Chris Pecora

Reject, Accept, Embrace

Speed it up!

By Fred Stenson

All “new” things (most of which are not actually new) seem to go through a cycle from rejection to gradual acceptance and finally embrace. One might assume I’m about to wax philosophical about immigration, and one might further think, “I’ve heard all that. I think I’ll pass.” But wait! I’m going to start with a business example.

Back in 2004 I was researching a video project on the oil sands. I interviewed Ned Gilbert, an elderly Calgarian who had been sent from the US to Alberta in the 1950s by J. Howard Pew, owner of Sun Oil. The Pew family had created Sun Oil
(whose corporate descendants include Sunoco), and J. Howard was an outside-the-box kind of thinker on the subject of petroleum. For instance, he beat practically everyone to the idea of peak oil. In the 1950s, when the world was overflowing with nice liquid crude, Mr. Pew’s calculations told him that conventional oil would soon be depleting. He predicted it would run out in the early 1970s. If you recall, the 1970s featured market shortages of oil, near-panic and huge lineups at gas stations. People started thinking J. Howard Pew was a genius at prediction.

But back in the ’50s, J. Howard had decided he wanted to know everything he could about the giant gooey mess that was the Alberta oil sands. While everyone else was still laughing at bitumen and avoiding it, Pew wanted in. So Ned Gilbert, a tall, gangly young man, found his way to Calgary and Edmonton and investigated the purchase and leasing of prime oil sands. What this would lead to was the Great Canadian Oil Sands project on the upper Athabasca River: the first commercial-scale oil sands strip mine, hot-water separation and bitumen upgrading complex. It started up in 1967.

Something I learned from Mr. Gilbert was totally unexpected: in his era the conventional oilmen hated the oil sands guys. They regarded them as fools with an outside possibility of becoming competitors. The traditionalists pushed Alberta’s government to put a strict cap on how much of Alberta’s oil could come from oil sands. This went beyond business. Conventional oil people would not willingly share a room with oil sands types. Anyone associated with the oil sands could not take out a membership in Calgary’s Petroleum Club, for instance.

What makes this information feel odd is how it doesn’t square with current or even recent reality. Since the 1990’s upsurge of interest in oil sands investment, most of the world’s major energy companies have staked places in the oil sands. Many executives in the oil sands come from conventional oil backgrounds.

So there it is, my natural progression theory, in action. And now for immigration.

In the early 20th century, when Canada was in a huge hurry to populate the prairie provinces with homesteaders, it suddenly became a whole lot less fussy about who the immigrants were. Germany, with whom we would soon be at war, was a favoured happy hunting ground for farmer immigrants, as was most of western Europe. Ukrainians were less admired, but they were farmers. Clifford Sifton, Canada’s man in charge, decided to send out agents to lure them. Ukrainian farmer-immigrants  were often called Galicians, because Galicia and Bukovyna were provinces of Austro-Hungary inhabited by Ukrainians.

The response from Anglo-Saxons already living in Alberta was negative. They saw the men in sheepskin coats and women in babushkas and reacted with aversion. They said publicly they feared an inevitable deterioration of the human capital of the West. Those who currently say stuff like this about immigrants to Alberta perhaps wear yellow vests or Nazi tattoos. These long-ago spokespeople were social leaders, activists, people we admire still today—like newspaperman Bob Edwards and reformer Nellie McClung. McClung was a member of the Famous Five, who established personhood for women in Canada. Emily Murphy, another Famous Fiver, was famously suspicious of the Chinese.

My point is not to run down these renouned figures of our past but rather to show how even they, wonderful as they were, had the same tendency to reject the new and different in society, before taking the step to accept and embrace.

So what is my point? In a world where technology makes things instant that used to take time and require a bunch of pokey steps, isn’t the modern thing to do with immigration to skip the old process and go directly to the embrace?

As for oil, if there are oil people out there (conventional and oil sands, usually found in the same corporate bed) who are still expressing hostility toward alternative energy producers (wind, solar, geothermal or other), get a wiggle on. Go for the embrace. You’ll all be simply Energy Companies in a decade or less. Why dawdle? #

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday).Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.


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