From Uncertainty to Prosperity: The Canadian Identity Matures
Kenora is a remarkable little place, an unwitting and quiet leader in modeling for the rest of the nation the vast opportunities that lie hidden within the tumult of change.
This morning, the Lake of the Woods Brewing Company’s Taras Manzie was featured on the regional CBC radio broadcast. As I went about my daily routines of packing kids’ school lunches, I listened happily to Taras talking about the Brew Co’s wide-ranging and ambitious vision for near-term expansion into a second, larger brewing facility, a distillery, and a coffee roasting house. It’s the kind of good news story that delights and surprises listeners who are conditioned to expect little of the post-industrial economy of a sleepy, rural backwater in Northern Ontario.
It’s a story that Taras and many other young entrepreneurs like him have been championing as they are steadily crafting a new economy in the former resource-dependent towns and cities across northern Ontario. It’s an economy built from the local level up, based on a vision for what prosperity can be when environment, economy, climate and social justice are all interwoven as crucial elements of a healthy and sustainable society, and as such, it represents the next evolutionary step in defining the Canadian identity in the 21st Century.
This concept was at the back of my mind later in the morning, while I was talking with colleagues about what is emerging as a national crisis of identity and vision rooted in current troubles in Canada’s oil economy. Over the past week, national discourse has devolved into partisan bickering among mayors and premiers, each seeking to protect their own interests and destiny with regard to the future prospects for the oil economy. Underneath this veneer of combative parochialism, a deep uncertainty fuels these tensions and aggressions.
Since its confederation, Canada’s national identity, its unifying myth, is that we have provided resources to the world. In the 19th Century, timber formed the basis of the new nation’s economy from New Brunswick to Ottawa, then Lake of the Woods, through to Vancouver. Later, wheat production at least in part justified the need for a transcontinental railroad system that also provided a physical infrastructure backbone solidifying national unity. In the 20th Century, the prominence of oil and gas rose as crucial components of Canada’s economy, and though the sector accounts for a mere 6% of national gross domestic product, none can argue the impacts that oil’s economic volatility has had on the economy as a whole these past few years.
Today, in an era of climate change, meeting international commitments means that Canada can no longer count on procuring wealth by exploiting its natural resources for the benefit of the rest of the world. Rather, the rest of the world will benefit from exactly the opposite – Canada keeping its vast oil reserves untapped so that we are no longer contributing to atmospheric carbon emissions known to drive climate change. The goal is to keep warming below the critical threshold of 1.5C by 2050 in order to forestall the most catastrophic social, economic and ecological consequences of climate disruption. Estimates are that as much as 99% of Canada’s bitumen and shale oil will have to go unused if we are to meet these international commitments.
Releasing our reliance on natural resources challenges our national identity myth. Right now, Canadians are being asked to undergo what feels to many like a radical and rapid transformation in order to embrace a post-oil future. Without obvious explicit plans and policies in place to navigate this new terrain, for most this future is a void of unknowns and that is frightening. Fear drives irrationality and leads to premiers and mayors shouting hateful, malicious rhetoric across interprovincial borders. It’s not productive to ensuring national unity, and as the vitriol rises, confidence in our nation – and our dollar – erodes.
But what if we opted instead to embrace the possibility of what prosperity could mean in a new economic system, one whose roots lie in, as Prime Minister Trudeau said in Davos recently, “knowing Canadians for our resourcefulness,” rather than our resources? What if we accepted that after nearly 150 years, our nation has outgrown its infancy? No longer are we little more than the raw resource exporter to the world. Instead, we are ready to mature into a serious nation state, contributing intellectually, socially, and technologically in ways that compliment and enhance our resource-driven economic sectors while we champion climate leadership for the world.
As a nation, we don’t yet fully know what prosperity looks like in the post-carbon, clean energy economy. Surely, it means investing in infrastructure that supports less carbon pollution, and not more. Surely, it means investing in communities and supporting local and regional sustainability efforts. It means diversifying the economy, giving space for new ideas, new approaches, new models for social and economic organization. It looks like workers being supported in finding sustainable, healthy employment. It looks, too, like reconciliation and support for Indigenous peoples’ rights to livelihood and prosperity on their terms. In short, it looks a lot like the transformation Kenora has been effecting over the past decade, where creativity, ingenuity, compassion, and exciting economic development has emerged from the ashes of a once-dominant resource-based economy.
As Mr. Manzie said to the Toronto Star last fall, “You change or you die... I like to think Kenora and region are absolutely turning around.” As Canada embraces the inevitable changes compelled by being a global climate leader, like Kenora, so too may the nation as a whole find itself similarly delighted and surprised by the wealth of opportunities that lie ahead.