Tag Archives: tar sands

Fort McMurray: from “black pitch” and salt to oil sands



© Greg Locke 2007


By Brian Brennan
May 7, 2016

The story of Fort McMurray is one of long hibernation followed by rapid growth. The oilsands developments turned it from a sleepy little northern frontier town into Alberta’s most explosive boom city. But it took almost two centuries for the development to happen.

The boom had been foretold from the time fur trader Peter Pond explored the region in 1778 and marked the location of a deposit of black pitch, along the banks of the Athabasca River, that the aboriginal people used for caulking the seams of their birchbark canoes. Eleven years later, a federal government geologist reported that the region was “stored with a substance of great economic value.” When developed, it would “prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”

For the next century, however, the oilsands remained a natural oddity, much like the Sargasso Sea or the petrified forest of Colorado, and the promise of Fort McMurray remained unfulfilled. Not until the late 1890s was any serious exploration done in the area.

The first flurry of claim-staking activity occurred in 1898, but not for oil. Klondike gold seekers seemingly misread the map and started looking for nuggets in the streams around Fort McMurray. A few years later, oil explorers drilled a well to see if the bitumen was seeping from a conventional oil reservoir below the sand. The drillers didn’t find any oil but they did find salt, and that became a commercial industry in Fort McMurray for a couple of years during the 1920s. Other local industries included sawmilling and a commercial fishery on Lake Athabasca.

During the First World War, Fort McMurray asphalt was used for road paving in some Canadian locations – including Edmonton, Camrose, Jasper and Ottawa. However, this use soon proved to be basically uneconomic and was discontinued.

By Unknown - http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2014-06-25T15%3A39%3A41Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3592868&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng MIKAN no. 3592868, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4928941

Athabasca oil sands on the banks of the river, c. 1900 Photo: Collections Canada

During the Second World War, the arrival of 3,000 U.S. troops caused the population of Fort McMurray to swell from 1,000 to 4,000. The troops were there to establish a base for the ill-fated Canol pipeline project, which was meant to pump oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse but ended up becoming what a U.S. Senate committee described as a $120 million “junkyard monument to military stupidity.” After the war, the population of Fort McMurray dropped back down to 1,100. There was some oilsands development during this period, when Abasand Oils began producing diesel oil on a small-scale basis west of Fort McMurray, but that project died when the plant burned down.

Continued interest in developing the Athabasca oilsands came from growing postwar concern about Canada’s dependence on foreign sources of oil. This changed dramatically when a huge conventional crude oil reservoir was discovered at Leduc, Alberta in 1947. As a result of this and other conventional crude discoveries, which were easier and cheaper to recover, oilsands development and the growth of Fort McMurray stalled for several years.

In 1950, an Alberta government report finally concluded that the oilsands were “entering the stage of possible commercial development.” But it took another decade before large-scale commercial development became a reality and Fort McMurray was ready to take flight. In 1961, Fort McMurray was a railway outpost with little more than one gas pump, a rundown hotel, a few stores, no highway link to the rest of the province, and about 1,200 people. Two years later, Fort McMurray and nearby Waterways (then a separate community, now one of the neighbourhoods severely damaged by fire) were bursting at the seams as construction workers poured into the region to build the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant.

By 1973, the population had grown to more than 10,000, and the town wrestled with a housing crisis as southern invaders found temporary shelter in tents and trailers. But this crisis was nothing compared to the chronic housing shortage and other social problems that developed over the next five years when an additional 8,000 migrant construction workers flooded into Fort McMurray to build the giant Syncrude plant. Wayne Skene reported in Maclean’s magazine that it was like a scene out of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

“The less fortunate and the less perceptive camped in drafty tents and trailers along ditches of the highway leading into Fort McMurray. The few hotels that existed then were always full. New bungalows – when available – were priced at $80,000 to start. Recreation facilities for the population of 18,000 consisted of a single community centre and any tavern where you could grab a seat. Like ghosts from a Dawson City daguerreotype from the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Fort McMurray inhabitants lined up for the once a week delivery of fresh vegetables at the Safeway store.”

Basic community services such as medical care, fire fighting, and education were woefully insufficient to meet the demand, and crime increased beyond the initial capacity of the police to handle it. “Fort McMurray was all things Canadian communities are not supposed to be,” concluded Skene. “Visually uninviting, socially sordid, and violated by an invasion of single, unemployed transients.” Yet for many of those transients, Fort McMurray was a mecca for partying, brawling, big wages, and ripping off the company. Working on the Syncrude project was – as one worker put it – “the softest touch ever in the States or Canada” for the building trades.

Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons

Downtown Fort McMurray in 1991, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. Photo by Gord McKenna via Flickr, Creative Commons

Colourful tales of equipment theft and featherbedding, while impossible to verify, have become part of the folklore of the project during that period.  Canadian Business  magazine writer Robert Bott reported that some of the stories were amusing, if implausible: “A D-9 Cat allegedly turning up grading roads in Stettler, Alta., nearly 400 miles from the Syncrude site … an East Indian youth fired when he was found sitting down, after two weeks of standing around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do … Newfoundlanders staggering into the Fort McMurray post office to mail 100-pound cartons of stolen tools back home … guys who would check out their brass ID tags in the morning and sleep all day until it was time to check them back in at night … workers wandering around the site for days, pretending to look for a missing tool or an absent foreman.”

By 1980, things had settled down. The partying construction workers had moved on, and Fort McMurray had become a stable city of 28,000 with a new hospital, transit system, radio station, community theatre, schools, churches, recreation facilities and door-to-door mail delivery. Crime statistics were down, and the community was no longer being portrayed in the national media as a Wild West town where the per-capita sale of liquor was the highest in the country. “We did it and we survived,” said one seven-year resident. “We didn’t fall apart at the seams, become gibbering idiots, or end up in Valium City.”

The population of Fort McMurray continued to grow during the years following. By the mid-1990s, with Syncrude and Suncor gearing up for massive expansions, the population had reached 38,000. With almost half the residents hailing from Atlantic Canada, the community was – in the words of one local wag – “Newfoundland’s third-largest city.” The community now boasted three golf courses, a dozen shopping malls, nine movie houses, two dozen bars, one gourmet restaurant, 10 liquor stores, and the largest mobile home park in Canada.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Alberta’s most explosive boomtown had become home to more than 40,000 permanent residents, and also had to deal with an influx of 13,000 construction workers contracted to build new or expanded facilities for the big oil companies. While many of these temporary workers were able to find accommodation in company-owned work camps outside the municipal boundary, others scrambled to find shelter in a municipality where all the hotels and motels were full, and as many as five or six workers would cram into one small apartment because of what one realtor described as “zero, zero vacancies.”

In preparation for these new mining developments, the municipality and private sector created a computer model that would give some indication of the future impact of these developments on Fort McMurray’s infrastructure and work force. They expressed the hope that this type of “SimCity” computer-game approach would help Fort McMurray avoid some of the withdrawal pains of other one-industry communities when the oilsands boom eventually turned to bust. Since that time the permanent population of Fort McMurray has grown to more than 80,000, and the municipality has been gearing up to celebrate its history this coming August with the opening of a heritage village containing 17 buildings. That celebration is now on hold following the recent wildfires.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2016

Related stories:

Fort McMurray: Boom, bust …burned, by Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton

A convoy of evacuees from the Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray drove through the heart of a massive wildfire guided by police and military helicopters as they sought to reach safety to the south of the burning city. “Our life is here. We will go back and rebuild,” vowed one.  …read more

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Flames rise in Industrial area south Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada May 3, 2016. Courtesy CBC News/Handout via REUTERS

Brian BrennanBrian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers.We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from partisan organizations. Thank you for your patronage, and please tell others about us. Most of our pages are outside our paywall. To help us continue, we suggest a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or for use of the entire site at least $1 for a day pass, and $20 for a year. With enough supporters  paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our ability to offer original works.  Visit our Subscribe page for more details. 


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When Democracy Becomes Controversial

Poet, editor and professor Stephen Collis,  and cell, molecular and biochemistry professor Lynne Quarmby, were on October 13 awarded the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

The professors took part in a peaceful protest in the fall of 2014 on Burnaby Mountain, against test drilling for a proposed pipeline expansion by American energy giant Kinder Morgan. The Trans Mountain pipeline carries bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers that ship it to refineries in Asia. Collis and Quarmby were among scores of protesters arrested, and also included in a small group sued by the company later sued; the suit was dropped in January. The Sterling prize was awarded the week before Canada’s national general election Monday October 19, in a campaign in which pipelines are a major issue. Quarmby is a candidate for the Green party.

With permission, F&O publishes Collis’s acceptance speech.

Stephen Collis, Lynne Quarmby, and xxx. Photo by Emma Campbell.

Stephen Collis andLynne Quarmby, left. Photo by Emma Campbell.

By Stephen Collis 
October, 2015

Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

Copyright Stephen Collis 2015


Click here for more works in F&O’s Focus on Canadian politics

The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Martin Gilens, Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=9354310

Steve picStephen Collis is a Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His many books of poetry include The Commons (Talon Books 2008; second edition 2014), On the Material (Talon Books 2010; awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), and To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013).  He has also written two books of criticism and a novel, The Red Album (BookThug 2013).  His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (Talon Books 2012), is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change.  In September 2013 Coach House Books published DECOMP, a collaborative photo-essay and long poem written with former SFU student Jordan Scott. Visit his site at SFU here.

Related on F&O:

The images below were taken in the autumn of 2014 of the protest on Burnaby Mountain against test drilling for a proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Trans Mountain delivers bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers shipping it refineries in Asia. Photos by Gavin Kennedy and Deborah Jones.




Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pipeline protest

November, 2014

Throughout the autumn citizens including First Nations peoples, politicians, and visitors from other countries, trekked up Burnaby Mountain to protest a proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Trans Mountain delivers bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands through British Columbia to a port on Canada’s west coast, for transfer to tankers shipping it refineries in Asia.

The expansion has not yet been approved by Canada’s federal National Energy Board. But it triggered a jurisdictional war after the NEB gave the Houston, Texas, based company the right to drill two test holes in a nature conservancy, over opposition by the city of Burnaby. Dozens of police were called in to keep protesters from the drill site, and scores of protesters were arrested, mostly peacefully, before Kinder Morgan removed its equipment by a court-imposed December 1 deadline.

Images of the protest, and a celebration after the drills were removed, by Gavin Kennedy and Deborah Jones. Updates on the story to follow on F&O. 


Further reading:

ENERGY, F&O’s ongoing coverage

© 2014 Facts & Opinions



Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

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Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely stardom


Naheed Nenshi. © 2013 Neil Zeller (City of Calgary photo)

There are strange doings in Alberta, the Canadian province that’s often compared to America’s state of Texas.

Alberta has been characterized by its Go-Get-‘Em attitude, cowboy hats, and an economy based on oil and gas extraction, especially the oil sands in its north. It’s widely associated with the full-throated call for unfettered markets by its neo-liberal “Calgary School” of economics. Alberta is home to Canada’s Bible Belt. Its Wildest and Westest city is dubbed Cowtown for its famous Calgary Stampede, but has developed into one of the world’s great modern energy headquarters. In short, Alberta has been fertile territory for Canada’s version of America’s Republican party. 

Alberta is now at a crossroads: a landlocked province, it’s on tenterhooks awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision on approving the next leg of the Keystone pipeline, crucial for transporting bitumen from Alberta oil sands to world markets. And yet, despite its safe historic identity and these parlous times, the citizens of Calgary have abandoned their predictable scripts. They’ve enthusiastically embraced a leader who surely ranks amongst the world’s least-likely political stars: Naheed Nenshi, a former policy wonk and academic, a self-styled “brown guy,” a liberal quite willing to fetter some sorts of business, and an Ismaili Muslim. 

Nobody, noplace and nothing can be captured in the simplistic terms I’ve used above, of course. But facts underly most stereotypes – and if there’s even a grain of truth in Alberta stereotypes, a remarkable political shift is now underway. Conservative, staid Alberta has begun electing politicians, both provincially and locally, who can only be characterized as “moderate,” perhaps even “progressive.” Provincially last year, Albertans voted for the centrist Progressive Conservative party over the far-right Wild Rose Party. This week its two biggest cities chose unapologetically “progressive” mayors: Nenshi by a 74 per cent landslide in Calgary, and a newcomer named Don Iveson by six out of 10 voters in the provincial capitol Edmonton.

Nenshi, who came to national and international media attention earlier this year after massive floods struck Calgary (he was called a “superhero” for his adroit handling of the crisis) is arguably the poster child of this shift. 

But as surprising as it is to find Nenshi as Calgary’s much-loved mayor, he is no risk-taker. His role as a change-maker may be more symbolic than actual. In his first term he proved willing to forcefully push back against opponents on local issues – but he very deftly avoided the big issues:  North America’s culture wars and Alberta’s bête noire, climate change. The question now is whether his horizons will expand in term two.

Log in to read Canada’s Mayor, a profile of Nenshi by Alberta author Brian Brennan, in the Magazine section, accessible with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.


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