AS CHANCE WOULD have it, I went on a road trip for work to Alberta a couple weeks back. I mainly went to smaller places: Jasper, Grande Cache, Grande Prairie, Slave Lake and Lacombe. Plus the Edmonton and Calgary airports.
I didn’t see all of Alberta, but I saw enough to make me wonder about B.C.
I grew up in B.C., and for as long as I can remember, B.C. has been the third largest province. Third in population, third in GDP. Being from BC was sort of like being one of the big kids. All the other provinces were okay, but it was B.C., plus Ontario and Quebec that mattered.
It’s not that way anymore.
It’s true that Alberta’s population is still less than B.C.’s. In the 2016 census, BC’s was 4.75 million compared to 4.07 million for Alberta. So on sheer numbers of people, B.C. is still top dog.
But when you look at our populations more closely, it’s clear B.C. is losing the race to Alberta.
First, Alberta’s population is growing at a faster rate than B.C.’s. Within a few decades, by 2041, BC and Alberta will both have roughly the same population of about 6 million.
But while Alberta currently has the youngest average age in Canada at 36.3 years, B.C.’s average age is 42. Alberta’s younger population translates to more people of working age now and in the foreseeable future.
And while Alberta’s population is less than BC’s, its GDP is higher. That is to say, with its smaller, but younger population, Alberta economy outperforms B.C.’s economy. B.C.’s GDP in 2016 was $263 billion. With its smaller population, Alberta’s GDP is still larger, at $314 billion. The difference in GDP is reflected in the personal incomes between the provinces as well. The average income in B.C. is $32,451, while in AB is $37,905.
Now when I was driving through small Alberta towns, I didn’t know any of these facts or figures. But what I saw was evidence enough. On every highway I drove on, there were large transport trucks moving equipment, construction materials and farm machinery. There were pieces of equipment I’ve never seen before being moved to who knows where. Some was certainly for oil and gas, but there were logging trucks and mining equipment as well. The farm fields were at peak production with yellow canola and green pulse crops.
When I stopped in Grande Prairie, what I found (perhaps not surprisingly) was that it had top end fashion stores one would expect in Vancouver or Calgary. This despite being 60,000, compared to Kamloops’ population of 90,000. When I stopped in Slave Lake, I was expecting a dreary little northern town, but its downtown was vibrant and its recreational facilities were top notch.
Grande Cache seemed a lot like Logan Lake. It was an “instant town” built for a mine. It has definitely fallen on harder times since its mine closed. The mine is scheduled to reopen this fall, and there is cautious optimism. My take away from that town was the diversity of its population (and all of northern Alberta). I definitely wasn’t expecting to see cricket being played in Grande Cache when I went there. The businesses I visited there and across Alberta were staffed with young professionals, many from around the world who came to Alberta for work.
The other thing I took away from my road trip through parts of Alberta is that it doesn’t seem to be focused on B.C. Here in the B.C.’s summer of Kinder Morgan protests, it is easy to think that the rest of the country, and Alberta especially, is paying attention. But from my perspective, watching all of the activity in Alberta, it seems clear that Albertans are just going about their businesses, with or without us.
For instance, it was interesting to see the rail car oil filling station along the side of the highway between Grande Prairie and Slave Lake. One hundred tank cars waiting to be filled, many that would probably roll through Kamloops,
While for years it’s seemed B.C.’s economy has been underpinned by out of control, escalating real estate prices, plus shady casino cash transactions, Alberta’s economy has been built on real jobs across many sectors.
Most of my trip was by car, but I flew in and out of Edmonton, via Calgary. I flew back to Kamloops on a Friday. My last observation about Alberta was the dozen or more workers who were flying home from Alberta to Kamloops with me. I only have to make that trip to Alberta about once a year for work. But there must be hundreds in Kamloops who go to Alberta on an ongoing basis for work. They choose to live in Kamloops, but need to work in Alberta.
B.C. is a beautiful place to live. People want to live here, and that may be all that’s necessary. But having just driven through Alberta, it’s clear that people can make anywhere a great place to live, and it’s a lot easier if there’s a job.
Nancy Bepple is a former city councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.