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Steve Lafleur: Alberta is calling—should Ontarians answer?

Commentary

If you’ve been on the subway in Ontario lately, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the ads: Alberta is Calling. The ads highlight Alberta’s lower cost of living, shorter commutes, and high average wages. There’s also a slick website that lists a number of real, tangible advantages to living in Alberta. They make a strong case. It’s not just good marketing, though. Alberta is, in fact, a very good place for a lot of people to live. Should broke and exhausted GTA commuters pick up and move to Alberta? I’d argue that a lot of people should give it serious consideration. But it’s not for everyone.

I’m probably not the first person you’d expect to make this case. After all, I went in the opposite direction. In late 2020, my partner and I packed up and moved to my home province of Ontario. We did it in spite of the many advantages Alberta offers. The truth is, Calgary just wasn’t for us. It’s not home for either of us, we don’t love the climate (for different reasons than you might expect), and it’s not the best place for car-free urbanites. 

There are some clear advantages to living in Alberta. Our rent was twelve hundred dollars a month less in Calgary than what we pay in Toronto. That cost difference goes a long way. You could take a weekend trip to New York or LA every month with those savings—and the Calgary airport is a dream compared to Pearson (I could get from my living room to my gate in a half hour!). You could also buy a suburban house for half the price and get to work twice as fast as if you were commuting into Toronto from somewhere you could afford a backyard. And if you happen to be into skiing or hiking, Calgary has got you covered. If this sounds attractive, Alberta may well be a good option. Indeed, a lot of Ontarians have come to that conclusion. 

Of course, whether those are genuine advantages depends on your lifestyle. Both Edmonton and Calgary are largely car cities. While it’s possible to live in either without a car (as I have in both), your world will be somewhat limited (it’s really too bad that Car2Go didn’t work out). Alberta is also fairly remote. Other than Vancouver, everything is far from Calgary and Edmonton. It’s nice that it’s easy to get to the airport, but you’re probably flying at least three hours. And while there are some very good restaurants, there are only so many (RIP Bar Von Der Fels). Calgary and Edmonton punch above their weight when it comes to live theatre (the Edmonton Fringe Festival is legitimately great), but there’s only so much variety two mid-sized metropolitan areas can support. 

There aren’t any Jays games in Calgary. There’s no Church Street. And Drake’s not coming (unless you drive to Edmonton). There is a giant two-week-long outdoor corporate party that a lot of people enjoy, though. If you like taking weekend drives, your destinations are fairly limited. Banff and Edmonton are the obvious destinations, though Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are worth a visit. If you’re flying, Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver are under two hours. Las Vegas and Denver are within three hours. Weekend trips to New York or LA aren’t really practical, though, unless you’re the kind of person who catches up on sleep in the air.

The erratic weather in Calgary and cold weather in Edmonton aren’t ideal either (and Chinook headaches, sadly, are a real thing). Worse still, is the seemingly annual wildfires that blow through the province. The 2019 wildfire season was the beginning of the end of our time in Alberta. Or was it 2018? I honestly can’t remember. But the thought of getting choked out by another wildfire season while sitting at home during lockdown was the last straw for me. 

Then there’s geography. It’s also easy to forget just how big Canada is. If you’ve got deep family roots in Ontario, living three thousand kilometres away might be challenging. Not only does it mean you don’t have a family support network to lean on (say, for childcare) and don’t get to see your loved ones as often. But it also means that visiting friends and family is exhausting. Ten hours of travel time and two time zones away isn’t a quick weekend trip. The math is much easier if you’re from Vancouver. I travelled there four to six times a year for work and my partner went about as often to visit family. It’s about 90 minutes away in the air, give or take. If the pilot really punches it, you might make it back in 70. Much more doable than nearly four hours to Toronto.

There are also career considerations. Alberta does offer high average wages. There are, however, some limitations. Bay Street isn’t going to pick up and move to Stephen Avenue. Neither is Ontario’s tech sector. Calgary and Edmonton’s economies have and will continue to diversify, and are attracting some satellite jobs from big companies. But if you’re hoping to work up the corporate ladder outside of the energy sector, you might be disappointed. Flexible work arrangements might only get you so far—at least as things stand now. Of course, not everyone is gunning for the c-suite. Though living a several-hour flight and a few time zones away from the head office can be limiting, whether anyone will admit it or not. 

One thing that I don’t think matters that much: politics. Calgary isn’t the wild west that some people think it is. It’s not West Texas. There’s an unmistakable populist current that blows through the province. But while Alberta politics have been chaotic for a long time, Calgary and Edmonton are as diverse and socially tolerant as any mid-sized North American city. Of course, not everyone is going to find their community outside of larger cities. But if you’d fit in Hamilton, Ontario or Columbus, Ohio, you’re probably fine. Calgarians aren’t a bunch of yahoos, even if it might seem like it during Stampede. 

Whether Alberta is really an option depends on the person. Alberta offers a relatively low cost of living without punishing commutes and has as much variety as you can expect from a province with two mid-sized cities. If you don’t have deep roots in the GTA and your alternative is a 90-minute drive into the city every day so that you can afford to have a backyard, Calgary or Edmonton might be a good option. But if you’re used to the level of amenities you’ll find in Toronto, you’ll be disappointed. 

Obviously, I’m not the target audience for this campaign. I spent a decade out West. I enjoyed my time there. It’s not home, though. I think the campaign has been well executed—it’s been weeks, and we’re still talking about it! Will it work? I hope so. Given how unlikely it is that Ontario will address its housing crisis any time soon, some people are probably better off moving to Alberta. Just be prepared for the guilt when you miss Thanksgiving dinner.

Richard Shimooka: America moves to block chips to China: What Biden’s semiconductor controls mean for Canada

Commentary

Two weeks ago, the Biden administration announced a sweeping expansion of its export controls on semiconductor chips to China. This decision marks a major escalation in the growing competition between the U.S.-led West and a rising China, and it would behoove Canada to follow in its ally’s footsteps by supporting the American initiative.

Technology, industry, and innovation are key features of the emerging geopolitical competition between the West and China. To understand the situation, it might be useful to look back to the Cold War, when the United States last faced a near-peer competitor that sought to catch up and surpass the West economically. While the popular image of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies was as an autarky, a closed economic bloc that only traded within itself, the reality was much more complex.  

The Soviet Union, for instance, still engaged with the West to acquire cutting-edge technologies. Much was legally obtained from the West, only to be applied later for military uses. Other technologies were obtained under illicit means, either by circumventing controls or outright theft. Ironically, according to the Washington Post journalist Catherine Belton, this was likely one of the first jobs Vladimir Putin oversaw as a KGB agent in Dresden, Germany. 

A recently declassified document in the Moscow archives shows that Soviet production in 1964 was still highly reliant on Western tooling, particularly hydraulic presses. While the Soviet Union could potentially source domestic equivalents, this would result in some serious consequences. For instance, the Kremlin would need to divert resources within its domestic industry to develop alternatives, rather than subsidizing them using Western technology and know-how. Moreover, those systems would likely be less capable than their Western counterparts and be at a higher cost due to a smaller production scale. 

Export controls, largely, were weak and very mixed in their effectiveness during the Cold War. However, the 1990s saw the development of sanctions and controls as an increasingly effective policy tool, which only improved in the aftermath of 9/11. Efforts surrounding Huawei and Russian sanctions are recent implementations.

The Biden administration has made it clear that semiconductors are seen as a foundation for future economic prosperity. This reflects the new geopolitical game, in which great powers compete not only in terms of their military capabilities, energy/mineral supplies, or territorial blocs, but also in complex supply chains, networks, and ideological groups. The U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made this clear in his July 2021 remarks, where he listed how these technologies can be directly used to undermine fundamental freedoms in Western states. Possible applications include global networked surveillance, mass autonomous disinformation systems, the dominance of critical supply chains to leverage coercion, and expanding their access to sensitive data through infiltration using privileged supply chain positions.

The liberal idealism of the post-war era, which believed that greater economic openness would result in liberalization of their societies, has reached its decisive end. State capitalism has become a critical tool for maintaining state control, which can be even further exploited by combining it with artificial intelligence (AI). In short, the Biden administration has sought to recast its relations with China in great power terms—a struggle between not just major economies but the broad ideological systems of freedom and authoritarianism. 

This explains the immense breadth and depth of the announced U.S. export controls. Semiconductors possess some of the most complex supply chains in the world. Their production entails thousands of firms, many of which exist in specific niches with only one or two suppliers. The U.S.’s effort attempts to impose controls in as many places as possible, placing onerous reporting requirements for American firms operating in these countries. Consequently, a number of key firms, like Applied Materials and LAM have already decided to pull up their stakes and leave the Chinese market. 

Like with the Soviet example, China will now need to spend more of its resources to develop alternatives to Western goods. It seems the current measures alone will likely cripple China’s ability to continue catching up with the semiconductor state-of-the-art, slowing progress and limiting them to chips several generations behind cutting-edge Western technologies.

As with the Cold War, allies play a key role in this new struggle. A large proportion of the critical supply chain infrastructure exists outside of China and United States, among allies like the Netherlands, Taiwan, and Japan. Some foreign firms, like the Dutch giant ASML, have expressed reticence toward implementing all of the U.S. measures. Getting them on-side is critical to ensuring that the administration’s measures have permanence and the West maintains a technological dominance over this area. Moreover, China will likely utilize every method to circumvent these measures, including the espionage of technologies. 

Canada is not a major player in the semiconductor space, but it does have a role in it. Several firms play an important part in the supply chain. For instance, AMD is one of the big two for high-performance hardware accelerators and the firm has a major subsidiary in Markham, Ontario after its acquisition of ATI. And the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has established a design centre in Ottawa that focuses on “creating foundation intellectual property on TSMC’s next-generation processes.” Furthermore, the country can become a major supplier of critical minerals that are essential for production, if the resources are properly developed. Shoring up these manufacturing chains will also insulate domestic markets from price shocks due to potential supply interruptions.

Finally, Canada may also be a target of authoritarian states’ efforts in trying to circumvent U.S. export controls—either through illicit acquisition or availing themselves of Western cloud-based systems in the country.

The Biden administration’s controls have added relevance considering Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s speech to the Brookings Institution two weeks ago. In her remarks, she forcefully emphasized the need for democracies to work together on trade in what she referred to as “friend-shoring”, or essentially prioritizing trade flows among states that possess similar values. 

Minister Freeland’s speech clearly aligns well with the export controls policy, but the government of Canada’s track record so far has been mediocre to poor at best. The decision to ban Huawei 5G equipment from Canada’s telecommunications system took over five years to be rendered, while it has constantly dragged its heels on a number of different policies in regard to China. One can also add the recent revelations of Chinese government police stations operating within Canada and CSIS warnings about infiltration by mainland intelligence services. 

The US’s announced export control measures are an opportunity to overturn this instinct and chart a new course in line with Minister Freeland’s policy. Canada can be one of the first countries to endorse this effort and work constructively to work alongside the United States in its implementation—even as we build up Canadian industry to fortify Western semiconductor supply chains. We can seek to close up any potential vulnerability in the country that can be exploited by China and rebuild our diplomatic capital with Washington that has been exhausted over the past decade. Of course, this requires the leadership to announce such a change, and the effort to see it through; doing so will only strengthen and bring greater prosperity to Canada and its allies.