I am Albertan and I am angry! Really, really angry! Incredible Hulk in cowboy boots and white Stetson angry!
The code of allegiance to the True Alberta Residents Syndicate and Social Society, or TARSandSS, requires that I say that. If I don’t, I risk being branded a traitor and hung, as some of my prominent, fellow Albertans are fond of implying. My kids were born at Rockyview General Hospital and each time we drive past it they fondly inquire if that is where they were born while attempting to decipher which window their mother gave birth behind. I’d prefer they maintain this sweet attachment to the place rather than have it trigger flashbacks of my bloated corpse swinging from the upper deck of the visitor parking garage beneath Brett Wilson’s name.
Which isn’t to imply I’m not angry. I am. And have been sporadically for a couple years now, though I’d describe it more as exasperation, or frustration, than genuine anger. At least that’s what I tell myself. Likely, falsely.
I was reminded of my anger upon returning home after a family road trip out of the country two weeks ago. As a long day of driving came to a close, we approached Calgary’s southern suburban sprawl and had the peaceful afterglow of our wonderful trip obliterated by a giant, yellow Alberta Independence Party sign in a farmer’s field beside the QE2. Several additional signs, these smaller and white rather than yellow, dotted green spaces in our neighbourhood. By the time I collapsed on the couch to recuperate, my mind churned with the same anger it had prior to us leaving.
The anger I had prior to leaving came courtesy of Calgarians reacting to news this city had the highest unemployment rate of any city in the country this past February. It’s an honour rarely, if ever, bestowed upon this historically bustling city. The indignant response of some Calgarians betrayed a subtle arrogance, as though unemployment was better kept out East where it belongs.
I’m hardly alone in my anger. A great many Albertans share it. Perhaps you’ve noticed? There’s no shortage of us trying to tell you just how angry we all are here in wild rose country. Some of us rage on your social media feeds. Some of us rage on your evening news. Some of us drive our impressive trucks all the way to Ottawa. And some of us put big, yellow signs in our fields. We’re a diverse bunch, that way.
I, having long ago gravitated to passive-aggressive expressions of anger, write blog posts after months of handwringing and self-doubt. I also tend to spit into the wind when it comes to prevailing public sentiment in this province. So while the seething masses of enraged Albertans direct their spittle-spewing anger at all of you, I direct mine at them. Hey, it’s a good way to keep a light social calendar.
By no means am I unsympathetic to the fear that consumes the population of this province, fomenting an anger that is both real and, if not entirely reasonable, to be expected. The past four years have been difficult. Many thousands have had their lives disrupted, some entirely destroyed. Many thousands more continue to live with the specter of the same fate looming over them. My wife and I are two of those many thousands.
Eleven years ago I chose to step away from my oil and gas career to be a stay-at-home dad. In doing so, I unwittingly rendered myself unemployable in an industry now shedding jobs as quickly as it once hired warm bodies. Six weeks ago, my wife joined me as a stay-at-home parent, decidedly not by choice.
It would be easy for me to get angry. Angry like the others. As the days continue to pass with no jobs to apply for, no leads to follow up on, no rumours to chase, the fear swells like fermenting onion peels in your gut. Toss in a poor night’s sleep, or two, or twelve, and the urge to blame something, someone, can overwhelm. Now imagine dealing with that for two years or more as so many have?
Of course, anger isn’t reserved solely for victims. Most Albertans remain employed, many in the very same reeling oil patch. They continue to earn the best wages in the country and enjoy a lifestyle worthy of such bounty. They too are angry. Not so much out of camaraderie with their laid off coworkers and neighbours as from an assured belief that their exceptional lot in life has somehow been diminished, unjustly, by nefarious characters abroad.
Unlike the first bunch who’ve actually suffered during these four years of turmoil, the latter bunch too often come across as entitled (gasp … most aren’t Millennials either). They’re like the spoiled, rich cheerleader who has a public tantrum when Daddy takes her Amex Gold card away before discovering that all her friends have abandoned her and that her popularity was as fraudulent as the orgasms she dialed up for the star quarterback.
That this latter bunch includes people whom I personally know, whom I care about, whom I respect and admire makes it all the more maddening.
These two groups of Albertans have made known their rage, like mutant Care Bears with bellies sporting pipeline segments, oil derricks, and mine dump trucks. The snarky Facebook memes, the incensed Twitter rants, the emailed mythologizing thought-pieces, and the unabashed hostility (by some) towards environmentalists, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, the Rest of Canada, and anyone else who questions the sanctity of Alberta hydrocarbons leaves me feeling uncomfortable, scared, and, yes, angry.
I guess I’m angry at their anger. I think what pisses me off most about this explosion of anger Albertans are expressing is the mind-numbing predictability of its targets and the complete lack of responsibility we take for any of the current situation. So, yeah, I’m victim blaming too. This is why I’m home Saturday nights.
From 1999 to 2014, Alberta enjoyed a hydrocarbon boom unsurpassed in this country in terms of scope and fortune. It started with natural gas which jumped tenfold before retreating back to norms. Then crude oil jumped likewise, remaining elevated for longer, before tumbling to prices half that of the peak. In those fifteen years, oilsands went from uneconomic fringe curiosity to global resource attracting tens of billions in capital spending on megaprojects. Fort McMurray became a household name, government coffers ballooned along with Edmonton area refineries, and Calgary got rich just sitting in their gleaming office towers.
Then it all stopped. Which is entirely untrue. Oh, the frothy boom stopped. That gold rush like euphoria evaporated as the price of oil dropped to $70, then $60, and then $50, leaving most oilsands projects unprofitable. New investments were curtailed. Others were shuttered entirely. People lost jobs. But we continue to produce over 400% more oil now than we did when it started. The entire oil industry didn’t pack up everything and move out.
By contrast, I was laid off from my first oil patch job in 1999 because world oil prices cratered to $12 per barrel. It’s surreal to witness an epic boom collapse under the strain of $50 oil, but that’s what has happened. It’s a testament to the incredible costs required to extract goo from a giant, buried sandbox. All the pipelines to tidewater you could possibly conceive of won’t reignite an oilsands boom with the price of oil stuck in middling double digits.
If you must simplify what has happened to Alberta since 2014 into a concise singularity for which to blame, then that is it, really; the world oil price. Over a twenty-year span, the price of oil rose from $12 to $140. Alberta’s fortunes, and oil production, inflated along with it (as did the office towers, McMansions, luxury cars, and toys). Then in two short years, the price of oil collapsed from $102 to $33. Alberta’s boom popped accordingly, though our production kept growing. There are nuances unique to Alberta and Canada, sure, but ultimately, it really is that simple. Except you can’t direct anger at something as esoteric as an oil price.
So, we channel our rage at easy targets like Prime Ministers named Trudeau, never properly appreciating Fate for its ironic sense of humour in aligning his ascent with our bust. We blame the NDP both here and in BC, threatening to cut off the flow of oil if we don’t get our way. We blame Quebec and threaten to cut off transfer payments if we don’t get our way. We blame the Liberals for not steamrolling a pipeline through other provinces and threaten separation if we don’t get our way. We spend thirty years championing provincial autonomy then fume when others assert theirs.
We stand on our renovated-down-to-the-studs, non-sales-taxed, premium-branded, jewel-encrusted soapboxes and scream at the Rest of Canada, “You would be nothing without our oil wealth!” Is it any wonder we earn so little sympathy?