Energy boom transforms Canada's prairies

Canada's western provinces used to be a sleepy extension of our own agricultural inland. Now a boom has Canada looking for faster ways to bring in skilled immigrants to help with all the work.
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Canada's western provinces used to be a sleepy extension of our own agricultural inland. Now a boom has Canada looking for faster ways to bring in skilled immigrants to help with all the work.

A week’s speaking and teaching trip has brought me to the Canadian prairies, in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. But these are no longer the prairies conjured by either Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie or even Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and Lake Woebegone stories.

This is the land of pipelines, oil sand extraction, natural gas drilling, and potash and uranium mining. Here the economy is booming. Construction is hopping.

People who had once left the prairies for shining cities on the West Coast are now returning. And the biggest concern about immigration is where the locals can get more immigrants, particularly highly skilled ones. At the moment Saskatchewan’s prime minister is off on a recruiting trip to Ireland, seeking skilled workers.

I started my journey in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is now the largest city in the province (ahead of the provincial capital in Regina) and the fastest growing city in Canada. Saskatoon was founded in the early 20th century as a temperance colony inhabited by self-exiles from Toronto. Located on the banks of the wide South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon is a mix of old-time railroad city and rapid new growth.

Around Saskatoon the big industries are potash and uranium mining. Potash is produced for fertilizer. The world food crisis has been good for potash producers and those they employ. Mines extend for as much as 25 kilometers beneath Saskatoon. Uranium mining happens further north in the province where yellow-cake uranium is produced (the famous “yellow-cake” comes from Canada not Niger, it turns out). By law it is not “weapons-grade” uranium, but locals worry that once it crosses the border to the U.S., that changes.

Still, Saskatoon is hardly ritzy or glitzy by any U.S. standard. It’s a working class town with a substantial First Nations population and a large university (University of Saskatchewan) attached. For generations the economy here was grain — wheat — production. There’s still a lot of that, but the economic engine now is mining.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, my next stop, the big economic drivers are extraction of oil from the tar sands and natural gas. This is the oil that Canadian companies want to pass through the United States in pipelines and which President Obama blocked in January for reasons of environmental impact. This week Albertans renewed their request for permits to pipe oil south.

Further east but still on the prairies, lies the province of Manitoba. Recently the small Manitoba town of Steinbach, an hour from Winnepeg, was profiled as exemplifying a new trend here. In the 1990s, Steinbach’s residents worried their prairie village would disappear as other small towns on the Canadian prairies had done before them. But the problem in Steinbach was not lack of business or jobs -- it was the lack of workers. The major employer, the local Loewen window plant found its solution in Germany, importing 300 skilled workers. And now it's happy days in Steinbach, which like other prairie towns is finding its future in immigrants.

The leading Canadian paper, The Globe and Mail, recently urged Canada and its government to become more competitive in recruiting immigrants. “The world has changed,” the paper said on May 5, “and when it comes to immigration, Canada is not changing fast enough to compete in it . . . To keep Canada attractive to the sharpest minds, the keenest entrepreneurs and greatest innovators, the country must move beyond an inefficient selection system and long waits.”

I did find the feeling about immigration and immigrants more mixed as I spoke with ordinary people in my travels. Crackpot conspiracy theories about Muslim plans for takeover and domination find their way around the Internet here. But Canada remains a very large country with a relatively small — 34 million — population, the large majority of which is clustered along the U.S. border.

How long will the new boom on the Canadian prairies last? No one seems to know. But you have to wonder if this boom, like others, will be followed by a bust? And what then?

In the meantime, people here are happy, even a little smug, that they are now an economic hub and magnet. For a long time people, especially the young, moved from the prairies to the coasts and off the farms to the cities. For now, at least, that’s changing.

Looking down from a plane, plenty of farms spread across the prairies. But looks may be deceptive. The Canadian prairies are very much a part of a global economy, and because of it the prairies are on fire — for now.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.