Published Friday, Nov. 07 2014
‘It’s a beautiful place,” she said, “and so energetic.”
The French economist, part of a group of government leaders travelling with President François Hollande, was seated at my table of economists at the state luncheon in Banff. “Young people in France think about your province and they think … anything is possible!” she said in very good English.
Later this week her words came back to haunt me. She was correct: Anything is possible in Alberta – but that can be good or bad. It’s good in the way that with hard work, ambition and positivity, the sky’s the limit in this province. But it’s also possible for economic prosperity to be snatched away in an instant. As oil prices slide lower, that outcome is starting to feel uncomfortably possible.
Alberta is vulnerable to tumbling energy prices, but maybe we only have ourselves to blame. What picture have we painted of Alberta’s economy to the rest of the world?
Another quote this week was not nearly as complimentary as the French economist’s. In Le Monde, a newspaper article covering Mr. Hollande’s visit referred to Alberta as “the Texas of Canada” – and it wasn’t meant in a nice way. The province was criticized for its controversial exploitation of bitumen, and Mr. Hollande was criticized for making Alberta the first stop on his Canadian tour.
There’s no doubt that Alberta’s prosperity is due largely to its petroleum resources. And while improvements must still be made, the oil sands on its worst day is an environmental heaven compared to plenty of other countries on their best days. But rather than trying so hard to convince the rest of the world that our oil is ethical (even though it is) or that they need it (even though they do), perhaps Alberta should try a different tact.
Wouldn’t editors at Le Monde be surprised to learn about Alberta’s cultural industries? That Edmonton is home to North America’s largest experimental theatre festival, The Fringe? Or that Canada’s new National Music Centre is being built in Calgary?
It might raise Parisian eyebrows to know that the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint Jean operates entirely in French, in the centre of Edmonton’s francophone neighbourhood, on Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury. Readers of Le Monde may find surprising the innovative works of the Alberta Ballet or Calgary Opera.
Cultural diplomacy is an underutilized economic tool in Alberta, but other jurisdictions have used it to great effect. This was on display when the Prime Minister of Iceland and other top economic leaders visited Edmonton earlier this year. When asked what Iceland does to promote its economy, the answer was plain. “We promote our artists and we promote our culture. It’s what we are. It’s in everything we do,” said the representative from the City of Reykjavík.
Economically, the purpose of cultural diplomacy is to use arts and culture in presenting a more complete story about your province or country. Alberta cannot compete with France’s cultural institutions, but that’s not the point. The point is the element of interest and surprise.
Everyone knows that when politicians from Alberta give speeches in Toronto or Washington or Paris, they will talk about pipelines (and without question, access to markets is the single most pressing economic issue for Alberta). But there’s nothing surprising in that story. Decision makers in those cities have heard it all before. They know about Keystone XL. They know Alberta is home to the world’s third-largest petroleum resources. They know that Green Peace protesters climbing upon oil rigs are given hot chocolate, not shot to death.
Instead, what if Albertans gave speeches about our arts and culture? What if artists and writers and musicians were part of the tour? That would be a refreshing and probably surprising way to get more positive economic attention.
Life in Alberta is vibrant and multidimensional, even if our economy is a bit too reliant on one single industry. Cultural diplomacy – the ability to take our story to the rest of the world through arts and culture – needs to be our economic trump card.
Can Alberta do it? In the words of the visiting French economist –“anything is possible!”
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.