Alumnus Guest Post: It’s OK. Look in the Mirror. You’ll Like What You See | Work of Arts
Alumnus Guest Post: It’s OK. Look in the Mirror. You’ll Like What You See | Work of Arts

Alumnus Guest Post: It’s OK. Look in the Mirror. You’ll Like What You See

Tough times are, well, tough. But we emerge a more creative, resilient and committed community when we tackle them together

The dark temptation during an economic downturn — or any tough time — is to give in to grievance. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s the fault of a province, a region, a people. We focus on real or imagined enemies. We do anything but focus on ourselves.

This is normal. It’s human. But there is a better way and the proof is all around us.

Growing up in Alberta, I believed Pierre Trudeau — one man — destroyed the province in the 1980s. We all believed. While the national energy program was profoundly flawed and unfair, the story about Prime Minister Trudeau had a religious quality. The story avoided facts like an international oversupply of oil, ridiculously high interest rates and what was arguably the worst global downturn since the Great Depression. It made hapless victims of Albertans, these passive and unfortunate people ruined by the evil whims of a single man who spoke French.

Todd Babiak

Photo by Selena Phillips-Boyle

It’s happening again. Albertans are suffering another economic shock, though this time we don’t have one convenient Goliath. Some are certainly trying. It’s Rachel Notley’s fault or Denis Coderre’s fault. We try to blame King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Greenpeace supporters in British Columbia. But none of it quite works, not this time.

Almost every great co-operative achievement in Alberta history began with people being honest about a problem they helped create, a problem they could solve together.

I was out of the country in early 2015 when Alberta’s premier Jim Prentice, speaking of falling revenue and rising costs, said, “In terms of who is responsible, we all need only look in the mirror, right? Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.”

By the time I returned it was a scandal. Yes, he spoke awkwardly. No one should begin a phrase with “in terms of.” Making an enemy of “we” is a difficult political strategy. Other Alberta politicians would have at least tried to blame someone with a French-sounding last name (like Trudeau) or possibly the Opposition.

But let’s be honest. He wasn’t wrong. There is a pattern of success here. Almost every great co-operative achievement in Alberta history began with people being honest about a problem they helped create, a problem they could solve together.

Not long ago I had an opportunity to ask people to look in the mirror as part of my research about Edmonton. Frankly, when you get them alone, over a coffee or a glass of wine or on a dog walk, they’re startlingly honest and funny and clever about failure and success — and their roles in it. Almost no one spoke of feeling like a passive victim of outside forces.

They spoke instead of imagination and action, working together to achieve something unexpected. More surprising: they almost never spoke happily or movingly of boom times. Boom times were marvellous financially. But they also came with rushed decisions, architectural tragedies, price spikes for everything, government overspending, labour shortages and the stress of keeping up.

Some Edmonton institutions, like PCL Construction and ATB Financial, defined themselves during the Great Depression. Not as a few plucky individuals but with the help of a community. Companies like McCoy Global and places like Alberta Avenue found the recession years of the late 2000s a time to reimagine themselves. The founders of Maclab talked about losing money in the beginning, in the tricky time after the Second World War, and how competitors helped them.

What we do as a community, when times are tough, defines us.

Many people spoke of the rotten days of the 1980s with a sort of glow, as though suffering had brought out the best in them — in us, together.

What we do as a community, when times are tough, defines us.

In the early 1980s, many organizations failed. At the same time, Edmontonians launched the Canadian Food Bank and the North American Fringe Theatre movement. Golden years of the Edmonton Oilers, the Citadel Theatre and the Edmonton Public Library came when few people had money to spare. The U of A built a new building for the Faculty of Business when business was at its worst. Those who survived downturns emerged different: more creative, more resilient, more committed, more co-operative.

Alberta has a small population. We’re landlocked and far from large markets. We have winters, at least some years, and a reputation problem. The advantage of living here isn’t the fortunes of a single industry or the particulars of our provincial tax regime.

Many of us like the word “maverick,” but there are better places for the lonesome hero because when people talk about what makes this place special, they rarely speak of singular heroes. They don’t talk about grievances and enemies.

People delight in surprising each other about what is possible here. They talk about a community, even of competitors, building things together when it would be easier to give up.

This column was first published in New Trail (Spring 2016).


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About Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak ('95 BA) co-founded the company Story Engine and has just published the latest of several books, "Son of France: A Christopher Kruse Novel." Todd's photo by Selena Phillips-Boyle