Hazards of living in Alberta

I lived in Alberta for roughly twenty years before moving to New Brunswick about five years ago. Over the last few days, I’ve discovered one of the hazards of having lived there for so long. You are never where you were. (If you’re impatient, just scroll to the end for the capper.)

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Canada, singular and plural

(Originally published July 1, 2010 on Thoughtwrestling as “The Canadas.”)

Provincial flags, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo - Bill Wren)

Canada is both problem and solution. It’s an ongoing exercise in creativity and problem solving. Sometimes it works out well; sometimes not.

And it’s really, really big!

Its lessons are big too. When it comes to solving problems and being creative, it provides the biggest lesson of all: just when you think you know something, you don’t.

You have to think differently. You have to learn more. You have to toss your way of seeing aside and see in new ways – often, the ways of others.

We are tourists

In any country but our own we are tourists. This has nothing to do with citizenship papers or other formal aspects of citizenry. It is simply that the only country we know with any depth or intimacy is our own. To know a place, you have to live in the place. This means things like buying groceries, paying rent, getting a loan and so on. You have to spend time doing the banal everyday things that keep a life moving along.

Unknown couple, Killarney Lake, New Brunswick. (Photo - Bill Wren)

The thing is, in our own country we think we know it with depth. We think we have an intimate knowledge of it. But we don’t. We can only know parts of it and even then we fall far short of complete knowledge. This is because our countries are so many countries.

And that’s why I refer to my country as “the Canadas.” It’s plural. There are as many Canadas as there are people.

In a sense, we are tourists even in our own countries.

The way a programmer in Nova Scotia experiences Canada is not the same as a nurse in Edmonton. A realtor in Fort St. John in north eastern British Columbia does not have the same Canada as the store owner in Montreal, Quebec.

A Muslim entrepreneur in Vancouver has one Canada; an Inuit politician in Nunavut has another.

And they are not the same from day to day.

Sometimes I see a Canadian’s online profile with a map showing all the places they’ve been to in the world. There might be three, maybe four balloons in Canada, and oodles in Europe, South America, southeast Asia and so on. We catalogue where we have been elsewhere.

Maybe Canadians don’t travel as much in Canada because we know we can never see everything: it’s too damn big!

If Canada was a shirt, it would be extra extra extra large.

I think we feel that living where we do, wherever that is in Canada, we know Canada. It’s just not so.

Problem and solution

Summer skating, West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo - Bill Wren)

Canada is an ongoing project in creativity because it involves so many contradictions and opposites from landscape to weather to people. Southern Alberta, down in the area of Fort MacLeod, is the opposite of southern New Brunswick. It is almost the difference between a desert and a rain forest.

That’s just landscape. People? Oh my!

This is really where the ongoing problem solving exercise happens. We want the collective unity of “Canadians” while at the same time wanting everyone to retain their differences. Sometimes we refer to it as a “cultural mosaic.”

But of course, that means accommodation and that begins with an understanding of how plural we are.


I know many people don’t care about hockey, but stay with me a moment. It’s a good example of Canadians and problem solving and finding solutions – as well as what those solutions mean.

Since time began, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ) has been broadcasting hockey games in Canada. The CBC is a publicly owned company supported by Canadian tax dollars. It has a very specific mandate which, put simply, is this: your content will be Canada.

Unknown girl, City Hall, Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo - Bill Wren)

This means hockey games with Canadian teams, currently Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. (Update: Now we can include Winnipeg again!) The thing is, since teams often play on the same night, which game do you show? How do you keep everyone happy?

Well, you don’t. But you try.

Canadians regularly complain about it. But the CBC does the best it can by putting one game on the national network, the one they hope the most people will want to see, and in specific regions, like Montreal, broadcasting the game of that area’s team.

Since Canada is so big, with six time zones, they can break it up between eastern and western games, the west getting underway usually several hours after those of the east.

The end result is games get shown. Someone is always unhappy. But overall and over time, it works. Not perfectly; but it works. Of course, much of the solution is the result of technology. It has allowed for better and more creative solutions.

Hockey and TV are pretty unimportant compared to larger social issues but to a large extent Canada’s creative problem solving mirrors the CBC’s solution for hockey. Some solutions work better than others, but that’s how it goes. We accommodate as best we can and manage to be one country, singular and plural all at once.

Delight, not pride

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo - Bill Wren)

I don’t recall ever having a feeling of pride about Canada. What I feel most is delight. And I feel comfortable. Canada feels so much a part of me, so much an aspect of who and what I am, feeling pride in it would be like feeling pride in my arm or my leg. I just don’t think or feel that way.

It’s probably true of every country but in the end I see Canada as a work in progress. It’s a place so large, from every perspective, and so perpetually evolving, it can never be fully known. I’m pretty sure about one thing though.

Canada is not a place to be; it is a place to be together.

That, of course, is where the business of creative solutions comes in. And that, in turn, means realizing that what we know is only ever a small part of a larger picture. There is always more to learn, more to see, more people to meet, more to marvel at.

Facing the stairs

This post doesn’t have any tips or suggestions that will help you to solve problems or engage your creative side. It’s really just an observation.

It’s about something everyone will inevitably encounter in their life: the daunting stairs you’ll have to climb to get to where you want to go – and what happens once you get there.

The stairs

In Edmonton, Alberta, there is a beautiful river valley. In this river valley, there are wooden stairs. Actually, there are 70 staircases. And that’s a lot. However, the thing about them is not that there are 70, but how many stairs many of the staircases have.

They are often used for outdoor exercise. I recall being told once that they are used by either the Edmonton Police Service or Fire Rescue Services, or both, as part of their fitness regimen for officers. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but if so it doesn’t surprise me.

The number of stairs in some of these staircases is almost beyond imagining. Believe me, if you’re going up, you are convinced they are literally a staircase to heaven because they have no apparent end.

Once, I was on a bus headed to work over the Low Level Bridge and it broke down. We were told another would be along soon. Some riders, seeing how close we were to downtown, decided to walk. This meant scaling the stairs.

I tried too. It didn’t seem that hard a thing to do. They certainly weren’t the longest set of stairs in the valley, though it was long enough. I decided to walk up them.

Halfway up, I thought I would die. I had no idea it would be that hard. (I’ve since learned the valley stairs are sometimes referred to as the Stairs of Death.)

Once is never enough

Now, finally, after that preface, I’ve arrived at my point. The first time we climb stairs like these they seem daunting, but possible. This is partly because we don’t have a true sense yet of what it will entail. And we do it, as hard as it turns out to be.

The second time we stand at the bottom of those stairs, understanding we must climb them again, they don’t seem daunting anymore. They seem impossible!

We now know what it took to climb them and we aren’t convinced we have what it takes to do it again.

That’s what success look like. Once is never enough; you have to do it again. And the second time is a lot harder because you now know what it actually takes.

Yet it is in the repeating that real success lies. Your painting was great but you’re expected to do another, as good as the first or better. You put together a great campaign for a client; now there’s a new client expecting something as good, or better.

“Do what you did the last time.” That’s what people want. They want you to repeat your success.

You’re back at the bottom of those stairs looking up.

How do you climb them again?

This world will amaze you

I just came back from walking the dog in the park. While there, we met a guy. We stopped and chatted. He told me his story. I now feel exuberant.

His story contained joy and tragedy; points of recognition; coincidence; verve and laughter. It amazed me. It goes like this:

If you’ve read my posts recently, or saw my book review on Thoughtwrestling today, you’ll know I have a keen interest in the brain. This is where this story begins: the man I met had suffered a brain injury – that’s the tragic element. It’s also the first coincidence element: on a day when I have a post that talks about the brain and how it rewires itself, I meet a guy whose brain is rewiring itself.

This guy has been in a wheelchair for the last six years. He didn’t say what caused the injury but it appears to have had an effect similar to a stroke. He suffered paralysis. As he pointed out, one side of him (his right arm) was still affected but improving.

Since the injury, he hasn’t walked until last week. He’d been wheelchair bound. And only in the last few days had he ventured out of the house because, initially, walking involved a good deal of falling. (He had a medical cane with him today.)

Now he was not only out of the house, he was in the park up in the trails. That alone is amazing (a joyful element).

As we spoke, I learned he was from Wildwood, Alberta – a town a bit to the west of Edmonton. That was the second coincidence element. I had lived in Edmonton until about four years ago. I had lived there for almost twenty years. He had lived there too until moving to Fredericton about two decades back.

When I mentioned I was from Edmonton, his eyes widened. We started talking about the city. He had lived on 124th Street, rode his bike to Concordia College, knew Old Strathcona and just about everything else about the city. I mentioned I had worked in St. Albert for a while – his uncle lived there. We talked about how the city had grown, laughed when I joked it wouldn’t be long before Leduc was part of Edmonton, and generally had a great time identifying all these points of recognition.

He’s headed to Edmonton for a visit next week – leaves on Saturday. That’s when a friend of mine leaves for Edmonton for a visit. My guess is they’ll be on the same plane.

What is truly amazing in all this, however, is how his brain and body are healing themselves, doing what needs doing to reconstitute and adjust. I’m absolutely astonished that he had been in a wheelchair for six years until a week ago. Yes, he was walking slowly and it was clearly a struggle, but he was already in the middle of the damn park!

From his face, you could see he wasn’t walking; he was floating.

The other wonderful thing he told me (though not in these words) was how he was rediscovering the world – his world. Although from Alberta, he had been living in Fredericton for about twenty years now. He knew it well and had seen it as it grew. He remembered when Prospect Street was trees and farmland, something it clearly is not now (it’s basically major traffic artery with strip malls, one of the least attractive areas of an otherwise beautiful city).

On the walks he had made so far, he told me he had seen things he hadn’t noticed before. He had been walking on streets he use to drive and only now noticing trees he remembered seeing first planted years ago. He was seeing houses and buildings he had never noticed despite going by them every day for years. In his words, “I had never seen any of that before.”

At the beginning, I mentioned that this encounter left me feeling exuberant. It has and it’s because I think that was what he was feeling and communicating. It’s the kind of feeling that is contagious.

It was thrilling to see the look on his face, a kind of mix of joy and wonder. Like me, he was amazed he was walking. He was also amazed at the sense of seeing the world for the first time. He was amazed at having met someone who knew Edmonton like he did, even though we’re over 2,000 miles from it (just under 3500 kilometers).

And we were both amazed at how amazing the world is sometimes.

Trade-offs and other matters of concern

In New Brunswick, there are several battles going on: the one between the power deal with Quebec and the H1N1 vaccine for top news story. Then there’s the one within that power deal between the those for and those against. There are a lot of kneejerk responses to the power deal, some of which are discouraging for the cultural and societal biases that inform them.

The thing about the proposed deal to sell NB Power to Hydro-Quebec is that the more you look at it and the more you try to educate yourself to make a thoughtful decision on it, the more muddled it gets. Simplistically, it eliminates a lot of New Brunswick’s debt. It also freezes residential rates for five years. And that all sounds good, except that after five years all bets are off. Kinda. After five years, rates will only increase to keep pace with inflation … as long as needs don’t grow. If we grow the way we need to in order to prosper, or at least to maintain the status quo, we would likely need to add more generation, costs New Brunswick would pick up (not Hydro-Quebec, as I understand it).

A lot of concern has been raised about the aspect of selling off key assets. It concerns me too. Hydro-Quebec is agreeing to this deal for a reason: it wants those assets. They provide the company with greater access to the U.S. energy market that most people assume will have a great need for energy from this side of the border (for their north eastern states). In order to manage it’s debt, New Brunswick is trading off those assets.

On the surface it appears to me that New Brunswick is opting for short term gain at the expense of the long term.

But the more I think about it, I wonder if that isn’t the only thing to do? I’ve been in New Brunswick for almost three years now and my gut perception is that politically there is no long term vision for this province. There is even less public will to actually tackle tomorrow. If those NB Power assets are retained by New Brunswick, they will likely remain assets with potential, potential never realized. So why not sell them off to someone who will actually use them to reach that potential?

Sold or retained, what this province needs more than anything is a genuine vision for the future. What will it look like? How do we get there? The “cross your fingers and hope everything stays the same” approach won’t work.

From what I’ve seen, the majority of people are against the deal between NB Power and Hydro-Quebec. Fine. But what is the alternative? How do we manage our debt? What kind of future do we want? How do we achieve it collectively? What are we going to do with these assets?

One of my other worries about this deal is the idea of one public company being bought by another public company. If a public company is intended to serve its public, whose public gets served? Or at least, whose public gets served first? It strikes me as a situation where the old cliche applies: you can’t serve two masters.

Yet another problem I see has to do with where the revenue goes. I’m not interested in simply selling NB Power and eliminating a good deal of debt. I want an investment — a piece of Hydro-Quebec. I want to know that a portion of their revenue flows back to me, as it would if I were a shareholder. From what I’ve seen (and I may have this wrong) we don’t even get to tax them in New Brunswick. There is no long term benefit to selling NB Power to Hydro-Quebec unless there is assurance that a portion of revenue flows into New Brunswick. There is a reason Hydro-Quebec wants access to that U.S. market. It would be as if a deal was signed and all the revenue from the Alberta oil sands went to B.C. instead of the government of Alberta.

And that’s my bit of muddled thinking on this power deal. I’m still not sure if it’s good or bad but I do know that the more I learn about it, the more concerned I am with it. But perhaps the largest issue at hand is the ongoing one of New Brunswick being very good at knowing what it doesn’t want to do but not having a clue or any inclination regarding what it does want to do.

Alberta shows us what not to do

It’s all over the place now so it hardly needs repeating but I have to say something – maybe because I lived in Alberta for 20 years. Using an old school approach to marketing, one of smoke and mirrors, Alberta has turned itself into a joke – one that’s gone viral. Why? A tourism campaign that uses images not of Alberta, but of, “… Beadnell Bay near Bamburgh, Northumberland, where the North Sea rolls in from Lindisfarne.” From an article in The Guardian:

“We think it’s quite funny – a landlocked province in Canada presenting an image of itself as an island,” said Sheelagh Caygill of Northumberland Tourism, which is now fondly hoping to piggy-back on the international campaign. News of the gaffe is spreading like wildfire on the internet with tags such as: “Come to Alberta – no, wait, it’s Britain.”

For those unaware, that’s the UK, a considerable distance from Canada.

Should not one of the cardinal rules of a tourism ad be that the images be of the place being promoted?

Apparently not. Also from The Guardian:

Tom Olsen, head of media relations for Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper, said: “There’s no attempt to mislead here. The picture used just fitted the mood and tone of what we were trying to do.”

So now we’re trying to make something bad even worse by trying to tell people that it’s okay to be deceptive if it fits the mood. But of course, that’s Canada’s Prime Minister’s Office. It’s Alberta that is responsible. Their response?

His take (Tom Olsen’s) that the British children were “a symbol of the future” was echoed by Olga Guthrie of Alberta’s public affairs bureau, who is managing the campaign. She said: “This represents Albertans’ concern for the future of the world. There’s no attempt to make people think that the place pictured is Alberta.”

In other words, something clearly stupid will not be admitted to. If it actually is a, “… concern for the future of the world,” then the message must be, “… and the future ain’t in Alberta.”

I’m sorry, but the whole thing is embarrassingly stupid and it’s being made worse by not owning up to it. Every rule of marketing and PR in this technological world is being broken and apparently with no awareness or concern at all.

The story link above, a version of a story that  has been kicking around for a few days, is from The Guardian (the UK). I got the link from a guy in Manitoba via Twitter, where I’ve seen it repeatedly for the last few days from people across the country, from around the world. I first heard of it on Facebook – how many people on that?

Yes, it’s viral.

It’s another example of, a) not understanding or respecting people, b) not understanding current technology and how it affects communication and, c) relying on old school marketing and PR techniques that not only don’t work, they harm what they’re meant to promote.

In trying to make itself look better, Alberta has made itself look worse. And the irony? There aren’t many places in the world as beautiful as Alberta. Unfortunately, its politicians and marketers don’t seem to believe that.