Canadian’s don’t know each other very well

I’m a born-and-raised Albertan as proud as they come. But this past week I felt my provincial pride being tested.

That feeling came on after a couple of memorable conversations, one in Toronto, the other in Montreal.

The first one was with a woman who had recently visited Calgary for the first time. She said she loved the CTrain, Stephen Avenue and the energy of the city. But then she told me that everywhere she went, she met people that told her – to her face – how much they hated Toronto. My blush faded and turned to embarrassment.

The second conversation was with a Montreal woman, where the topic of student protests in that city came up. The woman was paying Calgary a compliment when she said these riots would never happen out west. When I asked why she thought that, she said, “The students who are protesting are mostly arts and humanities majors – and I don’t think students in Calgary are interested in those subjects.”

It made me realize that we’ve got some work to do in this country – in both the prairies and out east. We don’t seem to know each other very well. And like it or not, perceptions do matter – and the Canadian economy (and Canadians) would do better if we understood each other more.

For some, it may be tempting to ignore the misconceptions and misunderstandings between our regions. Who cares what Toronto or Halifax or Kamloops thinks of us? We are Alberta and we’re doing just fine thank you.

That attitude is going to end in disaster for Alberta. Here are three reasons why the health of Alberta’s economy depends on how we’re viewed by other parts of Canada (if we like it or not).

First, if Alberta wants to expand its trade beyond the U.S. and truly become a global player in energy, we need the heft of the Canadian government behind us. On the world stage, Canada has a small role – yet it is still a role. It is recognized and respected in global trade deals (the issue of supply management in dairy aside). Alberta can send trade missions to China and elsewhere, and that may be helpful. But ultimately, it is the Canadian government that will be cutting the deals. And Ottawa must represent every province and region.

We are fooling ourselves if we think we’re getting any special treatment on the world stage, even with the support the Conservative government has in Alberta. Eventually, the government will change – and we can’t afford to be the target of resentment or scorn by the rest of Canada’s voters.

Secondly, Alberta also trades a lot with other provinces and regions. Often we become so focused on international trade that we forget the reality that interprovincial trade – overall – is a much bigger deal. Alberta will trade much more with Ontario than it ever will with China. Why would we worry about how we’re perceived in Shanghai – but not Peterborough?

Finally, if Alberta is going to continue to attract fellow Canadians from other parts of the country, the onus is on us to present ourselves in the most favourable way possible. Telling a visitor from Toronto how much you detest their city is not a good start.

Alberta’s freshly elected government wants to build some bridges with the rest of the country, and thank goodness for that. There’s no denying it will be an uphill battle. A survey this week showed the attitudes in Ontario and Quebec around the oil sands are much more negative than positive.

So we have our work cut out for us. In a global economy, closing in on nine billion people, Canada has a tiny population of 35 million. Shave off 12% of that, and you’ve got Alberta. We are a bright, motivated, talented and incredibly blessed province, but we need the rest of Canada on our side. And we need to be on their side, too.

Troy Media business columnist Todd Hirsch is Senior Economist with ATB Financial. His column is distributed through Troy Media — www.troymedia.com.

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