From the day the first Europeans set foot on Canadian soil, the country’s resources have been the core of its development.
First, fur traders endured danger and deprivation to explore the vast wilderness; they were followed by forestry workers who wrestled huge logs to tidewater.
Then came hardy settlers, who turned soil frozen for half the year into a breadbasket of the world, thus creating the driving force behind the most important project in Canadian history, the building of a national railway.
Steam locomotives require large amounts of coal, which spurred Canada’s first underground mines. In 1883, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, nickel-copper ore was discovered near Sudbury, launching a huge metals mining development. That same year, thousands of kilometres to the west, the railway helped launch Alberta’s petroleum industry when a well drilled to supply water for steam locomotives struck natural gas.
It would be another five decades before production from Alberta’s first major oil field began, in 1936 at Turner Valley.
Remarkably, what has become Canada’s most notable oil resource was discovered 158 years earlier when, in 1778, fur trader Peter Pond became the first European to witness bitumen seeping from oil sands along the banks of the Athabasca River. He learned that natives had long mixed that bitumen with pine tar to seal their canoes.
Canada’s rich endowment of resources remains fundamental to the prosperity that makes this country one of the best places in the world to live.
As I have noted previously, Natural Resources Canada data show that the resource sector generated 1.6 million jobs and $233-billion in export revenues in 2011.
But the potential is even greater: Resource development companies are planning to invest $650-billion in hundreds of Canadian projects over the next decade.
Economic research firm Informetrica estimates these projects would add $1.4-trillion to Canada’s GDP and create an average 600,000 jobs per year.
These new projects would be crucial to preserving Canadian prosperity, fuelling the careers of many young people while providing the financial underpinning for our generous social programs.
But what are the chances that these investments will actually occur? While a perennial optimist, I worry that most will be stymied by the actions of environmental zealots who oppose almost every mine, pipeline or hydroelectric project.
That Canadian environmental standards rank among the world’s best and are administered by regulatory agencies staffed with highly qualified experts matters little in the public opinion marketplace, where fear-instilling propaganda that lacks scientific foundation all too often wins the day.
Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline is a prime example. Opponents argue that disastrous oil spills are inevitable. Yet every day in Canada, some three million barrels of oil is safely transported through pipelines. The design criteria of Northern Gateway would make it the most robust and reliable oil pipeline ever built in Canada.
Anti-pipeline rhetoric has not only been successful in instilling fear in the general public, but also in First Nations living near the proposed route. That Canadian courts and politicians have conceded a de facto veto to First Nations means that even if the new line meets the required criteria, this project, crucial to our economic future, may never be built.
Canadians today stand on the shoulders of earlier, less-fortunate generations whose determination, courage and hard work carved a country out of a harsh and unforgiving wilderness.
Few of their achievements would have been possible had every new initiative been met with strident opposition.
As another year begins, my wish for Canada is that the silent majority rises up to prevent the new nation-builders from being stymied by a vocal minority whose ideologically driven agenda doesn’t include creating jobs and fuelling prosperity.