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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

Will we ever be proud of our oil sands? Add to ...

Nancy Huston left her native Alberta decades ago to achieve literary fame in France. The Calgary-born author is celebrated in her adopted country and Quebec for her haunting portrayals of lost souls. Her novels are deep, psychoanalytical and definitely not beach material.

Now, after a long absence, Ms. Huston has turned her literary lens on her native province and what she portrays does not make for a picturesque postcard. In an essay published last week in Montreal’s Le Devoir and Le Monde of Paris, she describes the oil sands as a threat to humanity – and not just for the “rape of the land that irreversibly empoisons the water and air.”

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Amid the seedy strip clubs and souped-up SUVs of Fort McMurray, Ms. Huston concludes that sex, size and money are all that matter in a boom town devoid of creative energy. Billboards advertising bucolic-sounding real estate projects “hide the irreparable baseness” of the environmental destruction.

My Montreal friends were equally enthralled and horrified by Ms. Huston’s piece. But if you think they are out of touch, you probably don’t get out much, wherever you live in Canada. Ms. Huston’s view of the oil sands as a national shame and planetary scourge is astonishingly common among a broad swath of mainstream Canadians, not just among a vocal minority made up of environmentalists, leftist politicians and First Nations activists.

It’s not surprising that the critical infrastructure projects needed to pursue this exploitation are struggling to gain traction. The Northern Gateway pipeline is no closer to being built despite its recent “approval” by Harper government. And opposition to proposals to ship Alberta oil through new eastward and southward pipelines has left them in limbo, too.

While much of the opposition to specific projects revolves around their safety, the broader debate centres on the desirability of pursuing oil sands expansion in the first place. Unless politicians and industry do a better job at making the case for their exploitation, they will sow regional tensions and exacerbate a national malaise about the direction the country is heading.

The first step involves spelling out for Canadians just how critical the oil sands are to the national economy. In 2011, Albertans contributed $19-billion more to federal coffers than Ottawa spent in their province. No other province comes close to making as large a contribution to the federation. Indeed, at least seven out of 10 provinces are net beneficiaries of federal spending. Without Alberta’s wealth, federal transfers to have-not provinces would need to shrink, compromising the quality of life and public services for millions of Canadians.

Those who argue that other, cleaner industries would fill the economic vacuum if we shut down the oil sands ignore the fact that countries do best by exploiting their comparative advantages. Ours lie in resources. Though our technology sector has occasionally produced global success stories, our collective expertise still lies mainly in large-scale resource development.

Canadians, however, also want to be seen as conscientious global citizens. Our Prime Minister (if not this one, the next) could build a consensus behind developing the oil sands if he were to make shrinking its environmental footprint a national priority. Such a project would be a boon to domestic innovation, producing economic and social returns for the whole country.

Ottawa already spends billions annually on research grants and tax credits, hoping the next BlackBerry will somehow come of it, when our most obvious opportunities for developing breakthrough technologies lie in the energy sector. We need to embrace a singularity of purpose, and a sense of urgency, to make this happen.

“We have great innovation opportunities in Canada, but we need to select wisely and pursue shrewdly,” says former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie, who currently chairs Ottawa’s clean-tech investment fund. “Since the carbon intensity of oil sands extraction is 117 per cent of conventional oil extraction, why not a ‘man on the moon’ innovation commitment to reduce this to parity in five or seven years?”

We first need a leader willing to start the clock.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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