Yo Canada

This weekend I went back to Canada.

Well, not exactly…but almost.  My university, Queen’s University at Kingston, based in Ontario, Canada owns a castle  in the UK (I know!) and in anticipation of Canada Day, they hosted a very special Castle Canada Day on Saturday.

Street Hockey…castle style!

Street Hockey…castle style!

If you don’t know, Canada Day (July 1st) is a bit like the Fourth of July for Americans, but since Canada was created via the negotiation of the British North America Act, it celebrates the peaceful creation of a new nation instead of the more American declaration of independence/war that comes with our friends to the south.


A little patch of Canada in the UK

Culturally, I think Canada is punching above its weight.

On the film scene, we’ve got established directors like David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Sarah Polley – all with new films out this year. Plus breakthrough directors like Jason Lapeyre and Jeff Renfroe are making their mark globally.  Toronto hosts what’s now become one of the most important stops on the film calendar  – tiff.

In books, we can boast Margaret Atwood and Alice Munroe, but we’re also making an impact on Young Adult and children’s fiction.  A few months ago, I created a (growing) list of kids/YA writers here.

In the music world, we’re great at nurturing home grown talent and then exporting them for everyone to enjoy: Arcade Fire, Cowboy Junkies,Tegan and Sara…though sorry about the Bieb.

But the other export that Canada wants to excel at may not be cause for such celebration: oil.  Our current government dreams of becoming an energy super power to rival Saudi Arabia, on my recent visit home, I was surprised (and shocked) that while the oil sands debate is framed in the context of which path to market to take (the recently approved Northern Gateway vs. the Keystone XL which is awaiting U.S. approval), there was no discussion about whether we should be exploiting this reserve at all.

Syncrude operation at Mildred Lake

Syncrude operation at Mildred Lake

In an era of climate change and excessive carbon pollution, it strikes me that the sensible strategy is to focus on conservation not exploitation. Not only do the oil sands require deforestation (a leading cause of climate change inducing carbon release), but the method of extracting and refining the bitumen is incredibly energy (and thus carbon) intensive.  And that’s before the oil is further refined into petrol products to be burned in engines and further releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

I remember very clearly my 9th grade geography teacher, boasting proudly about the future when Canada’s oil reserve would make it an energy super-power. He explained that the oil sands would become viable when the price per barrel reached a certain price, and now that oil is routinely trading north of $100 per barrel, the economic incentive to exploit the reserve seems like an unstoppable juggernaut.

But the total cost of the oil is not baked into the price. Certainly the capital and labour costs are part of the extraction costs, but to date, we’ve been unable (or unwilling) to price what economists call the ‘externalities’ – in this case, the negative impact of developing and burning carbon products.  If the true costs of exploiting the reserve were captured, I wonder if Canada would be rushing to become Saudi Arabia or refocusing on becoming a conservation-focused nation like Denmark.

Canadians have a lot to be proud of, but as a young country (only 147 years old today), I suggest that the nation is going to face the kind of maturity that comes with leaving adolescence and entering adulthood.


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