I doubt there were many gasps of astonishment last week when news broke about an Environment Canada study that finds that water from oilsands tailing ponds is leaching into the Athabasca River.
Let me clarify. I mean that it comes as no surprise that toxins from bitumen extraction are getting into Alberta water systems. But it might have come as a shock that there still is an Environment Canada and that it still has people to do such research. After all, aren’t things like scientists necessary to this whole research thing?
Shortly after this story broke, another report in the Tyee caught my attention. In it is information that says Canada’s oil and timber resources have an estimated value of $33 trillion. On that basis alone, Canada is the fourth richest country on the planet, says the story writing by Mitchell Anderson. And that doesn’t count agriculture, fish and other resources, including Premier Christy Clark’s beloved liquid natural gas, the stuff that requires pumping fresh water and chemicals into the ground in order to extract it.
The oil and timber wealth could be cause for concern or celebration, depending on one’s view. Natural resources provide jobs, no doubt about it. But is obsession with their exploitation — and make no mistake, our provincial and federal governments are hanging their hats on their future with it — coming at the expense of us taking our place in the digital age? Are we the equivalent of a slave economy in the Industrial Revolution? Is our hell-bent-for-leather need to export those resources simply continuing to add to the environmental mess we are in, and what is our net benefit?
We all have heard the story, by now, of Norway, a country with a plan, an actual honest-to-goodness plan to ensure that future and present generations share the economic benefits of their oil exports. There is precious little evidence that we are doing the same thing here, though. The Harper government has run Canada deep into debt — quite purposefully, if you believe those who argue it is all part of a plan to ultimately shrink government and turn the country over to corporate powers — and Alberta still struggles to provide the services its people seem to want.
There is no arguing that there is a level of terror as governments look out at the digital age and wonder where all the jobs will come from. It was no different after the Industrial Revolution, which saw mechanization put a large proportion of the population out of jobs. It took generations for the shift to a new economy to take place.
Many economists have argued that Canada isn’t getting great value for our oil and gas resources, that what we gain in jobs we lose by not taking sufficient royalties that reflect the true value of the products. With another two generations to go before our aging demographics problem resolves itself, it would be nice if the pain of providing for the large bulge of old baby boomers would be eased if governments were willing to take a tougher stand on those royalties, and to face the fact that cuts to taxes, especially for corporations and the rich, have hurt rather than helped our overall development as a nation. Short-term gain for long-term pain.
With more forward thinking, less dogmatic leadership, Canada could be a world leader in this economic shift we are going through globally. We could be working full speed ahead to encourage the development of energy options. Heck, it could become the equivalent of a war bond effort, a rallying cry to unite a population that has no sense of direction and no great hope for the future. Instead, we seem content to be the modern slave economy, except we rely on cheap resources instead of free labour.
Focusing attention on the Senate and other largely meaningless issues might provide a smokescreen for the elimination of science jobs and closing of research libraries might be good politics but it’s a pretty clear sign that the direction we are heading isn’t intended to be good for most of us.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.