In a heartfelt letter to westerners going through the economic pain he endured in the 1990s, when free trade agreements shut down 200,000 manufacturing jobs in Ontario’s industrial heartland, Hamilton resident Robert Fraser is urging his fellow Canadians in the oilpatch to “put aside the climate change thing for a bit and focus on some realities”.
With the “skeletons of the old manufacturing plants” still easy to find in Ontario, “I know the anguish you’re feeling in the West,” Fraser writes, in a post last week for CBC. But he says Ontario’s experience points to a more stable future for Alberta, however dire its boom-and-bust economy might look today.
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Fraser describes the 1990s as a time when both major federal political parties were pushing free trade with the United States, then the U.S. and Mexico, recalling that “the ink wasn’t even dry on these radical trade deals when the jobs started disappearing.” And “unlike the ‘boom and bust’ oil jobs out West, we knew our jobs were never coming back.”
The adjustments were rough—sometimes incredibly rough—and Fraser says the regional economy still isn’t what it used to be. The experience brought home the “sad reality…that earning a decent living isn’t a right in this world—it’s a rare privilege.”
But “eventually, Ontario adapted,” he writes. “Industries like service, information technology, and logistics picked up some of the slack. Finance and real estate values boomed. Many Ontarians discovered their entrepreneurial skills—some saw success.”
He adds: “People out West like to work and earn a decent living, just as we do elsewhere in Canada. No argument there. But I never heard anyone in Ontario say that the source of our troubles lay elsewhere in Canada.” And with pipeline projects “stuck the courts”, the oilpatch due to shut down in a generation, investors already beginning to abandon the industry, and both the climate crisis and the benefits of climate action driving the transition off carbon, Alberta’s problems are bigger and more nuanced than a sense of grievance or blaming Ottawa.
“I know western Conservatives love their grandchildren as much as I love mine,” Fraser says. But given the fragility of the Earth’s systems and the “legacy of death” he says those grandchildren will face if the climate crisis isn’t addressed, he doesn’t buy the current federal government’s plan to finance green projects from fossil pipeline revenues. “What a great strategy,” he writes. “The house is on fire, and we’re literally going to pour gasoline on the fire and hope this will make enough money to buy a hose to hook up to the hydrant before everything burns down.”
Instead, he calls for Canada and Alberta to follow Charles Darwin’s maxim that evolution favours the most adaptable, not necessarily the strongest.
“I want our government to insist Bombardier sets up a mass transit manufacturing plant in Edmonton next time we write them a big fat cheque,” he writes. “I want to see Saskatchewan entrepreneurs get grants to set up wind power projects over those vast grain farms. I want the West to lead the way in the new transition. And I want Canada to lead the world.”