“The Last Best West” was an advertising slogan used to attract immigration to Western Canada between the years 1896-1914. The Canadian Government took out full page ads in foreign newspapers to encourage immigration to Western Canada. Millions of settlers flooded the region during those 18 years. The recent rise of Western Canada’s fortunes since 2002 has created a period of growth and change which parallels that historic era, but what are the realities for Western Canadians living through these expansionary times?
Calgary, home to Northland’s newest office, reflects many of the cross currents running through the economy and society out West. Surprisingly, the City recorded the largest ever increase in population in 2014, reaching 1.2 million residents, a 3.3% change from 2013. Immigration over and above the usual inter-provincial migration needed to fill jobs drove the increase. The changing demographic of Calgary is now more indicative of the Canadian cultural mosaic of Toronto and Vancouver which are rich with ethnic heritage. Among immigrants arriving in Calgary between 2001 and 2006, 78% originated from outside of Europe and North America, predominantly of south and eastern Asian descent.
What hasn’t changed is the economy, as Energy and Agriculture remain Western Canada’s dominant industries. Relative to its 10 million inhabitants, the region is one of the world’s largest net exporters of both energy and agricultural commodities. However, even this traditional “Texas hedge” of oil and agriculture faces new challenges. The polarizing debate over the extension of pipelines to carry burgeoning levels of conventional and oil sands production has created a glut of oil in the Western Canadian basin. As a result, oil shipments by rail have doubled in the last five years. Last year, these shipments ran headlong into a record Canadian wheat crop causing major storage issues for farmers and accusations of railway favoritism. Reminiscent of the 70’s, the Federal government has mandated a delivery standard for the railways to clear the backlog of grain. All the while, oil and gas drilling continues at a record pace in the expectation that the environmental and transportation issues will be resolved.
Newly found wealth brings with it many rewards and challenges. Numerous infrastructure projects quickly implemented near the peak in 2007, and then mothballed during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008, are now finally being completed. Retail sales are booming and major retailers now consider Calgary for the launch of their flagship stores. However, retail staff shortages are still prevalent, especially in rural areas, due to enticing wages in the oil patch, forcing retail businesses to curtail their hours of operation or close altogether. Thankfully, provincial and civic authorities have kept a lid on the crime rate while actively addressing the needs of the homeless through affordable housing initiatives. The wild times of bars and clubs on “Electric Avenue” in the Beltline have not returned. (Although they may have simply resurfaced along Edmonton’s booming Whyte Avenue) Attitudes to cyclical economic growth have changed, and there are simply more athletic and entertainment outlets for the local population culminating in the city’s designation as Canada’s Cultural Capital in 2012.
The major flooding of 2013 may yet be seen as the synthesis of the conflicting changes brought about by prosperous times. People of all backgrounds, urban and rural residents, office workers and roughnecks, worked together to repair the widespread damage. Through crisis, perhaps that unique combination of individual self reliance and community support forged in the early days of the Last Best West, has now been passed on to the next generation.