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A pumpjack works on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta., in this file photo from Oct. 29, 2016. In the months ahead, Alberta will need Canada’s help, writes John Ibbitson.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

This is the very best that we are: Because COVID-19 infections are below forecast levels in Alberta, the provincial government is donating ventilators and personal protective equipment to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

“I, for one, as an Albertan and as a Canadian, could not in conscience watch us stockpile massive amounts of surplus equipment while we see many of our fellow Canadians, some provinces, within days of running out of some of these supplies,” Premier Jason Kenney said.

I, for one, as an Ontarian and as a Canadian, am deeply grateful.

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All of us should keep this generosity in mind. We should remember as well that the wealth of the Alberta oil economy helped pull Canada out of the 2008-09 recession.

Because in the months ahead, it’s Alberta that will need Canada’s help.

The national unemployment rate in March, according to Statistics Canada, was 7.8 per cent. (April will be far worse.) In Alberta, the level was 8.7 per cent, higher than the national average and higher than Ontario (7.6), Quebec (8.1) or British Columbia (7.2).

Falling demand and overproduction by Saudi Arabia and Russia have collapsed oil prices, leaving businesses and jobs at risk, even as the province still struggles to recover from the 2014-16 fall in prices.

"The crash in energy prices means that Alberta’s downturn will be deeper, and our recovery slower,” Mr. Kenney told Albertans in a televised address last week.

“I cannot overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, our economy and the financial security of Albertans.”

In some ways, the situation resembles the Dirty Thirties. On the eve of the Depression, Ontario and Quebec relied on manufacturing to power their economies; Alberta and Saskatchewan relied on agriculture (the big oil finds came in the 1940s).

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While the Depression savaged all economies, the Prairies suffered the most, because of a severe drought that became known as the Dust Bowl. High tariffs curtailed whatever agriculture exports there might have been, while protecting factory jobs in Central Canada. In 1936, the Alberta government partly defaulted on its debt; Ottawa ultimately came to the rescue.

Alberta is in no danger of defaulting again. It has a low debt-to-GDP ratio, compared with other provinces, and no sales tax. But the oil and gas sector is in desperate shape.

On Friday, federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan promised an aid package would be arriving “soon,” with a focus on providing the sector with financial liquidity. But there are divisions within the Liberal government and among Canadians generally over what form any aid should take.

Promoters of green energy advocate helping workers retrain as the province transitions from its dependence on oil and gas. Pragmatists understand that no such transition is possible, at least in the short term, and that oil and gas industries will need financial support now and expanded pipeline capacity for the future.

Petroleum prices will rebound as global demand increases in a world that is still years away from peak oil. Canada relies on the wealth Alberta generates from the oil sands in good times; all Canadians have an obligation to help sustain the oil and gas sector until those good times return.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of supply chains, as governments abscond with scarce medical equipment destined for foreign markets. The result could be onshoring: the return of domestic manufacturing.

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This would be bad for the world: raising prices, increasing poverty, stifling innovation. But the Central Canadian manufacturing base could prosper, just as tariffs protected Ontario manufacturing in the 1930s, though worsening the Depression overall.

If so, then people in Ontario and Quebec need to remember that when their industries were on the ropes in the previous recession, Alberta’s oil wealth helped sustain the national economy, just as ventilators and masks from Alberta are helping them fight COVID-19 today.

As recession and rock-bottom oil prices threaten the modern equivalent of the Dust Bowl, the onus is on the rest of Canada to come to the rescue, until the Prairies get back on their feet again.

Let’s be the country we can be. Let the rest of Canada be there for Alberta, just as Alberta has always been there for the rest of us.

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