An Extraordinary West, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie


The KevinfromCanada blog is delighted to report that Mrs. KfC, known to the rest of the world as Sheila O’Brien, is now a published author. And while I don’t do a lot of non-fiction reviews on this site, I am very proud to do this one. Having an author contribute to the blog is one thing; being married to one is quite another.

An Extraordinary West, subtitlted A Narrative Exploration of Western Canada’s Future, is the result of more than a year’s worth of work by Mrs. KfC and her co-author, researcher Shawna Ritchie. We have the good fortune to live in a part of the world that is very much at the top of the economic pile at the moment and this volume explores what issues need to be addressed to make sure that we stay there. I am biased, I admit, but I think Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie have done an excellent job.

Some background first, for those who do not know Canada. From 1867, when Canada became an independent Old Dominion, to 1967, when it celebrated its Centennial, residents of the four western provinces (which is where the KfC’s live) had an entirely legitimate bundle of chips on their shoulders. Various national policies meant that we sent raw materials East at a discount and bought manufactured goods headed West at a premium. That discrepancy led to a bitter conference shortly after the Centennial, which in turn led to the founding of the Canada West Foundation — a non-partisan research group whose purpose is to develop information and lead the debate on how to enhance the future of Canada’s four western provinces. I am a sometime advisor to CWF as a Senior Fellow, Sheila signed up as a volunteer executive-in-residence some months ago to produce this work.

Things have gone very well indeed for the West of Canada in the four decades since that bitter conference. Hydro development in Manitoba has made that province an international player; potash mining in Saskatchewan has put that province on the global map for something beyond grain-growing (which remains important); oil sands development in Alberta has made us a rival to the Mid-East emirates in both production and expertise and British Columbia’s experience in mining and forestry has produced yet another global player. However, the prosperity that has followed that is still based on resource extraction and the new world is one of knowledge transfer. The purpose of this project was to find a way to chart paths that would allow that transition to begin to happen.

Mrs. KfC and her co-author interviewed 50 outstanding Western Canadians who have been part of this development and all of whom have ideas about what the future should look like. Their working title for the project was Extraordinary Conversations and, as someone who got to read the notes, those conversations were truly extraordinary. It was an amibitious project and I think the results, as outlined in the book, are significant. This is not the only part of the world where this challenge exists (Australian visitors take note) but I think the overwhelming optimism of the response is heartening, in a way that American protectionism and world-wide shrinking expectations are not.

Here is how the authors defined their approach (and a 30,000-foot summary of the results):

We began each conversation with the following question: “What do we need to do to ensure that the West remains a great place to live in the 21st century?”

While our question was forward looking, our conversations were often rooted in our history, and a consistent set of themes emerged.

— The West’s strength is based on the characteristics of the people who chose to come here to create a better life for themselves and their families. We are risk-takers at heart.

— Accomplishment trumps pedigree in the West. There is limitless opportunity for those who work hard and success is the province of the hard workers, innovators and dreamers. When things do not work out, westerners are there to lend a helping hand and assist those who fall on hard times.

— We are blessed with abundant natural resources, but we have an obligation to steward them responsibly and protect this place for future generations.

— Our geography imprints us. The prairies, the mountains, the ocean, and the big clean sky help define how we see the world and offer opportunties for us to welcome the world, both as visitors and as new Canadians.

— We are westerners and we are proud Canadians. We are all stronger if we work in concert, and with a generous spirit.

The co-authors found that the concerns that emerged in the conversations, optimistic as they were, could be group around five sets of issues and have organized the volume around these themes.

Demographics: The total population of the four Western provinces is just over 10 million — tiny by global standards. Like most of the western world, it is an aging population; as positive as the economic outlook may be, “labour shortage” not unemployment is the long-term concern. On the other hand, the West has always welcomed immigrants. In recent years, we are fortunate to have avoided some of the immigration tensions that occur elsewhere in the developed world (the New York Times devoted an article to this last week); we are going to have to be even more welcoming to new arrivals in the future.

Aboriginal peoples: Western Canada is home to almost 60 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal people and the way that they have been treated since the first Europeans arrived has been dreadful. “Their numbers are growing at three times the rate of the non-Aboriginal population,” the book observes, “yet they fare far worse than the general population in regards to educational achievement, economic participation and social wellbeing.” It is an issue that must be resolved.

Environment: The West has traditionally been an economy based on resource extraction, so current environmental concerns loom large when considering future opportunities. Mining, agriculture and oil and gas extraction all are already under the microscope — water resources will likely be an even larger long-term issue. As the authors again observe, to succeed the West needs to become a global leader in learning how to balance resource development with environmental protection.

Economy: The West has already begun the process of moving from resource extraction to sending experienced talent around the world as part of the global economy: “Determining how to exercise our economic strength in an increasingly competitive, carbon-constrained world is one of the most exciting opportunities we face.”

Collaboration: Under Canada’s federal structure, the four western provinces are primarily responsible for government services and policy such as education and health, as well as regulation of natural resource development. With such a small overall population, if we don’t learn how to pool our efforts to develop world-class institutions we will be destined to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water, if I can be allowed to appropriate the traditional Canadian economic policy cliche.

In a global economy where the daily news is dominated by stories of increasing American isolation, European economic crises and fearful concern about the rise of the BRIC economies, An Extraordinary West is a rare beacon of optimism with a message that I think extends well beyond the interest of the 10 million of us who live here. The book was meant to frame the debate about how we turn that opportunity into reality and the process has already begun. A companion publication, An Extraordinary Future: A Strategic Vision for Western Canada, written by Roger Gibbins, CEO of the Canada West Foundation, is already available to open the dialogue.

Yes, I am biased, but I do think this is an exceptional project which has produced an equally exceptional book. While it is of vital importance to the West — and indeed all of Canada — I think is well worthy of attention from readers interested in public policy in the rest of the world. The entire project represents a proactive, positive approach to considering some crucial issues that exist well beyond Canada’s West. It is a “beta project” in public policy development that can certainly be adapted elsewhere.

Pdf versions of both An Extraordinary West and An Extraordinary Future are available free of charge from the Canada West Foundation here — drop by and have a look. The web page also has details on ordering the book itself — at Cdn$39.95 it is not an inexpensive volume, but I must say it is a very attractive book (and the authors are getting no royalties, so that conclusion is not a conflict of interest).

KfC is a very proud spouse, but visitors here probably have figured that out already. 🙂

17 Responses to “An Extraordinary West, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie”

  1. margaret dorval Says:

    An Extraordinary West offers an inspiring outlook for the future of the Canadian west. Hearty congratulations to the authors for their dedication to this expectionally well developed compilation of their extraordinary conversations.

    Will KfC be offering an autographed copy in a seasonal contest? Please do!


  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    Congratulations to Mrs KFC and to you too, because I myself know how wonderful it is to have a supportive spouse when writing.
    And how good it is to hear a good news story about economic development!
    Lisa in Oz


  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Seconded…congratulations to Mrs KfC and thanks Kevin for the detailed write-up. It sounds like there’s plenty to be optimistic about way out west. All that space for 10 million people!


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, leroy: Thanks to you both.


  5. pburt Says:

    Congratulations – it sounds like a very worthwhile undertaking and I love the cover.


  6. Crake Says:

    Congratulations to Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie. The book sounds very interesting.

    And what a beautiful cover!


  7. dovegreyreader Says:

    Hearty congrats to Sheila, that is a huge achievement and one to be very proud of indeed. Writing as I am from one of those countries way down the economic pile right now I feel sure we have some lessons to learn from Canada and I can’t think of a better person to be lighting the way.


  8. Isabel Says:

    Congratulations, Sheila!!

    I also come from an area of energy resources but with the damage that was/is done with the Gulf of Mexico/BP oil release, it’s good to know that the Western Canadians care about their environment, while extracting the oil/coal, etc.

    Does British Columbia count in the West also?


  9. Isabel Says:

    Will there be a book tour?


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: Yes, British Columbia is included in the four provinces — and its role as a gateway to the Pacific nations makes it even more important in the future than in the past.

    While there is no formal book tour, there is a follow up project based on issues raised in the book the Mrs. KfC will be involved in.


  11. Sally Feder Says:

    I think a book tour to Chicago would be perfect. I just talked to Darlene and ordered my copy!


  12. Trevor Says:

    I’m sorry it took me so long to post my congratulations here! As you know, I’ve been travelling. While that took time away from blogging and reading here, it did take me back to the West (here in the U.S.) for a few cold weeks. I look forward to reading this!


  13. Anne Fraser Says:

    Fabulous comcept: I like the analysis and the comstructive nature of it. Bravo yo Sheola and Shawma and to continuing good work by Canada West. By the way, Kevin from Canada, you are a wordsmith..I appreciated your blog on the book and you managed to be pretty objective. congrats all round! Anne


  14. Tom C Says:

    Congratulations to your wife. This sounds like a fine piece of work which doubtless will be well-received by its target audience.


  15. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Congratulations Sheila on what I’m sure is a thoughtful and beautifully written analysis of our potential as westerners. And thank you Kevin for the insightful review. Susan W.


  16. kimbofo Says:

    Big congratulations to Sheila — sounds like a fabulous book.

    Reading your review, and your little comment about Australians taking note, I couldn’t help but think of Australia, particularly those states which are heavily involved in mining such as Western Australia and Queensland. There seem to be many similarities in terms of Aboriginal people too.

    Funnily enough, having just spent more than 3 weeks in China, I can see some of the issues mentioned here cropping up there. For instance, the ageing population. The one-child policy (which is actually a lot more flexible than I realised) means there aren’t enough of the younger generation to support the older generation.

    And while China does not have an economy based on extracting natural resources, it’s coming to understand that it’s important to protect the environment. Air pollution is a MAJOR problem, and it will be interesting to see how the government there addresses it in the years to come.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: All of the issues that you raise — for both Australia and China — are present in Sheila’s book. I do think those involved in public policy development in Western Australia and Queensland would find a number of thoughts and issues that are similar to what they face.


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