Cosmopolitan Alberta

More and more Albertans live and work abroad. What ideas and attitudes do they bring home?

By Harry Vandervlist

The other day my curator and writer friend Diana Sherlock got back from her new flat in Berlin. In her Calgary living room, we looked at photos of the view from her Berlin window, which overlooks a small, neat urban allotment garden. She’s already meeting Germans—exhibition curators and neighbours she runs into at her favourite café. As she was talking, I started to get a mental picture of her ongoing connection to a Berlin neighbourhood, like a taut thread between two pins on a map of the world. How many threads would I need, I wondered, if I wanted to make a truly complete map of all the ongoing connections like this, links between people here in Alberta to people and places around the world?

Very quickly I saw the answer: a lot of threads. I’m lucky to know a lot of artists, writers and academic researchers. This year it’s the Venice Biennale, for example, so I’ll need a dozen threads just for those artists I personally know who make regular trips to Venice to see what’s going on in the international art world. And a university, like the one where I work, is by its nature connected to the rest of the globe: archaeologists conduct digs in Latin America or Africa, language professors maintain ties with other places—the Italian profs go to Italy, the Spanish profs are off to Chile or Mexico or Spain—while astronomers go to southern-hemisphere observatories and students study abroad in Ireland and Russia and Ghana…

And yet it’s not likely that most of the threads on my map will represent artists or people who study for a living. The real connections, it dawns on me, are going to come from people who work in the oilpatch. I’ll need metres of thread, and a crate of pins, if I want my map to show all of the connections between Yemen and Edmonton, or between Kazakhstan and Calgary. Not to mention Norway. Or Venezuela. Or China.

Hmm. Art, learning, oil. Lots of threads already. My map is getting really… thready, and I haven’t even considered immigration yet. I need to add a thread for each Albertan with strong ties to a mother country. If I do that, my nice little web of threads reaching out from Medicine Hat to Mongolia and from Lethbridge to Osaka will very quickly turn into something so dense, it won’t even look like a “web” anymore. More like a rug. A really thick rug. And so many more threads remain to be added: what about globe-trotting athletes, what about farmers selling grain and animal DNA all over the world, what about the bankers and software designers and architects and…

You can probably fill in a lot of the gaps yourself in a few seconds by consulting your own experience. Pin your own pins, thread your own threads. 

But here are the questions that come up once all these global connections become visible: what differences do they make? Do the connections run both ways? As more and more Albertans live and work and communicate with people around the globe, what do we bring back? Do we look differently at our homes, do we live differently here, do we create things we would not otherwise have created? Is each thread on our imaginary maps a sign of some kind of change coming to Alberta?

Of course, you could ask these same questions about almost any place. For some reason, though, in another place—Vancouver, say, or Toronto—these are not so much questions to be considered as starting points to be assumed. Standing in Montreal’s Jean Talon market, the sense of a two-way relationship with the rest of the world isn’t something you wonder about. It’s the obvious place you start from.

So why wonder about it in relation to Alberta? Well, one might tell oneself, Alberta’s not exactly Montreal or Vancouver. Alberta’s cities are just so different from those places, which are both long-established urban centres, magnets for immigration since early in the past century. Alberta, we like to think, is a younger place, a less densely urban place… actually it’s a rural place, mostly. Are you conjuring pictures of prairie, foothills, not too many people? There you go. That’s the reason to ask these questions about Alberta. 

This year it’s the Venice Biennaledozens of Alberta artists will make regular trips to Italy.

Except that those images that float from nowhere into one’s mind (actually, I think they come from tourism brochures and the government’s recent “rebranding” campaign) are terribly misleading: 82 per cent of Albertans do, in fact, live in cities. And if the province hadn’t been a magnet for immigration for nearly as long as Vancouver and Montreal, the buffalo would still be roaming freely and the Suffield Wildlife Area would not be among the few pieces of prairie grassland left unplowed. 

Anytime we think of Alberta as somehow fundamentally different from those other “more connected” parts of the country, we fall into a trap—the trap of a certain image, an ideology in fact, which describes a place that doesn’t exist. That imaginary place was until recently summed up in Ralph Klein’s shorthand phrase “Martha and Henry,” which I take to designate a place that “conserves” a (largely manufactured) image of a simpler past that’s anything but “cosmopolitan.” The kind of place that would describe someone disparagingly as “a known world traveller.” If I’ve learned anything about this province by living here since 1991, it’s that it isn’t that place.

And yet, just because Alberta’s global connections aren’t all that visible doesn’t mean they aren’t changing the province every day. How they’re changing the province, though, is something difficult to put into words—even for the people creating that change. Perhaps this is because it’s not taking place in the landscapes most Albertans see every day, in the urban streetscapes of the province. It’s happening in people’s minds. If popular images of the Alberta landscape could be replaced with up-to-date images of Alberta’s mindscape… would the place even be recognizable?

Some of this mind-changing is being done by educators as they soak up not just ideas but cultural practices from other places. World traveller (and Venice Biennale visitor), artist and Alberta College of Art + Design instructor Gordon Ferguson figures that “a good deal of information and different patterns of behaviour gathered up through travelling to distant places probably finds its way into my classroom in one way or another.” What he brings back to Alberta is a sense of the possibility and the value of something he’d like to see more of: “cultural self-examination through the arts.”

Self-examination leads to an appreciation of what can be found at home. A truly worldly culture has the perspective and the confidence to value its own artifacts and traditions, but in the past, that’s been missing in Alberta. Ferguson makes art that examines “the objects and materials that are produced and consumed by western Canadians” as an alternative to working with images and materials that embody an imported sense of value. He’s fascinated by our interest in “facsimiles of cultural richness from other parts of the globe [and by] how little we appear to value our own circumstances. I suppose this is due to attaching one’s identity to historically proven things, like Greek columns and Roman statuary—even if they are made of plastic.”

Venice, Italy.

Venice, Italy.

This tells me that superficial signs of “international” Alberta are precisely not what’s going to demonstrate the effects of all these two-way exchanges between Albertans and the rest of the world. A more internationalized, self-aware and culturally mature Alberta will perhaps look more and more like itself—as that self continues to be rediscovered and reimagined—and less like a cheap facsimile of other places. We might see less of what Ferguson describes as “elements of English Tudor mansions and French country houses all made of plastic and cheap aluminum” and more of what makes sense here. As Ferguson puts it: “My assessment—and I was born and raised by conservative people right here in Alberta—is that we could learn a lot from the rest of the world if we allowed ourselves to become part of the inquiring world. If you don’t want to understand others, you are resigned to not understanding yourself.” 

Self-understanding and a deepening appreciation of home, along with a more alert sense of connection to very different places and cultures: could this be what’s really coming back to Alberta along all those threads on our imaginary maps? Is the province now, more than ever, “part of the inquiring world?” As I turned from art to the oil world, the picture was encouraging.

Michael Nagus is an engineer who’s worked as a rig supervisor in Yemen, doing six-month stints there for over four and a half years. His work (formerly with Nexen) involves exporting the oilfield expertise that Albertans have been developing for decades—but he finds that the return journey imports a whole range of new attitudes and knowledge.

“The guys I work with work everywhere in the world,” he says. “You talk to a driller over in Yemen and chances are he’s been in 15 to 20 countries, and chances are he’s taken a little bit from every single one of those experiences.” What they bring back, he says, is “tolerance and understanding of other peoples’ views,” something just as essential as oilfield expertise when you’re working with crews drawn from Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and India.

“The predominant culture on the rig was Yemeni,” he says. “So you live with that. You plan the day around prayers. You’re living in the desert, you’re eating their food.” This close connection doesn’t just end when the job is done, says Nagus. He feels a continuing link to Yemen. “I have people I consider very close friends who live throughout Yemen, so when things happen there, I obviously care about it. You bring back an understanding, an interest in what’s going on there politically.”

“You cant be a redneck if you hope to lastnot if you’re working in a Middle Eastern culture.”

He tells the story of sharing a flight home from the rig with several other engineers. Most were returning to Western countries. They considered the landscape they’d just left behind a simple desert: rocks and sand, however beautiful these could sometimes appear. However, one of the engineers on the flight was himself Yemeni. “We were all saying, ‘Hey, it’s good to be going home,” recalls Nagus. “And here was this one Yemeni engineer saying, ‘Wait a minute, you guys. This is my home.’” Nagus returned to Alberta with a revised image of what the desert and wadis of Yemen mean to someone raised there.

Those threads that tie Nagus to Yemen are multiplied many times over, as oil workers’ experiences filter into their lives back home. “They all bring it back,” says Nagus. “To Calgary, to ranches in southern Alberta, to Red Deer. We’re much more worldly than people give us credit for, I’d say much more worldly than anybody out east. You can’t be a redneck if you hope to last, working in a Middle Eastern culture. Understanding of other peoples’ views is just something you have to have—or you’re not going back.”

Once again, it’s the Alberta mindscape that’s being changed. Imagine looking out the window as your flight arrives in Edmonton, for example, and being able to see not the physical landscape, but rather the attitudes and experiences and affiliations that Nagus is describing. Imagine that through some kind of sci-fi special effect, the cowboy-hatted pickup driver you see at a stoplight becomes a window that opens directly to Yemen. That cyclist at the curb becomes a window to an art project in Istanbul. The woman browsing next to you in the bookstore becomes a window to an architecture class in Barcelona. 

If Calgary electrical engineering professor Dave Irvine-Halliday were to walk by at that moment, you would see through your imaginary sci-fi window into a home in Kathmandu or a medical aid post in Papua New Guinea. Both places would be illuminated by cheap, reliable LED lighting systems developed by Light Up the World, the charitable foundation Irvine-Halliday established in 2002. The idea for Light Up the World dates from Irvine-Halliday’s 1997 sabbatical in Kathmandu, where he saw just what an enormous difference it would make if the kerosene lamps used in so many villages were replaced by a light source that didn’t pollute homes with smoke, and whose fuel costs didn’t eat into the $200 average annual income. Returning to Alberta, Irvine-Halliday worked with technician John Shelley to develop an LED bright enough to work as a useful indoor light source. Technology in hand, Irvine-Halliday returned with his wife Jenny and his son Gregor to install lights in three Kathmandu villages. After that there was no turning back. “Right away, we knew what we would be doing to the end of our days,” says Irvine-Halliday.

For me, it was necessary to go away in order to discover how little we value our own circumstances.

It’s hard to pick out any visible signs of Irvine-Halliday’s global connections. His family life in Calgary hasn’t obviously changed. He and Jenny live in the same house where they raised their children, although Irvine-Halliday now finds it “embarrassingly” large. What Irvine-Halliday has brought back is an attitude, a way of seeing Alberta. He’s lost interest in anything to do with “getting and spending,” a tendency he still sees around him at home. What he now perceives when he looks around Alberta is a powerful source of contributions to the rest of the world. What frustrates the Scottish-born engineer is the knowledge that these could be so much larger and more effective. 

Irvine-Halliday has a vision of people in places such as Kabala, Sierra Leone, or Karez Kalan in Afghanistan using solar-powered LED lighting from Light Up the World to read in the evening or deliver babies at midnight without smoking up their homes with kerosene lamps. The portion of their annual income that previously paid for fuel would now support education and social development. Alberta would take its place as a leader in low-cost, low-emissions technology. And low-energy lighting would just be one such contribution—he believes Alberta and Canada “should be spending billions to become leaders in alternative technology.” 

What Irvine-Halliday contributes to the mindscape of Alberta is an urgent sense of the province’s potential contributions to the world, and a diplomatically expressed but forceful sense of frustration that the opportunity is being lost. As a Canadian who has written personal appeals to three prime ministers, he’s disappointed that his search for funding is now leading him to US sources.

Despite Irvine-Halliday’s vivid sense that Alberta could do so much more, it is heartening to know that communities around the globe are already benefiting from not just Light Up the World, but the many other contributions from the province’s voluntary sector. Once you start looking, Alberta’s presence around the world is striking: in my own experience, I’ve walked into a basilica in Toulouse, France, to see a Janet Cardiff installation, and stood on a Pyrenean slope listening to Rudy Wiebe read about his first sight of the front range of the Rockies. But it’s much more difficult to visualize the impact within the province itself of the hundreds of thousands of international experiences that shape Albertans every year. That doesn’t make the impact any less real.

The attempt to define and articulate the impact can really only form the subject of an ongoing conversation. For Diana Sherlock, living and working abroad is a fairly new experience, but one that is already affecting her outlook. “One of the biggest things for me about having a place somewhere else,” she says, “is that it has encouraged me to look for different ways of doing things in my home context.” On the other hand: “I think we do a lot of things well at home, so I am interested in looking for ways to combine the best of both worlds.” 

I have to agree with her: after spending a couple of months a year in rural France for the past six years, I feel like I’m only starting to be able to say what it has meant to my own way of thinking. But like Sherlock, and Irvine-Halliday, I think I’m now both more critical and more appreciative of my Canadian home. My sense of the sheer range of possibility open to so many Albertans becomes more intense each time I return to Alberta. In comparison, the lives of friends in France seem so much more directed and limited, so much more bounded by place and parentage and early decisions about education.

Last summer, for example, I met a farmer a few kilometres from my French residence whose 15-year-old son was leaving home to apprentice as a pastry chef. His future already seemed charted in almost irrevocable ways, since the French adults I meet don’t embrace the idea of self reinvention the way North Americans do. People still live so locally and regionally here. They shake their heads when they hear I moved 3,500 km from my family for a job. The French world seems to me so much more stable, structured and hierarchical. The fluidity and mobility of North American life, and especially of urban life in Alberta, strikes me more vividly now than it did before.

At the same time, there’s a richness of small details that I miss like crazy every time I leave France. Many of these are fairly obvious things: the food, of course, and the scale of life in a dense network of little villages and small cities, which makes me feel isolated and surrounded by empty space when I come home. But there is also the sheer politeness and conviviality of French people which, at least in the countryside where I visit, is amazing. The first time an acquaintance stopped and crossed the street to shake hands and say a proper hello, instead of absently waving from across the street, I nearly fell over from surprise. Back in Alberta, people I’ve known for years respond to my “How’s it going?” by charging past, head down, and muttering “Busy!” In France, parents chastise their children for failing to say “Bonjour” to passing strangers in the village: “Mais qu’est-ce que c’est que ça? On ne peut pas dire bonjour aux gens?” Shopkeepers say hello and goodbye, and when you thank them they say “It’s my pleasure” as if they truly mean it. (They also expect to be addressed as people, not simply as robots that exist to facilitate business.) By contrast, the experience of entering an Alberta coffee shop and being studiously ignored by a preoccupied teenager seems needlessly bleak. 

What does this all amount to—that I’ve started to internalize a few small ways of doing things differently? That in Alberta we could do a lot of little things better, even though we do some big things pretty well? I suppose it adds up, in part, to that. I also notice my growing realization that I’m glad to have been born in Canada, and that I will never entirely fit in elsewhere, despite sometimes feeling “at home.” For me it’s been necessary to go away in order to discover some of the things Gord Ferguson talks about, such as “how little we value our own circumstances.” 

If all the other Albertans with connections abroad feel a little bit of this, then the combined effect may have all kinds of important and unpredictable effects. For example, my experience of the French embrace of all things “bio,” or sustainable, makes me impatient with Alberta’s official timidity in the same area. At the same time, since I appreciate Alberta’s uniqueness more than ever, I want to see it protected more carefully. How will others’ changing relationships to home affect they way they live there? 

The only thing that’s certain: Alberta’s mindscape is changing. Changing desires, a changing sense of priorities, a changed sense of possibilities and potential—along with a sense of the value and distinctiveness of Alberta itself—all come through clearly in conversations with Albertans whose worlds extend far beyond the province’s borders.  

Harry Vandervlist has taught English literature at the University of Calgary since 1991.

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