Posts Tagged 'exxoneration'

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer.

In the 6th century BC, as the Persian Empire expanded under Cyrus the Great, the citizens of the various Greek settlements of Ionia, along the coast of Asia Minor, gathered to debate how the invaders could be resisted.

A famously canny fellow called Bias of Priene stepped forward with (as Herodotus puts it)

a most admirable suggestion which, had they taken it, might have made them the most prosperous people in the Greek world. The proposal was that all the Ionians should unite and sail for Sardinia and settle together in a single community; there, living in the biggest island in the world, they would escape subjection, rule over their neighbours and be rich and happy.

But the Ionians didn’t bite. Sentimentally attached to their homelands, they stayed where they were, and were conquered one by one by the Persians.

This wasn’t such a terrible fate. The Persians were fairly laid-back overlords. Many of those Ionian towns are still there, 25 centuries later, still populated by the descendants of those stubborn Greeks.

Most towns in the Canadian prairies date back no further than 150 years. How many of them will still be there in the year 4500?

***

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is an internet joke that – until now – never made it as far as the internet.

I came up with the idea years ago, when I lived in Saskatoon. My intention was to produce a mock political ad in time for the 2007 provincial election in which the leader of the party – me – would lay out a plan for the province’s million or so residents to relocate to a newly-built city in British Columbia’s sunny Okanagan region.

The trouble was that my supposedly whimsical evacuation plan struck me as a pretty good idea. Whenever I tried to write a script for my mock ad, I wound up getting bogged down in practical details, and it turned out more pedantic than funny.

As I saw it, the relocation would be funded by continued exploitation of the province’s mineral resources, leaving the bulk of the landmass to return to nature. By the time the petroleum, potash, uranium, and other reserves were exhausted – as they someday will be – our descendents, instead of lapsing gradually into poverty on the bleak and windy prairie, would be happily established in a big and growing city in one of Canada’s most attractive regions.

In the meantime, over the course of the multi-decade plan, outlying towns and villages, most of them withering already, would be deliberately wound down – their residents given priority relocation to the Okanagan, or else moved to more central locations, into homes vacated by those who had already headed west to help erect the new metropolis.

In the end, only a few small cities would remain at key points on the main east-west transport corridors – perhaps Regina, Moose Jaw, and Swift Current on the Trans-Canada highway; Yorkton, Saskatoon, and North Battleford on the Yellowhead. A few other towns could be maintained along roads leading to summer tourist spots like the Qu’Appelle Valley, Cypress Hills, and Prince Albert National Park. Elsewhere the buffalo would roam.

saskatchewan evacuation plan

Saskatchewan, after the Evacuation Plan.

I saw my vision as an extension of the American geographer Frank Popper’s Buffalo Commons proposal to restore most of the Great Plains to their natural state. The idea, which dates back to the 1980s, seems to have enjoyed a brief surge of media interest in the early 2000s, which petered out as the fracking boom brought new population growth to the northern Great Plains.

While I daydreamed about turning out the lights on my home province, I failed to notice that we were in the process of shifting from perpetual “have-not” to “have” status.

For my entire life – for pretty much its entire history – Saskatchewan had been a farm-based backwater whose finances heaved and yawed with the whims of the sun and rain, dependent on equalization payments from Ottawa to stay barely solvent. Overnight we became a swaggering energy superpower, airily tithing a fraction of our boundless fossil fuel wealth for redistribution to the less lucky provinces.

It was no longer the weather upon whose whims Saskatchewan’s fortunes would balance, but the international energy market. My newly prosperous province gloried in the boom times for perhaps a decade before the price of oil collapsed in 2014.

(The disaster had little effect on me. I had already instituted a small-scale Saskatchewan evacuation plan, by relocating in 2012 to Vancouver.)

From its nadir in 2016, the price of oil gradually recovered – before collapsing again this year, floored by the one-two punch of a Saudi-Russian price war and reduced gasoline use due to coronavirus. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the fossil fuel trade, but I’m told that Saskatchewan and its neighbour Alberta failed to reap the full benefit of the four-year recovery because of a lack of pipeline capacity. The federal government, wary of agitating environmentalists and First Nations, dithered over the approval of new pipelines, and continues to offer far less than full-throated support for the construction of those already approved.

The maligned fossil fuel industry was championed in the recent federal election by the Conservative Party, led by a bland, good-natured Saskatchewanian named Andrew Scheer, who, despite whittling Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals to a minority, was nevertheless deemed to have blown an easy win, and has since been nudged out of the leadership.

I didn’t vote for Scheer’s party. I didn’t vote at all. As far as I could tell, none of the leaders shared my peculiar viewpoint: that in the short term the federal government should help Saskatchewan and Alberta by making it easier to build pipelines, and that in the longer term Saskatchewan and Alberta should cease to exist.

***

I will come back to Andrew Scheer eventually. First let me take a detour through the 2015 election – the one that saw the previous Conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, defeated by Justin Trudeau.

In that election, strange as it may seem to foreigners, one of Trudeau’s winning campaign themes was his promise to airlift 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada within the year. This was 15,000 more than the frosty-hearted Harper had promised to bring in. Trudeau didn’t quite meet his deadline, but he didn’t turn off the tap afterward – as of 2019, more than 50,000 Syrians had resettled here.

I can’t find any data on where those Syrians ended up living. Assuming they’re distributed in roughly the same pattern as other immigrants, about 60% of them went to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver; another 30% were divided among Canada’s other thirty or so Census Metropolitan Areas, ranging in size from over a million down to 100,000; and the remainder of less than 10% went to smaller cities and towns.

I’d wager that no Syrians were resettled in Natuashish, or Attawapiskat, or Pikangikum – three northern communities known (to the degree that they’re noticed by the outside world at all) as sites of epic dysfunction.

There are dozens of tiny, isolated native villages dotted across Canada’s north, most in somewhat better shape than the ones mentioned above, others equally if less infamously afflicted with squalor, substance abuse, and suicide. Six months of winter. Six months of blackflies. Run-down, overcrowded houses. Unsafe drinking water. No paved roads. No jobs. Nothing for the kids to do but huff paint behind the general store.

I’m not sure it’s fair or accurate to say that growing up in such a village is worse than being stuck in a refugee camp. But I doubt that a family of dispossessed Syrians, evacuated from a camp in Turkey or Lebanon to a fly-in village in the Canadian Shield, would feel their situation had materially improved.

With respect to the Syrians, we had very little to do with their misfortunes. Whereas – while I’m skeptical of the narrative that places all the blame for First Nations dysfunction on the sins of colonialism – the least Canada can do for the populations it dispossessed is provide them the same opportunities the rest of us enjoy.

So why don’t we airlift the populations of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, and Pikangikum to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver?

We took in 50,000 Syrians in a few years – many of them traumatized, lacking skills useful to a modern economy, and unable to speak either of Canada’s official languages. 50,000 is probably a decent guess at the number of aboriginal Canadians living in settlements unconnected to the highway or rail networks. I’d venture that the savings from consolidating them in a few big cities, rather than having to provide infrastructure and social services at dozens of remote locations, would in a few years more than cover the relocation costs. Throw in a guaranteed annual trip home to their traditional territories to indulge in some culturally enriching wilderness activities, and the government would still come out ahead.

There’s a chance my guesstimate is totally wrong, of course. As with my fanciful Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan, I haven’t actually run the numbers, nor would there be any point attempting to. However fiscally prudent depopulating the Canadian Shield might be, if the government were to actually propose it, the people affected would riot. They’d see it as a continuation of Canada’s various clumsy attempts over the years to relocate native people for their own good.

So the people of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, and dozens of other places just like them, will continue to complain about failing infrastructure, high prices, and lack of access to services that big-city folks take for granted. And every few years, when the complaints get especially noisy, Ottawa will lay out just enough money to address the worst of the deficiencies. And things will grind on much as before.

***

If the Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan has a mirror image, it’s the Mid-Canada Development Corridor.

richard rohmer mid-canada development corridor

Richard Rohmer and a map of “Mid-Canada”. Source: Maclean’s.

Conceived in the late 1960s by Toronto lawyer Richard Rohmer, a politically-connected former fighter pilot who has been called “the most interesting Canadian alive”, the idea was to cultivate a chain of boreal cities in an arc from Labrador to the Northwest Territories, to “add a second tier to the country”:

What’s the alternative? Canada will have 100 million extra people a century from now. Where are they going to live? Do we just make every southern city as big and impersonal as Toronto? Or do we try to build a different kind of civilization farther north?

That quote is from 1969, when Canada had 21 million people. Even maintaining our present historically high immigration numbers, we’re going to fall at least 50 million shy of Rohmer’s forecast.

But Paul Ehrlich had just dropped The Population Bomb into the Johnny Carson-watching, Time­ Magazine-reading Middle American consciousness. In those days, everyone accepted that a future of overcrowding and scarcity was inevitable. If Canada couldn’t be bothered to populate, protect, and harvest the wealth of its underutilized north, some hungry neighbour would march in and take it away from us.

In the 1970s, as the Mid-Canada hype petered out, Rohmer began a profitable side career as a writer of bestselling bad novels, many of them concerning the American government scheming to take our stuff. 1974’s Exxoneration was (as he put it)

an attempt to point out and emphasize the growing need for vigilance and concern over Canada’s relationship with its good friends, the Americans, whose demands for our natural resources, especially natural gas, are increasing dramatically.

I came across my dad’s old copy of Exxoneration in the 1980s as a pre-teen already sophisticated enough to recognize that it was terrible. Still, for anyone with a boyish interest in maps, diagrams, and far-fetched what-if scenarios, Rohmer’s premises are hard to resist. What if the United States invaded Canada? What if Quebec separated and then the United States invaded Canada? What if Canada went bankrupt and had to sell British Columbia to the United States?

Plainly, Rohmer had a bit of a sci-fi streak. (It seems vaguely relevant to mention here that Flin Flon, Manitoba, the small mining town he identified as a gestational Mid-Canadian metropolis, is named for a character in a sci-fi novel.) His northern vision naturally attracted fellow visionaries, who would arrive bearing sketches of domed cities and atomic-powered dirigibles, which critics were happy to depict as representative of the whole. But this was caricature. I just spent an hour poking around in Essays on Mid-Canada (“Presented at the first session of the Mid-Canada Development Conference, August, 1969”), trying to find some harebrained predictions to make fun of. Nada. It’s all pretty tame.

In the 2000s I looked ahead and saw the gradual abandonment of the prairies. In the 1960s Rohmer looked ahead and saw roads and pipelines creeping into the Canadian Shield to carry its mineral and energy wealth southward. It might appear that our forecasts were in conflict. But not necessarily: the future might entail both a general abandonment of Canada’s less hospitable regions and a concentration of the remaining population in a few profitable corridors.

Therefore I’m fully on board with the Canadian Northern Corridor described by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. It’s Rohmer minus domed cities, plus buzzwords:

The guiding principle behind the corridor concept is the establishment of a shared transportation right-of-way, in which multiple modes of transportation can co-locate in order to realize economies of agglomeration (i.e. the benefits obtained from locating near each other, share costs such as those associated with surveying and negotiating land use agreements), mitigate environmental risks within a contained footprint and reduce the emissions intensity of transportation in Canada’s north and near-north.

The right-of-way could accommodate roads, rail, energy pipelines, electrical transmission and fibre-optic lines. It would hook in dozens of remote population centres – lowering freight costs and hence the cost of living – and create thousands of new jobs constructing the route, monitoring and maintaining its component parts, and providing services for the workers, truckers, and tourists who would travel on it.

canadian northern corridor population distribution

Population distribution, with potential Northern Corridor. Modified from “Planning for Infrastructure to Realize Canada’s Potential: The Corridor Concept”.

The Conservative Party found this idea compelling enough that they floated a version of it during the last election campaign. Andrew Scheer emphasized the benefit of getting all those wearisome reviews and consultations out of the way in one go:

With a single corridor, industry wouldn’t need to submit complicated route proposals for every new project. With a single corridor we could minimize environmental impacts, lower the cost of environmental assessments, without sacrificing quality, increase certainty for investors, get critical projects built, and create good-paying jobs.

In the months since Scheer’s defeat, we’ve seen energy projects hobbled by uncertainty at both ends of the mooted corridor. On the west coast, protesters stalled the construction of a liquid natural gas pipeline to Kitimat, BC. On the east coast, Warren Buffett’s company backed out of a planned $4 billion investment in an LNG facility in Saguenay, Quebec, reportedly due to “the recent challenge in the Canadian political context”.

Clearly there’s room for a politician with more charisma than Andrew Scheer to make a renewed case for the Mid-Canada Corridor. It needn’t be a Tory:

  • In 2003, northern Saskatchewan Liberal MP Rick Laliberte, inspired by Rohmer’s ideas, wangled $134,280 from Ottawa for a Mid-Canada Research Institute to develop “national policies and programs for the resource-rich Mid-Canada region”. (The institute no longer seems to exist. I hope the consultant who nabbed that $134,280 spent some of it up north – re-roofing his cottage, maybe.)
  • In 2016, the same year the School of Public Policy made its pitch for a Northern Corridor, the Northern Policy Institute published a parallel case – lighter on the pipelines and heavier on the aboriginal consultation – for a Mid-Canada Boreal Corridor. The author was left-leaning urban planner John van Nostrand.
  • In 2016-17 the Senate’s all-party Banking, Trade, and Commerce Committee held hearings on the Northern Corridor, agreed that it was a nifty idea – “[t]he federal government must seize this opportunity” – and recommended the establishment of a task force to study it further.

However many institutes and task forces get launched, I’m not holding my breath for a Mid-Canada Corridor. Forget about vast nation-building projects – between lawsuits and protests and blockades, at the moment Canadians seem incapable of building anything at all.

Perhaps an un-building project would be more in tune with the zeitgeist. On that note: if any aspiring politician is interested, the Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is looking for a leader.

M.

Last week’s essay about First Nations sovereignty and pipeline protests started out as a long-winded digression in the middle of this one. A couple weeks before that I wondered whether those attempting to preserve Canada’s aboriginal languages might be better off cutting their losses. Digging deeper into the archives, my one previous mention of Herodotus, in a reluctant defense of the movie 300, predates the creation of this blog.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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