The year I settled in Calgary, it snowed in July. I thought I’d fallen into a cold version of hell. Added to my misery: it was the early 90s and the oil and gas industry was in another big slump. Every week there was more bad news out of the oil patch. Downtown was aflutter with layoffs. For a new grad looking for work, it was a wholly unenthusiastic start.
Despite the not-so-positive first impression of my adopted home, I’m still here more than 20 years later. And now, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. As I look back on what helped me weather that early storm, and think about what makes me optimistic about the future, even with a once-again shaky economy, it comes down to three things.
First, I love Alberta’s plucky entrepreneurial spirit. Remember all those layoffs that happened during the 90s? Many of those newly emancipated employees tore up their pink slips and started their own businesses. Rather than stay down on the mat, they got up, rallied their inner warriors, and kept swinging. Their gutsiness kind of surprised me. I was used to fear and whingeing in the face of a slump. But their confidence was inspiring. And with time it became contagious. Their can-do response made me realize the world didn’t have to crash in after all.
If anything, that attitude has only grown over the last two decades. In fact, entrepreneurship has flourished in Alberta, where small businesses make up ninety-five percent of all business. As always, entrepreneurship promises to be the way forward. And the new possibilities for solving old problems are endless. As they have for decades, Albertans will once again find ways to create opportunity out of adversity.
I have a second reason for optimism. That’s because the quality of our people, and our strong sense of community is like nowhere else. I love the people in this province. We’re serious about what we do, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re fiercely competitive in business, but when the chips are down, we pull together. I recall that during the 2013 floods, the reason so few businesses failed was precisely because the entire community pulled together to help each other out. Businesses that weren’t flooded shut down to help those that were. While other communities that experience natural disasters see up to fifty percent of their businesses go under, less than one percent of our businesses closed. That is a perfect picture of what makes our province so. Darn. Special.
Our community pride doesn’t just come out during natural disasters. And it doesn’t shine brightest on the first two weeks of July. It’s shown every day by the creative social entrepreneurs who connect philanthropists, nonprofits, and businesses to tackle social problems and create the kind of social infrastructure—arts, culture, recreation—that make Alberta communities strong. It’s our emotional connection to one another—strengthened by this solid social infrastructure—that will help to keep communities connected and stable even as the economic engine slows.
My third reason for optimism is slightly more elusive. It comes down to this: that as a province, we have only begun to realize our potential. We are still young, with a relatively small population. Yet our people are among the most well-skilled, and best-educated people anywhere. We are only now coming into a leadership role as political, economic, and intellectual leaders—both in Canada and in the world.
Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with some of the most bold and visionary leaders anywhere. It might surprise you to learn the one thing that most of them have in common. Despite their obvious talents, they tended to underestimate themselves and their organizations. We have no shortage of creativity and potential in this province. If we lack anything, it may be boldness. It’s boldness that has driven growth in our province. Of late, we’ve lost it some. We need to get it back. And that boldness isn’t likely to come from the seat of government. It’s got to come from committed citizens, creative community leaders, and brave business people willing to take aim and lead the way.
Face it, Alberta, we’ve got more than oil going for us. We have an incredible history of resilience and entrepreneurship. We have created sticky communities filled with people who are connected to each other and committed to our odd blend of independence mixed with inter-dependence. The only thing missing is the realization that we’re capable of so much more than we think. Alberta has nowhere to go but up. And there’s still no place I’d rather be. Even if it does snow in July.