political posturing for the press, but if you want to alienate the missing middle and force them into using alternative energy, this is textbook on how you do it.

Despite the angry rhetoric on social media, I think many Albertans realize deep down the quandary the province is in and have for some time. I still remember seeing the bumper sticker "Lord, give me one more oil boom…I promise I won’t squander it.”

Just a few months ago at the dinner table, mom pronounced B.C. as being greedy for blocking the pipeline. Needless to say, that led to a lively (but respectful) debate about who’s doing what to who.

During the uproar over the National Energy Program in the early ‘80s, another bumper sticker began showing up. “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark,” a reflection of the bitter mood at the time.

Never thought I’d see that anger swing so far in the opposite direction.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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