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2018

The High and Lonesome Sound

eighteen bridges, summer 2018

Amid the horror of the opioid crisis, it's clear the rural life is vanishing and there’s no pill to cure it. What can we do?

Globalization, capitalism and neoliberalism have normalized ideas that are still radical to those in rural places: that freedom of movement is paramount; that tradition is suspect; that land is a resource to be tapped not a home to be cultivated. In the last few decades, rural Alberta has seen its small-town schoolhouses close and its grain elevators topple. Its grocery stores, banks, entertainment and industry have migrated to urban centres. Crime is up, populations are down, and the cost of farmland has doubled in the last five years. The richest 20 per cent of farms produce 80 per cent of the products.

And there are no jobs, especially jobs young people might stick around for. Politicians pledge to make our cities great places to live, not just do business, but few candidates promise to invest enough money and resources in rural communities. People who live in rural places are acutely aware that this way of life is disappearing, and a sensitivity to the bits of our culture that remain manifests in “Cowboy Pride,” as Ian Tyson titled his song. Combine these things—the loss of the agrarian lifestyle, the fight against the inevitable, the shame of wanting to leave, the shame of being left behind—and you can see the kind of hole that opens up, a hole that drugs promise to fill.

 

The Life of Pie

Avenue Edmonton, March 2018

Jonathan Avis had a gift for turning around distressed food businesses. But, after a whirlwind of misfortune, the one business he couldn’t turn around was his own — until now

In the harbour of balmy Puerto Escondido, Mexico, Avis lines a 50-gallon oil drum with firebrick, installs a chimney on one end and cooks Neapolitan pizzas over crackling Baja mesquite. Four decades creating food products have brought him — a towering, lanky Brit with a permanent open-mouth smile — to this one. Nothing’s momentous about this product, though. It won’t help him reach $20 million in sales, it’ll win him no awards of excellence. It’s a meek slice of margherita, which he’ll sell to raise money for the boating club he commandeers. Avis speaks scant Spanish, but an aphorism catches his ear: A falta de pan, buenas son tortas. With nothing better, this will do.

 

High Society

Avenue Edmonton, June 2018

Breaking down how marijuana will change your city – and, maybe, you

Cannabinoids. Hydroponics. Indica, kief. Backcrossing, bongs, blunts, bowls, bubblers and borosilicate: Ten years ago, if you knew someone who could use those words in the same sentence, chances are that person owned a shady-looking backyard shack you weren’t allowed to open and held an inordinate interest in LED lights and Rubber Soul.

Today, that person could be Jim Hole, the son of former Lieutenant-Governor and legendary horticulturalist Lois Hole. “It’s not just the THC, which is the psychoactive side, and the CBD, the medicinal side,” Hole says, so exuberant it sounds like he’s racing to get his words out. We’re sitting in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre, surrounded by a coffee shop, an organic grocer and a floral studio — not exactly third row at a Grateful Dead concert. Yet Hole, who says he’s never smoked, vapourized or ingested marijuana, is eager to talk about the drug — or, at least, the plant. “What we’re really excited to learn about is the terpenes in the crop,” he continues, “which are what would make a lemon smell like a lemon.”

 

2017

From ‘Temporary’ Albertans to Permanent

ALBERTA VEnture, FEBRUARY 2017

These changes will benefit Alberta, and it’s worth remembering how many were fought for and won by migrant-worker coalitions and non-profits

In December, beginning what promises to be an overhaul of the program, the federal government scrapped the “four in, four out” rule, which set the length of the workers’ stay and exile before returning to four years in each case. The requirement worked for no one – not for the industries left without workers, like meat processing, beekeeping and hospitality; not for the unemployed Canadian, whose job prospects were unaffected; not for the foreign worker, whose life was upended every time she was forced to leave a job her employer wished she could keep. It seemed merely to appease some abstract concern that no one held.

 

2016

The End of the Line

Alberta Venture, March 2016 (EXCERPTED IN ALBERTA VIEWS, JULY/AUGUST 2016)

Amid chronic underfunding, administrative red tape and a breakdown in trust, Alberta First Nations take their fight for safe drinking water to all levels of government 

Even in the summer, there are days when no one’s on the lake. Alexis says blue-green algae, a poisonous, soup-like slime, returns every year. Alberta Health Services issued a health advisory for Lac Ste. Anne this past July, just a day before thousands of pilgrims were set to arrive. As a child, Alexis could drink straight out of the lake and nearby springs, and it’s still the source for the community’s drinking water. “We take water from here, it comes into our water-filtering system and from there it goes into a reservoir,” he says, gesturing to a sky-blue facility northeast of the peninsula. But the algae, and a host of compounding factors, puts the water in jeopardy. “We used to have our own wells, but drilling for oil and gas, fracking, those kinds of things, are disrupting the aquifers,” he says. It means Alexis’s community is one of 19 in Alberta under a boil-water advisory, and that Alexis is at the forefront of a long-running national debate about unsafe drinking water.

 

The Fall of the House of Evans

Alberta Venture, May 2016

Jay and Robert Peers defrauded investors of $80 million, scarring their family's 100-year-old legacy

For years, Jay’s investors saw returns. But by 2010, there were cracks in the edifice. Jay had been preparing financial statements in-house to cut overhead and, at first, few people noticed. Spencer says that for two or three years, the statements hadn’t been audited. “I don’t think any of us ever clued in to the fact that maybe there’s a reason why there are no audited financial statements,” Spencer says. But then investors in FMC raised concerns about the businesses they were funding. At an investors’ meeting in 2009, Stack listened to Jay give a presentation about a company called TitanWall. He stood up and said, “Jay, what does this have to do with me? Our money is in mortgages – is that not correct?”

“Absolutely it’s in mortgages,” Jay told him.

 

When in Drought

Alberta Venture, March 2016

Following the irrigation network that feeds the world and defines a province

"You know, when Palliser came, it was nothing like it is now,” [Lazarus] says. He’s referring to the explorer John Palliser, who declared the land unsuitable for crops during a survey expedition in the 1850s, amid a prolonged drought. Along with southwest Saskatchewan, the area was christened Palliser’s Triangle. But in 1884, Sir Alexander Galt, one of the fathers of Confederation, made an agreement with the federal government to build a railroad from Medicine Hat to Fort McLeod, which was underwritten by contracts with Canadian Pacific Railway. Then he made a deal with a group of Mormons under Charles Ora Card from Utah, who’d established the eponymous village of Cardston. Card had irrigation experience from his farm in Salt Lake City, and while he and his band of pioneers weren’t the first to irrigate in Alberta – that’d be rancher John Quirk, in Sheep Creek in 1878 – they “were the first to do so on a scale large enough to involve their immediate community,” according to James MacGregor’s History of Alberta. Galt leased them 700,000 acres, expecting they’d build an irrigation network and entice more settlers. He saw irrigation as a technology that would suborn the land to the needs of the settlers.

Lack of capital meant Galt’s dream never came to fruition. But eventually Sir Alexander’s son, E.T. Galt, founded what would become the Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company. He secured land by the St. Mary River and hired Mormons to build canals. In 1912, he sold the company to the CPR; within a decade, farmers were irrigating 65,000 acres, and the westward movement of immigrants and easterners ploughed ahead. In heeding his father’s ambition, Galt showed that southern Alberta was not, as Palliser had said, where dreams go to perish. It’s where they went to be resurrected.

 

The Lights on Beacon Hill

Alberta Venture, August 2016

After the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, inside Fort McMurray as it reopens for business 

On the easternmost reaches of Fort McMurray, across from Dickinsfield, I meet a pastor named Kunle Oladebo in a mostly barren 100-acre plot called Abraham’s Land. He invited me here to glimpse the city’s future. The tract is named after the biblical nomad – sacred to Christians and Muslims alike – who was called by God to a land he’d make his own. As congregations in Fort McMurray outgrew their churches, the municipality offered them a package deal: a plot big enough that Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Hindus, sharing in the expense, could build their places of worship.

The name of this site has taken on a new significance since The Beast. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham was cast into an inferno by Nimrod, who conjectured that if Abraham had sufficient faith he’d be protected from the fire. The people and businesses of Fort McMurray have confidence in their city – the question of whether or not Fort McMurray can rebuild should be answered with another question: How was it ever able to build in the first place?

 

Small Business Goes Up in Smoke

Alberta Venture, April 2016

As marijuana lurches toward legalization, Big Weed takes aim at the little guys

MACROS has 1,200 members, people suffering from glaucoma, arthritis, epilepsy and cancer. While such dispensaries are illegal in Canada, there are about 175 of them (mostly in Vancouver) and Bott has run his, unimpeded by law enforcement, for 11 years. But on this day, the Green Team arrests Bott, charging him with possession and intent to traffic. They tell him they’ve already arrested his brother, for housing an illegal entity, and his mother and stepfather, who have a grow-op in their home in Sturgeon River.

Three months later, while Bott awaits his court date, Justin Trudeau becomes Prime Minister and pledges to legalize marijuana. The next day, the share price of a company trading under the symbol “ACB” on the Canadian Securities Exchange triples, and soon the first shipments of pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis leave its $12-million, 50,000-square-foot facility north of Cremona, in the Rocky Mountain foothills north of Cochrane.

 

The Forest and the Trees

Alberta Venture, JULY 2016

Does the expiration of the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber agreement spell the end of Alberta’s forestry industry?

Nestled in Alberta’s boreal forest, at the confluence of four waterways, is Whitecourt, population 9,600. The town sits at the metaphorical centre of Alberta’s forestry sector, which anchors a network of lumber yards, pulp mills and paper plants that stretch across the nearly two-thirds of this province that is forested. Some of the country’s largest lumber companies operate here. It’s home to Millar Western’s pulp mill and lumber yard, and is a base for West Fraser and Alberta Newsprint Company, all within earshot of minor hubs like Fox Creek and Blue Ridge. Forestry in Alberta is a $4-billion-per-year industry, and the lifeblood of oft-forgotten northern towns like Kinuso and Hines Creek. The province’s sector is remarkably well-positioned, too: not far south is a nation of nearly 320 million people that has an appetite for lumber. Whitecourt should be the beating heart of a thriving sector.

But the industry is tense. The trade of lumber between Canada and the U.S. isn’t free, exactly. It’s been brokered by a succession of treaties, the most recent being the Softwood Lumber ­Agreement, which stood for nine years. That agreement expired last October, leaving the two countries at, as it were, loggerheads. While Canada is advocating for a new agreement in Washington, U.S. lumber producers have no such ambition. Instead, many of them want to sue us.

 

On tailings, Alberta’s last chance to clean up its act

Alberta Venture, December 2016

Oil sands operators say they’ve made the reclamation of tailings ponds a key tenet of their social responsibility mandate. Others are skeptical

In July, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) announced changes to one of the most visible issues facing the oil sands: tailings pond reclamation. Tailings, or the byproducts of extracting bitumen or minerals from the oil sands, and tailings ponds, the impoundments where they’re pooled, form slick, metallic sheets of fluid that from the sky look like dabs of mercury dropped onto the landscape. Full of toxic metals, acids and ammonia, they pose a grave threat to the environment, too, in the event that the impoundment breaks and the tailings leak into the soil and water. Oil and gas companies have promised regulators and the public that they can reclaim tailings ponds to pre-tailings conditions, and both parties have entrusted the energy sector to do so. But despite their conspicuousness, during the expansion of the oil sands they’ve been a problem left in the background. Now, as the industry prepares to expand the oil sands even more, even the gradual decline of in-situ mining can’t halt the inevitable conclusion: the volume of tailings is increasing, and it can’t be reclaimed fast enough.

 

Alberta’s case for economic mobility

Alberta Venture, December 2016

Despite heightened anti-immigration rhetoric, migration is crucial for economic wellbeing

Amid a global refugee crisis kindled by the Syrian civil war, worldwide hostility towards free trade and free movement – Brexit, anyone? – and a U.S. presidential candidate whose most popular policy proposals include banning Muslims and building border walls, it’s little surprise that we’re witnessing a surge in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes here at home. In the race for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, candidate Kellie Leitch has proposed to screen newcomers for “anti-Canadian values.” A mosque in Cold Lake has been repeatedly vandalized with graffiti reading, “Go home,” and that same slogan was spray painted on a garage in this writer’s hometown, not long before two of the family’s vehicles were set on fire. This, in a province settled only recently by waves of Chinese, Polish, Norwegian, Ukrainian and Irish immigrants, to name just a sampling, and which spans three treaties with 45 First Nations.

 

Living the Bust

Alberta Venture, February 2016

You’ve seen the numbers – now, hear from those rebuilding their lives after losing their oil-and-gas sector jobs

Carson McVey’s three-year ­sojourn to Alberta bookends a recent ­chapter of the province’s economic history. A welder by trade, McVey* arrived from Prince Edward Island three years ago, one of thousands of young men from the East Coast coming for work.

When he landed in Edmonton, his employment prospects were promising – he crashed on a friend’s couch and found work the next day. Later, he found a job at a rig shop in Nisku, but two days after starting he received a phone call from Trinidad Design and Manufacturing, offering him better pay. Soon he was building one of the biggest land rigs in North America, Trinidad Rig 58. “We were absolutely flat out for the time I was there, working 12-hour days, six days a week,” McVey says. “I was told it’d be like this until 2016 or later. But by mid-January we laid off all our temporary foreign workers [on the rig]. We were told things were OK and we still had stuff to build, but in the following two weeks we had a rig cancellation every single day. We went from having 20 drilling rigs to build to zero.” A month later, Trinidad laid off one in five salaried employees and much of its manufacturing division, including McVey. He’d been there eight months.

 

The rise and fall – and rise – of gay-friendly businesses

Alberta Venture, October 2016

As some LGBTQ-positive businesses disappear, others are more popular than ever. What’s behind the shift?

In May, the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) announced that its 23-year-old annual rodeo in Strathmore was cancelled, citing the economic malaise and undersized attendance last year. The rodeo was a refuge for members of Alberta’s rural LGBTQ community, long festooned in the heart of social conservatism. In the early days, competitors might assume pseudonyms or kindly ask photographers to not take their picture. Bruce Gros, the president of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), says, “You can’t help but notice the absence of something that you appreciated and enjoyed for years.”

Six years after the first Strathmore rodeo, a bar called Buddy’s Nite Club opened in downtown Edmonton that would become a fixture for Alberta’s gay community. But near the end of 2015, Buddy’s owner, Jim Brown, said it would be closing.

If it feels like the number of gay-positive businesses in Alberta is dropping, that’s because it is. In the decade before 2012, more than half of Calgary’s gay bars closed, leaving the city with just three. In Edmonton, today there’s only one.

 

Life in the Cash Lane

Alberta Venture, January 2016

In 2014, AutoCanada made a killing via acquisitions, only to find auto sales nosedive in its biggest market

It’s just two days before AutoCanada releases its third-quarter results for 2015, so Patrick Priestner is at the tail end of a media embargo and is cherry-picking his words. The 60-year-old executive chair and dyed-in-the-wool car salesman admits that 2015 is the plateau of a decade-long ascent for AutoCanada, a run in which it went from IPO to the Goliath of Canadian auto dealerships. In step with oil prices this year, vehicle sales nosedived more than 15 per cent in Alberta, where almost half of his company’s sales occur. “I’m preparing AutoCanada for a couple years of it,” he says, sighing. But the results will show another side, too: Priestner has always had an appetite for acquisitions, which has been AutoCanada’s ticket to high earnings since it went public in 2006. And now, in a buyer’s market, AutoCanada is preparing to reap the rewards like it did in 2014.

 

2015

And They're Off!

Alberta Venture, September 2015

Century Downs aims to revive Alberta's horse racing industry. Is it a safe bet?

Ryneveld takes me to the casino’s roof, from where we can see CrossIron Mills in the distance. He points to a section of land where ground has been raised for the foundation of a grandstand that never came to fruition, where the new racetrack was initially supposed to be.

“It was going to be the Taj Mahal of racetracks,” he says, citing the $250-million price tag – nearly 10 times the cost of Century Downs. The grandstand would have held 15,000 people.

“It would have gone bankrupt in a year,” he says.

 

Railroaded

Alberta Venture, December 2015

The harvest of 2013 should have been a windfall for prairie farmers. Instead, the grain industry lost billions. Farmers blame the railways – and they’re banding together to change the rules

Kelly McIntyre has finally quelled the fallout from his 2013 harvest. It should have been one of the best years ever for the Fairview farmer; wheat production across the prairies was up almost 40 per cent from a year earlier. Instead, it was a crisis. There weren’t enough railcars to get his grain – or anyone else’s – to the coast. By January of 2014, prairie elevators were at a bin-busting 95 per cent capacity while export terminals in Vancouver sat hollow at just 30 per cent. “Everyone in Canada seemed to know that there was a huge crop coming,” McIntyre says, “except the railroads.”

 

The Dry Sell

Alberta Venture, September 28, 2015

As harvest rolls in, so do publicly funded insurance payments to drought-stricken farmers. But do the payments actually mitigate the drought's impact? Or is it a billion-dollar solution to the wrong problem?

The biggest concern to the cattle industry is that conditions could expedite a selloff of cattle as producers become unable to pay for the high cost of feed. As Bloomberg reported in June, Canada’s herd is already at its lowest point in 22 years, and meat processing plants are running at just 74 per cent of capacity – a seven-year low. The cost of hay, meanwhile, has ballooned. As of early August, a 1,200-pound bale could sell for $200, more than four times its usual price. It seems like the drought has corralled some producers into a thorny crossroads: do they pay exorbitant amounts of money for feed or sell their cattle?

 

Waiting for a Downpour

Alberta Venture, July 15, 2015

The recent drought has impacted farmers’ pastures and crops to the point of emergency. Is this a bad year or the new normal?

At his quarter-section ranch just southeast of Ponoka, where he’s lived for 23 years, Greg Bowie kneels to grab a handful of grass. Last night’s rain amounted to less than one-tenth of an inch, and yet the rolling fields look lush. But he pulls up blades no longer than six inches that are already starting to go to seed, which means they won’t grow much more, if at all. “If this were a normal year, this type of stuff would be the worst we’d see,” Bowie says. “This year, it’s the best.”

“When it rains, it pours” could be one way of describing the predicament of Alberta farmers, who despite recent record prices for beef have faced down a decade of BSE scares, trade issues, labour shortages, floods, dwindling herds and the loss of major processing plants across the country. But the problem, of course, is that it hasn’t poured; in fact, northern Alberta is facing down its driest spring in 50 years.

 

Saving Sangudo

Alberta Venture, February 2015

How one town raised the capital to invest in – and save – the local abattoir

Four years ago, half of the storefronts on Sangudo’s main street were boarded up. The small town, 90 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, had been losing businesses for a decade. They were unable to compete with Internet retailers and big-box stores in Spruce Grove and Whitecourt, to which Sangudo’s 325 residents seemed more and more willing to travel.

So about 30 concerned citizens created a committee to see if some kind of co-op might help reinvigorate their town. Dan Ohler was on it. “For about nine months we travelled around, we did research, we crunched numbers and looked at all kinds of different businesses: tire shops, restaurants, hardware stores, car washes.” But starting a business from scratch comes with risk, and the committee wasn’t convinced any of them would work in Sangudo.

Then news came that the town’s small abattoir, Sangudo Custom Meat Packers, was in danger of closing. “The old guy who was running it, he was at the point where he was just going to shut the doors and walk away,” Ohler says. “This group realized that if that business was lost, it’d be another hit to the community, so we decided to go buy it.”