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For mutual prosperity, B.C. and Alberta should just try to get along

What would the perfect economy look like? A decent-sized market of about 10 million people, tide water access to Asia, plentiful mineral and energy resources, rich agricultural land, abundant forestry, a highly educated population, a liberal democratic government, and low corruption. Throw in stunning natural scenery and two of The Economist's most livable cities in the world – and there you'd have it: economic perfection.

These enviable characteristics describe British Columbia and Alberta. They're those ridiculously good-looking friends that people know and think, "Wow – if those two ever got together, they'd make great-looking babies!"

But rather than hooking up over candles and soft music, the two spend more time bashing each other. It's a shame. Working together economically would produce something much greater than the sum of the two.

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Skeptics point out that the two provinces are too different in mentality and values to expect much co-operation, but I don't buy that. Residents of downtown Vancouver's West End have much less in common with Fort St. John, B.C., than they do with the arts-minded Edmonton Strathcona neighbourhood. The East Kootenay region of B.C. is more closely aligned to the Banff-Canmore region of Alberta than it is to Prince Rupert. A retiree in Medicine Hat is more likely to think like a retiree in Penticton, B.C., than a rig worker in Grande Prairie, Alta.

Political and cultural differences do exist, but they're probably exaggerated.

The two also share the most porous border of any two Canadian provinces. Over the past 10 years, a total of 458,000 people moved either from Alberta to B.C. or the other way around (there may be double counting if someone moved multiple times). That's far greater than the flow between any two other provinces. Alberta's two-way trade in people with Ontario was 361,000, and the flow of people between Ontario and Quebec was only 302,000.

But despite having more in common than they think and a river of people easily flowing back and forth across the Rocky Mountains, the two provinces tend to be a bit negative about the other. Albertans feel rather irritated with B.C., and British Columbians are indifferent to Alberta. Neither makes for getting together and making babies.

Albertans' irritation with B.C. is largely because the latter has what the former desperately needs: tide water. Market access for Alberta bitumen is rapidly becoming a big concern, and opposition in B.C. to the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipeline projects is a kick in the stomach to Alberta. Still, it would be surprising if B.C.'s attitude was: "Oh, you need to sell oil to China to get even richer? Well, why didn't you just say so?" Yes, citizens of all parts of the country benefit from the sale of Canada's bitumen, but the benefits flow disproportionately to Alberta.

On the other hand, B.C.'s indifference to Alberta is short-sighted and naive. During the last provincial election, Premier Christy Clark scored big political points with her quip "We don't need Alberta!" but she knew better. At the moment, not a drop of B.C.'s natural gas flows out from the Pacific – it flows east through Alberta's pipeline infrastructure to U.S. and Eastern Canadian markets. And real estate prices and development in the Okanagan would collapse without Calgary's money (although not everyone in Kelowna is thrilled with the attention).

The size of Alberta's economy has long surpassed that of B.C., and at current population growth trends, Alberta will overtake B.C. to become the third most populous province in about 8½ years. Calgary is a more prominent global business city than Vancouver. British Columbia would be foolish to ignore Alberta.

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But Alberta needs to tone down its irritation with British Columbia. Alison Redford was right to put the hammer down on the idea that Alberta should split energy royalties with B.C. But can't we find some creative ways to ensure that B.C. gets more from the pipelines than the risk of a spill? Let's build the world's cleanest refinery on the West Coast, ensure tens of thousands of permanent jobs for British Columbians, keep bitumen off tide water, and guarantee market access for Canada's oil sands.

Now that would be the start of making some good-looking babies!

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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