Calgary’s potential for renaissance can be found in its history

Here's how the best of the city's founders would approach the problem of rebuilding the city

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Calgary is becoming a city of ghosts. And it’s from ghosts that salvation may be found.

I lived there for 30 years and pursued three careers – in oil, academia and museology, about one a decade. Each time I moved on, I did so enriched by stories of the founders of Calgary and with new civic elders to take guidance from as my career developed. Here’s my take on the advice they’d give Calgarians facing today’s hardships.

I learned early that the definers of Calgary’s essence were Col. James Farquharson Macleod and his Metis wife, Mary Isabella Drever. Macleod gave Calgary its name and, with his wife, led by example. The Macleods surmounted racial tensions, helped introduce the rule of law, promoted the implementation of Treaty 7 and shared a broad vision of society. When James died unexpectedly at age 58, leaving Mary, four daughters and a son, she started a small business making draperies and sofa covers, and soldiered on without complaint.

If they were confronted with Calgary’s current economic reality, they’d buckle down, shift their economic plans accordingly and get on with their prairie lives. The Macleods were about service to community, accepting hardship and thrilling to adventure in a new land. They were Scots-Metis pioneers, combining the best of two cultures in confronting life’s challenges.

What about Eric Harvie, small-town prairie lawyer, overnight billionaire and founder of the Glenbow Museum? How would he handle $50-a-barrel oil in 2017’s cowtown?

Harvie was famously lucky. Armed with his Scottish commitment to interdisciplinary thinking, he dabbled in scores of ventures. Initially convinced that Alberta’s fortune lay in gravel (for roads, runways and dams), he often accepted deeds with mineral rights attached instead of cash payment for his legal work. One of them turned into Leduc No. 1 in chilly February 1947. After drilling 133 dry holes in a row, Imperial Oil finally struck a gusher and overnight Harvie became the second wealthiest man in Canada.

Confronted with today’s dilemmas, Harvie would no doubt move in the direction of another of his passions. When he began his law practice, oil was a dirty business, and a distant third to ranching and agriculture in Alberta’s economy. He never defined himself as an oilman and he wouldn’t today. He’d find opportunity elsewhere.

And what about Harvie’s young lawyer pal and eventual premier of Alberta (from 1971 to 1985), Peter Lougheed?

Lougheed learned early in his career, during a brief work stint in Oklahoma, that oil booms could bust. That’s why his Progressive Conservative thoughts focused on diversifying the Alberta economy. The 1976 creation of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund was prescient thinking personified. The subsequent capping and squandering of assets must have been awful for Lougheed to witness.

At least Norway got the message. Last week, that country’s sovereign wealth fund, created in 1996, hit US$1 trillion. Meanwhile, Alberta’s Heritage Fund stands at C$17 billion, 60 times smaller than Norway’s.

I envision Lougheed soldiering on in today’s circumstances, much like the Macleods. He’d be reading and consulting broadly, turning his enthusiasms to leading-edge means of economic diversification, and cultivating the Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos crowd for Alberta’s benefit.

Anthropologist Dr. Joan Ryan, born into poverty in an Irish-Canadian family in Montreal, hit Calgary running in the early 1970s. She became the University of Calgary’s first female department head after a pioneering early career in Arctic adult education. She worked at the Arctic Institute at the University of Calgary after retiring from academic teaching, and developed Canadian participatory action research (or PAR). Ryan created a PAR methodology to teach adults to master the skills to address pressing community problems. She brought relevant lessons to those who wanted to change their reality in remote locations.

Ryan never liked big oil and she fought against the notion of a single-industry economy in Alberta. I can close my eyes and hear her saying, “Define your problem. Acquire the skills necessary to fix it. Apply them. Get on with life!”

Finally, as I contemplate Calgary’s potential renaissance, I think of Blood Tribe elder Frank Weasel Head (Mi’ksskimm). He taught me to trust the power of dreams and to act on the lessons taught by dreams. He once drove all day from Montana to advise me about a visionary dream that occurred after I attended a medicine pipe opening ceremony.

Frank explained that confronting reality sometimes means following your dreams. The important thing is to have them.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.


Calgary economy, oil patch

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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