Stephen Legault is a political and communications strategy consultant based in Canmore, Alta. His 15th book – Taking a Break from Saving the World – is available from Rocky Mountain Books.
We are, in part, defined by our stories. In his 2003 Massey Lectures, the Canadian author Thomas King said that “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” As individuals, we tell ourselves stories about how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world, and those stories come to define us.
As a culture and society, we do the same thing. Collectively, we create the story of our ethos everyday, and those stories become our history even as they inform our present and our future. Our communal narrative helps us stay resilient in times of crisis such as the one we are in now; sometimes, however, those stories hold us back.
That’s what’s happening in Alberta. Our current story goes something like this: We’re independent, hardworking and self-reliant people who, thanks to our ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, have been able to commodify a petroleum product – bitumen – and, as a result, have prospered. This resourcefulness hasn’t been appreciated by the rest of Canada and they have taken advantage of our generosity while failing to support our most important industry when the chips are down. We were there for Canada, but now Canada isn’t there for us. We know the world is changing, but we’re determined to continue to provide oil to the consumers as long as we can.
Is that story wrong? It depends on your perspective. But whether it’s correct doesn’t really matter. What matters is: Does it serve our future? The answer to that question is resoundingly no.
Albertans are being hit by the triple whammy of COVID-19, climate change and an economic nightmare deepened by slumping oil prices. At our own peril, we buy into the same old stories, refusing to accept how quickly the world is transitioning toward a net-zero energy econom, and the consequences that COVID-19 will have on that transition. Before the global pandemic co-opted the conversation in February this year, much of the world’s attention was on the massive shift away from carbon-based fuels and toward renewables. The grounding of the airline industry, the deep plunge in oil prices and the revitalized creativity that has come from “hunkering down” has accelerated parts of this transition.
Our story of ourselves as Albertans continues to get in the way of our ability to capitalize on that transformation. We can’t seem to see ourselves in this new global narrative. We produce oil, thank you, and we do it cleanly and without the conflict and human-rights abuses that make other petroleum products less desirable. (Never mind that neither of those narratives is entirely correct.) The story that much of the world is telling is: “We are rapidly transitioning to a clean, green economy and we will reward energy producers who transform with us.” These stories simply don’t mesh.
So what might our new story be, and how do we as a province tell it?
We should hold onto the most important parts of our collective story – our resourcefulness, our capacity for ingenuity and our hardworking, entrepreneurial spirit – and let them propel us into the story the rest of the world is telling. The same gumption that helped us figure out how to dry-land farm, raise cattle on the short-grass prairie and squeeze fuel out of goop mined from sand can be seized to create our new narrative.
Here’s what it could sound like: Alberta, having pivoted from the trajectory of its past, is a place that invests in its people and its priorities of creating clean energy that the world needs, and will need so much more of tomorrow. Albertans take to a new kind of frontier, harnessing the energy of our industries, our business leaders and our creative talents to become innovators once more, solving the world’s energy challenges and, in doing so, becoming global leaders in the low-carbon economy and all that comes with it. Armed with this new prosperity, we get our sense of self-worth back as we rebuild a prosperous society while banishing the concern that others don’t respect us – because we know the world does.
That could form the backbone of a new story for Alberta – one that honours our past, serves our present and emboldens our future. We should try to tell it.
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