The Back Page

TALES FROM BOOM TOWN

Oil, big money, and the political manoeuvring to succeed King Ralph

PAUL WELLS July 25 2005
The Back Page

TALES FROM BOOM TOWN

Oil, big money, and the political manoeuvring to succeed King Ralph

PAUL WELLS July 25 2005

TALES FROM BOOM TOWN

The Back Page

Oil, big money, and the political manoeuvring to succeed King Ralph

PAUL WELLS

AT A MEXICAN RESTAURANT on Fourth Street in Calgary, I ordered a medium-rare steak that arrived so rare I thought it was going to get up and show me the neighbourhood. Dave Bronconnier, the apple-cheeked mayor of Canada’s biggest boom town, poured from a jug of mojitos and talked about Calgary’s amazing prosperity.

“After the Stampede we’re going to come out with migration numbers that show our planning department was only off by 100 per cent. We predicted 12,000 more people would move to Calgary than left over the past year. It’s closer to 24,000.”

Calgary had the highest population growth of any major Canadian city in 2004. (Fort McMurray, the gateway to northern Alberta’s fabulously lucrative oil sands, grew faster, but it’s not a major city. Yet.) Fortyfive new cars go onto Calgary’s roads every day. The total value of building permits in Calgary ) last year was greater than in Alberta’s next 10 largest cities I put together. Unemployment is so low that the city’s main economic obstacle is a shortage of j labour, skilled or unskilled.

Why? Guess. Bruce Graham is the president of Calgary Economic Development but he’s actually one of those new residents. When he moved here 14 months ago, he told me, oil was at $US23 a barrel. Now it’s at $60.

In fact, as I poked around Calgary during the first weekend of the Calgary Stampede, that was pretty much the standard answer whenever I asked what’s new.

“What’s new?” I asked.

“Sixty-dollar oil,” people answered.

All else flows from that, so to speak. Calgarians kept mentioning an old bumper sticker from the lean years: “Lord, grant me one more boom and I promise not to piss it away this time.”

The new boom is here. There are admirable efforts to diversify the economy and entrench the Alberta Advantage. Calgary has become a transport, logistics and distribution hub for Western Canada and the northwestern United States. Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart have opened immense,

highly automated distribution centres.

I asked Bronconnier whether I could visit the Wal-Mart hub. “You’ll see it when you fly out of town,” he said. “It’s a one-storey building that’s a million square feet. It’s frigging ginormous.”

The Klein government skipped further tax cuts in the last budget and invested instead in higher education and research. Jim Dinning, who’s running to replace Ralph Klein as Tory king-for-life, told me he wants to make education and resource refinement the cornerstones of his administration. In this vision, nothing gets out of Alberta without being processed or refined first—oil, food crops, beef or brains. “We will be the leading value-added jurisdiction in Canada, if not North America,” Dinning said.

Which brings me to how I came to visit Dinning. Besides the wonders of Alberta’s economy, the topic for many Calgarians these days is the parlous state of its politics, both

provincial and federal. This city doesn’t like to wait. It is not pleased to find itself waiting for new blood at both levels.

The love affair between Paul Martin and Calgary—remember that?—has faded. For the first time in four years, he didn’t show up at the Stampede. But that’s old news. The new news is that Stephen Harper is a disappointment too. Over dinner, some senior federal Tories mourned their leader’s willingness to fight for very little except Gurmant Grewal. “The sad thing is that the party’s looking past Stephen now,” one said. “There’s no appetite for trying to remove him before an election, but who thinks we can win?”

At the provincial level, just about every adult male Albertan with a change of pants seems to be running to replace Ralph Klein. But nobody knows when Klein will step down. Soonish, maybe, but that could mean next month or in two years. Meanwhile, all these candidates are burning up shoe leather in the endless preliminary rounds.

Most people mentioned Dinning, the soft-spoken former finance minister who balanced the province’s books for Klein, as his heir apparent. Many named Ted Morton, who is working hard to corner the market on Western alienation, as a possible spoiler. I have had the pleasure of chatting with Morton and wasn’t sure how much more pleasure I could stand, so I called Dinning.

He wants to replace drift with direction (“Alberta on purpose,” he said repeatedly) and thinks Klein’s been too timid on private health care. What if Ottawa tries to stop him from going further? “We’ll just do a cut-and-paste of the Quebec model and do it here,” he said mildly. Even the nice-guy candidate for the leadership isn’t interested in being too nice. Alberta’s ambitions are growing as fast as its economy. If you thought the province was hard to ignore in the past, just watch it now. I?1

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