Archive for the ‘O’Brien, Sheila (3)’ Category

A Place To Call Home, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Stirrett

December 18, 2012


(Full disclosure: For those who are not already aware of it, Sheila O’Brien is Mrs. KfC. I bet I am going to like this book.)

A Place To Call Home marks the final volume in a three-year, three-book project for authors Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Stirrett (nee Ritchie). Before getting to thoughts on this final volume, it is worth looking at the project as a whole and the previous two books.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has been very kind to Western Canada. For most of the last one, the region felt like the poor (and persecuted) stepchild of Canada. Restricted markets for its resources and products meant arbitrarily low prices. Political power and interests were firmly lodged in Central Canada — the concerns of the West were ignored, or even worse, deliberately thwarted. The frustration was best summed up in the rallying call that led to the formation in 1970 of the Canada West Foundation (the research think-tank that served as home for this project): “The West wants in.”

It took some decades, but by the dawn of this century that had changed — Canada’s future was now dependent on the West. British Columbia had always been Canada’s entry to the Pacific and already had experience with Asian business. Alberta’s energy resources were attracting investments from around the globe, including emerging powerhouses like Malaysia and China. After decades of population losses, Saskatchewan was experiencing both prosperity and population growth. And Manitoba? Well, Canada’s keystone province has always “gone with the flow” — and the flow was now going its way.

All of that presents both opportunities and challenges in terms of what the future might hold: O’Brien and Stirrett came up with a model that was designed to help begin the process of successfully realizing that future. Visitors here are familiar, I am sure, with the literary idea of “oral history” — this project uses the mirror image, “oral future”, as its central device. For each book, the authors sought out and interviewed 40 to 50 influencers from all four Western Canadian provinces, probing their thoughts on what the future might hold and what was needed to get there.

The first volume, An Extraordinary West, was an overview from the 30,000-foot level. Politicians (both present and past), business people, community leaders and artists were all asked to look into the future — the result was a broadly-based look at what opportunities might be in store for the West and, every bit as important, what issues needed to be addressed (global warming and equity for First Nations people were just two).

That first book showed that sensible and responsible energy development lay at the core of the economic future for the West — we are blessed with both fossil fuels and hydro resources and have lots of both sun and wind. Volume two of the project, Catching A Rising Tide, focused on what was required to capture — and leverage — the potential of energy development.

However, as resource-based communities since the dawn of the Industrial Age can testify, a gold rush can have two results: a vibrant community that makes the transition to the post-extraction future or a ghost town. A Place To Call Home (the book’s subtitle is “Building Community, Inspiration and Creativity in Western Canada”) considers what is required to achieve that first outcome. While interviews for the first two books concentrated on traditional leaders in government, community and commerce, those done for this book sought out voices that often are not heard: opera company directors, community activists, spiritual leaders, philanthropists, actors and artists were the sources the authors looked to for this book.

The question we must be asking ourselves is: What do we need to do to ensure that western Canada is not just an economic success but also a dynamic, interesting and inspiring place in which to live? How can we ensure that the people who live here now want to stay here and invest their energies in building a future for themselves and western Canada? What do we want our legacy to be?

The barriers to creating an inspiring society do not mean we should give up. In fact, they make focusing on this task that much more important. Because creating a great place to live is not easy and cannot be laid at the feet of any one group, it must be embraced with passion by many groups. Because it is so much easier to heed hard data, we must strive to keep the non-quantifiable aspects of life in our line of sight. And because our wealth enables us to do more, so much more, than merely survive, we must consciously ask ourselves what value we are purchasing for our community and ourselves with our gains.

I suspect a number of visitors here at this point are thinking: “This sounds a lot like a frontier version of Richard Florida”. While Florida is referenced in the book, if anything O’Brien and Stirrett are the “non-Richard Floridas”. As with both their previous volumes, this is not a book prescribing “what must be done”. Rather, it is intended to frame and open the dialogue — instead of direction from on high, it consists of a wealth of observations and ideas from those on the ground about how the dialogue can be nurtured.

A Place To Call Home groups those ideas under three broad headings. The first is “Sharing Opportunities”: if the West is to be “home”, then it must be an equal society. First Nations people and immigrants have always been important to the West and enabling their success is even more important for our future. A world-class education system, from pre-school through post-graduate, is essential. The second cornerstone is “Building Strong Communities” and the sub-headings for this chapter outline that story: “bring people together”, “enable a culture of contribution” and “embrace our place in the world”. The final grouping is “Telling Our Story” and focuses on what can be done through cultural infrastructure to ensure that artists and audiences are served in the community that we call home.

Those labels are general and directional but to the credit of O’Brien and Stirrett the material that comes under them is anything but and has a wealth of specific examples and ideas. After all, it comes from interviews with those on the front lines and, let’s face it, they know their stuff.

I’ll offer only one example as an illustration here, albeit one that I think visitors to this blog will both understand and welcome. During the interviews, the authors heard frequently about the importance of recreation and sports as part of “community”. That didn’t surprise them — but another oft-heard observation rather pleasantly did:

One of the most commonly cited places that served to strengthen the community by bringing people together was the library. Many of those we spoke to discussed at length the importance of a strong library system to an inspiring place to live. The power of libraries is that they are open to everyone; they are one of the last places where people from all walks of life can come together and not be expected to purchase something. Chic Scott [author, historian, mountaineer] explains why he thinks libraries are so important:

“Libraries, most importantly, are completely democratic. You go into the library and you have senior citizens there, you have little kids running around with their mothers, you have guys and gals with dreadlocks and earrings and they are all in there together. Traditional arts and culture, which I love and I go to a lot, appeals to a more select group but libraries appeal to everyone. When you are traveling around the world and you are in a strange city, cold and wet, you can always go to a library. It’s one of the last commercial free public spaces. We have shopping malls but you are actually supposed to buy something there, or at least they would like you to. But libraries are a commons, owned by everyone and anyone can go to them.

While A Place To Call Home is a story about Western Canada, I would suggest it has much to offer other audiences. Certainly, those elsewhere in Canada (especially the Golden Crescent in Ontario and Quebec) will find it useful in considering just what is happening out here. Readers in the American West will find both useful reminders of their situation and new ideas. I am sure my visitors from the other Old Dominions of Australia and New Zealand would frequently be saying “it’s just like that here”. And my United Kingdom friends might like to take that section about libraries and wave it under the noses of the foolish politicians who are closing libraries there.

Alas, you can’t find A Place To Call Home at a bookstore or even on Amazon. If your interested is sparked, this book and the preceding two volumes are available directly from the Canada West Foundation here.

(A final note: I would have liked the book even if it wasn’t written by Mrs. KfC and a good friend of us both. 🙂 )


Catching a Rising Tide, by Sheila O’Brien and Shawna Ritchie

November 12, 2011

Available from Canada West Foundation -- click on title for details

Regular visitors here will recall that last year at about this time, Mrs. KfC, writing under her real name, Sheila O’Brien, made her debut as a published author. An Extraodinary West, co-authored with Shawna Ritchie from the Canada West Foundation, was based on interviews with 50 Western Canadians involved in all aspects of public policy from government to business development to culture. Those of us who have lived in Western Canada for some time (approaching 50 years, with occasional interruptions, on my part) are fully aware, as that first book identified, that our part of the world is on the cusp of an era of extraordinary opportunity — and challenge.

Both that opportunity and its challenges are centred on “energy” and the West has a lot of it — the world’s second largest petroleum reserves in the Athabasca Oil Sands, ample developed and potential sites for hydro power, wind and sun enough to make us global leaders in the green energy world and all that is just a start. But, as events this week with the U.S. decision to delay approval of the Keystone Pipeline confirmed, that opportunity comes with a challenge. It is one to thing to have the potential to fuel the world; in current times, it is quite another to do that in an acceptable fashion.

That is the scenario that Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie explore in their second book, which carries the subtitle “A Western energy vision for Canada”. They have taken the same approach as they did for An Extraordinary West, 50 interviews with individuals involved in all aspects of energy development, sustainability and responsible resource management. The subject is incredibly complex — they admit that the principal aim of their book is to explore in general terms various aspects of energy with the goal of informing and opening a broader debate. There are a lot of people who have very detailed knowledge (and opinions) about specific threads of the challenge — there are not very many who have experience with all its many streams.

I can’t hope to capture their findings in a review, but I will try to identify a highlight or two from their approach that perhaps might spark your interest. One observation up front is that while the book is about the challenges facing Canada, and particularly Western Canada, the observations are very relevant elsewhere — the U.S. is currently our only export market (see that pipeline delay) and has its own set of issues; our Australian friends are facing almost exactly the same circumstances we are (and in many ways responding more proactively, as the book notes).

The vision that the authors developed from their interviews serves as a 50,000-foot level description of the aspiration they believe Canada should hold:

Canada will be a supplier of choice of energy products, services and expertise to the world for the benefit of all Canadians. We will have an exceptional environmental and social record, which will continue to define our values as a nation and give us a stronger voice on the international stage.

The book organizes observations around aspects of the debate in three chapters that I’ll briefly explore here:

1. Mind the Gap: Supply, Demand and the Space in the Middle: Canada has been an energy exporter (petroleum products in the West, hydro in the east) to the U.S. for three-quarters of a century and on the supply side has enormous potential to profitably expand that business. The demand side of the equation is a challenge, however — with only one export customer, Canada is at the mercy of both U.S. economics and policy, as the Keystone decision illustrates. The expanding markets are Asia-Pacific and proposals for both oil and liquified natural gas are already on the table to reach those markets. For traditional resource extraction, more customers mean more options and higher prices (Canadian oil going to the U.S. does so at a substantial discount from world prices).

That’s where “the space in the middle” comes into play. Bitumen from the oil sands is characterized by many as “dirty oil”. Canada’s response to the challenges of climate change (and we are a major contributor to the problem) has been middling at best, disgraceful at worst. In their vision of “the best possible future”, the authors suggest that Canada has to be more than just a supplier, it has to emerge as a global leader on a number of fronts:

If we are going to fulfill our potential as an energy nation in the global marketplace, our interviewees identified three critical economic elements going forward: 1) we must improve our domestic environmental performance by investing in renewable energy alternatives and changing how we use our fuels as a country; 2) we must develop the infrastructure that is required to sell our oil and gas to the world; and 3) we must capitalize on our energy expertise and transition to an economic climate where that expertise is one of our primary exports.

2. Balancing the Scale: Sustainable and Responsible Energy in Canada: The concept in the first three words of that chapter title is vital to the central theme of the book: hydrocarbon production and use is not going to disappear for some time, regardless of the alternatives. But if Canada does not start working towards being a leading participant in “balancing the scale” both its prosperity and potential influence will wane. We don’t just need to clean up our own environmental record, we need to learn how to apply the expertise that we do have to developing viable alternatives.

While government regulation has been the traditional response to that challenge, this chapter uses suggestions from the 50 interviewees to sketch the potential of some non-traditional responses. “Energy literacy” is one: “If people don’t understand where their energy comes from, what it costs and what the environmental impact of their consumption choices are, then all the technology in the world will not result in widespread changes in patterns of energy consumption.”

The chapter explores a number of ways to do this and I’ll point to just one, albeit it one where Canada already has a model in operation: transforming our cities. The City of Vancouver has set itself the goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. Progress on the goal is already significant. While the North American average for greenhouse gas emissions is 22 tons per capita, Vancouver has reduced its total to 4.6 tons per capita. The chapter outlines some of the many public policy initiatives that have been put in place to do that.

One of the most impressive interviews the two conducted was with National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo who made the powerful case that the country absolutely must engage with its Aboriginal people if it is to succeed. The issue for Aboriginal people is not long-term, it is very much present day for Atleo’s people:

“The champions in the industry have been at the forefront of international human rights work around the world — they deploy clean drinking water to South America and they build schools in Africa — but we’ve got 40 communities that have no schools, 112 communities on water advisories and we by and large have a finger pointing exercise about who is to blame.”

The National Chief is more than willing to admit that there are examples of progress, often in the form of joint ventures between the industry and Aboriginal bands — the problem is that they are best viewed as pilot projects, not a consistent pattern of positive development.

3. Securing the Base: Transforming Energy Prosperity into Canadian Prosperity: Approaching (and expanding) the vision articulated in the book requires much more than simply producing and marketing more energy — if Canada is to achieve the aim of being a global leader the country needs to dramatically expand its research and development capacity and develop expertise in our future workers.

This chapter, understandably, is the most futuristic of the book so I will restrict my description of it to reproducing Ms O’Brien and Ms Ritchie’s summary of the challenge:

In order for the energy vision to become a reality, though, three things need to happen that are not directly related to electrons, carbon, transmission lines or dams. First, as a supplier of choice to the world, the benefits of this need to be seen as more than just making a few companies rich and a few regions able to keep taxes low. Canadians need to see the economic benefits of our energy resources and those with wealth need to be cognizant of how they can use it for the betterment of Canada. Second, we need to improve and develop our capacity for innovating and commercializing solutions for tomorrow’s energy reality. And third, we must have excellent education systems from kindergarten through to post-doctoral programs or we will not have the creative capacity and people power to solve our energy challenges.

Okay, I am hardly a neutral observer when it comes to evaluating this book — not only am I married to one of the authors, I had several conversations with the pair as the project unfolded. But I will say, with a passion, that expanded “energy literacy” is vital, not just in Canada but the rest of the world, if we are to find answers to the globe’s most complex problem. Catching a Rising Tide does not pretend to provide those answers — in 93 concise, well-articulated pages it captures the thoughts of 50 very talented people to help expand energy literacy and open a thoughtful, and one hopes productive, dialogue not just in my region of Canada but around the world.

(Catching a Rising Tide cannot be found in book stores or online sites, but can be purchased from the Canada West Foundation here.)

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

November 25, 2010

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. 🙂

%d bloggers like this: