Some people think the West is winning, but they’re wrong. It has already won

Allan Fotheringham October 17 1977

Some people think the West is winning, but they’re wrong. It has already won

Allan Fotheringham October 17 1977

Some people think the West is winning, but they’re wrong. It has already won

Allan Fotheringham

There it was the other day, a great vulgar Cadillac Fleetwood, half an oil tanker in length and silver bullet in color and Alberta in license plate, parked outside the Westcoast Transmission tower on Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver. It was, of course, pointed west.

The little tableau was a perfect symbol of the new axis between these two wary provinces, separated by sabre-toothed mountains, seldom in accord or in cahoots on anything. One of these days—say about two years hence—half of Toronto is going to collapse in a psychic faint when it realizes what the decision to give the Alaska Highway pipeline route to the Foothills group of Calgary is going to mean to the traditional power base of Canada.

Toronto, to its amazement, is going to perceive just how much money and clout and heft is going to be switched west. Instead of Bay Street and U.S. allies controlling the largest project in the history of free enterprise, it will be strictly western Canadians. Instead of Exxon and Shell and Gulf and all those multinationals you love to hate coming out the winners via the Canadian Arctic Gas consortium, it was Bob Blair’s homegrown Foothills Pipeline of Calgary and Westcoast Transmission of Vancouver. At 5 p.m. any day you can detect the Cheshire Cat grins above the C.C.-and-sodas in the Owl’s Nest bar of the Calgary Inn. Revenge, it’s sweet.

It’s the best ignored story in Canada. For one thing, it will be the first major development in this country’s lifetime that has been planned, built and managed entirely by western Canadians. For another, it will be the most “Canadian” of the giant Canadian projects. The trans-Canada pipeline was built by, as John Diefenbaker called them, “Texas buccaneers.” The construction of the CPR wasn’t exactly what you’d call an indigenous Canadian project. The St. Lawrence Seaway was a joint U.S.Canada endeavor. The James Bay Hydro project is being done by the government of Quebec, but with power-thirsty New York heavily in the background. This pipeline which will ferry Alaska gas to shivering Americans is gloriously, chauvinistically Western. And negotiated in such a way that most of the dollars will flow West.

What all this is going to do to the already swollen ego of Calgary is hard to imag-

ine—and makes one shudder a trifle. It is the most changed town in Canada in the past 10 years and almost no one outside Alberta has noticed. The problem is that stereotypes die hard. The Toronto perception of Calgary is frozen into an image of soused football fans riding cow ponies into the lobby of the Royal York. In fact, it is on the verge of becoming the third financial centre in the country after Toronto and Montreal. (Vancouver, content in its dreamworld of lotus blossoms and sandals,

does not seem to have noticed, and it is hard to determine, if it knew, whether it would care. Vancouver cares about very little—except lotus blossoms and sandals.)

The Canadian Real Estate Association found this summer that the highest average price in house sales in the country was in Calgary, surpassing Toronto’s trendy Mississauga exurbia and Vancouver’s leafy Kerrisdale.

London banks, anticipating the riches out of the North Sea oil, are now sending executives for training periods in Calgary banks so they can learn at the feet of the masters. There is even a colonial spin-off of this largesse oozing from the ground: it is a Calgary charitable foundation based on oil that is financing the building of bicycle paths on the seawall of Vancouver’s famous Stanley Park. (The Greeks and the Romans passed on culture to lesser breeds, why not the Calgarians?) The stroking of the endemic Alberta insecurity, of course, is no one-project wonder. We are in the midst of a major shift in the regional balance of Canada—the financial base shifting westward just as surely as it is in the

United States. One can pluck figures off the tree like ripe pomegranates to verify the case. Statistics Canada tells us that last year Alberta had a per capita gross provincial product of $11,100, compared to $9,350 for once-plush Ontario. If you want to get completely ridiculous, the Economic Council of Canada did a calculation for 1975 showing that Albertans produced more that year than anyone else in the world on a per capita basis—some $2,000 higher per head than Sweden, the United States or Ontario. On the Financial Times' list of 100 most active stocks two years ago, 22 are Alberta-based.

To make things complete, the province has the lowest income tax in Canada, the lowest property tax, and no sales tax. It is not just another BC, it is now a mini-Kuwait, “A little island of prosperity,” as one consultant put it to me, “in a world of stagnation.” Read it and weep—or move.

What cuts both ways is that the perception of what is happening in the West is a good 10 years ' behind the reality—western Canadians

don’t realize it either. In 1969, for one example, the value of goods-producing industries in Ontario made up 43% of the Canadian total, the four western provinces 29%. By 1974, it had shifted to 40% from Ontario, 32% from the West. This year? One tingles in anticipation, both for the figures and for the West’s new excuse for Western alienation. All you had to do was catch Premier Lougheed’s bitter thrust, in announcing a personal libel suit against the CBC over The Tar Sands show: “I want to see them come out here to our courthouse from Toronto .. .”

The ambition flows further. The other projects—the Athabasca oil sands, the Cold Lake bitumen deposits, the heavy oil deposits, are all designed to accommodate early refining in Alberta rather than in Ontario. In effect, a new manufacturing element at the producing end, instead of the receiving end. With increasing population: a market for secondary industry. Eventually, in this strategy, Alberta becomes “a western version of Ontario.” (That’s a goal?) Next? Alberta 20 years away competing with Ontario in consumer goods.

They have high ambitions, thçse folks. A psychic faint. Toronto, wait for it.