Alberta officially started its path to reach a minimum salary of $15 an hour by 2018. The cabinet passed the legislation to launch the phased hike on Tuesday.  This surprisingly progressive move will make Alberta the province with the highest minimum wage in the country, and by far.

On October 1st, Alberta’s minimum salary will go from $11.20 to $12.20. It will rise to $13.60 in October 2017 and finally reach $15 on October 1st 2018.

The government has already reduced the gap between the general minimum wage and the one for servers and bartenders (these employees are generally paid less to compensate for the tip they receive) by half. The gap will be completely eliminated next month.

Premier Rachel Notley had promised to raise the minimum wage during last year’s provincial elections. She is now following through with it, despite backlash from business groups and other parties.

Unsurprisingly, detractors of the hike have predicted terrible consequences for the economy.  The opposition is convinced that unemployment will soar and small businesses will burn. Representatives of small businesses have launched a petition against the $15 wage. It should be noted that, despite popular beliefs, research has failed to prove a clear correlation between job losses and minimum wage hikes.

Notley’s party, the Alberta NDP, have relentlessly defended the hike as a necessity.

“Every Albertan should be able to afford rent, transportation and food. These increases will help insure that low wage earners can at least meet their basic needs,” said Labour Minister Christina Gray, when the plan was outlined in June.

There are approximately 305 000 Albertans currently living on minimal wage. According to the government’s numbers, almost two thirds of them are women. 44% have children under eighteen and 7% are single parents.

In 2015, 3.1% of Albertan workers were on minimum wage, but a much larger percentage, currently paid under $15 an hour, will be positively affected by the hike.

The proportion of workers on minimum wage is twice as high in Quebec.  In August, Minister of Finance Carlos Leitao made it very clear what he thought of raising the minimum wage. According to him, $10.75 is within the “advisable range” and the slight readjustment made every year for inflation is more than enough. “I don’t see why we would accelerate this process,” he declared to the Journal de Québec.

He was responding to Alexandre Taillefer, a businessman who gained notoriety through the TV show Les Dragons. Taillefer had called for a $15 minimum wage during the World Social Forum. Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire are also supporting this idea.

*Featured image credited to Chris Schwartz, Government of Alberta

Fort MacMurray and large swaths of Northern Alberta have been burning for a few days. Homes and communities have been destroyed and people have died, too.

This is a time for everyone in Canada and beyond to come together and try to stop the fires and assist those who have been forced to evacuate as much as they can. That has been happening. There have been stories circulating of everyone from the people of Lac Megantic, Quebec to recent Syrian refugees pitching in.

Politically, though, there has been a fire of a different sort. At first, there were those online suggesting that the fires were directly caused by the oil being pulled out of the ground, but when it was clear that the fires did not start at the extraction site and had no specific correlation to the most prominent industry in the region, those rumblings gave way to a political argument about whether or not the wildfires were the result of climate change.

Ottawa Weighs In

Green Party leader Elizabeth May fired the first shot, so to speak, when asked if the fires were linked to climate change:

“Of course. It’s due to global emissions. Scientists will say we know with a destabilized climate, with a higher average global temperature, we will see more frequent, more extreme weather events … due to an erratic climate, due to our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Later in the same day, she walked that statement back a bit, saying there was no specific correlation and that “no credible climate scientist would make this claim, and neither do I make this claim.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got the question next and responded like this:

“It’s well-known that one of the consequences of climate change will be a greater prevalence of extreme weather events around the planet, however any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster I think there is a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome.

Pointing at any one incident and saying, ‘Well this is because of that,’ is neither helpful nor entirely accurate. What we are focussed on right now on is giving the people of Fort McMurray, and across Alberta, the kind of support that they need.”

Now, I, for one, am loathe to agree with Trudeau anything, let alone on environmental issues. He is, after all, the one who seems to think pipelines will lead to our green future. I also believe that most of Alberta’s oil should stay in the ground. In fact, I experienced quite the dilemma a few paragraphs back in this article. I absolutely refuse to use the term “oil sands” but thought that “tar sands” was a little too hardcore a term to use for the “coming together” point I was trying to make.

That dilemma is nothing compared to the one faced by people whose homes have recently burned to the ground. In fact, not all of those fleeing the wildfires are oil company executives, very few are. These are workers, their families, activists opposed to pipelines, First Nations communities and others who, a week ago, were fighting against the destruction the oil industry would bring to their home, and now are fleeing from their home.

With that in mind, I have to agree with Justin Trudeau. This is not the right time to be talking climate change.

Put the Fires Out First

Are these fires the result of climate change? Maybe. Could they also have been caused by inconsiderate campers? Maybe. Are wildfires a natural occurrence in the area? Yes. Do these fires have no other explanation? Maybe. These are all good questions that can be answered later.

Right now shit is burning and stopping that and helping those affected has to be our first and only concern. There will be time to talk cause and assign blame later.

When a spree killer is chasing you down the hall, you don’t stop running, turn around and pontificate on the lack of gun control or our failing mental health system, you get the hell out of there and hope the killer is stopped before he gets to you. If you survive, there will be plenty of time to talk about and hopefully stop the root causes of what happened.

Right now, metaphorically, we’re still running down the hall. The fires are still raging and we need to stop them and find a way out.

It’s fine to criticize the government at a time like this, but only on things they aren’t doing or could be doing better to deal with and hopefully end the situation (like not letting the Russians help). Linking the disaster to climate change at this point isn’t one of them.

I know that I may be annoying some people whom I otherwise agree with and may agree with on this issue, except that I don’t think this is the right time to be on a soapbox about it. I don’t really care, because, here in Montreal, I still have a roof over my head, which is more than some in Alberta, Manitoba and now Ontario can say.

When your soapbox is burning, run away.

“Alberta this morning woke-up to an NDP government!”

From what pollsters say, this will be the headline on May 6th. Let’s put our justified reticence for polls and those that conduct them to rest for a bit, lets abstract volatility from the equation and pretend that the polls were spot on. In this case, for the first time in history, the province of Alberta, known amongst Canadian progressives as Mordor, will elect an NDP majority government.

Some have tried to dismiss this occurrence as Bob Rae Syndrome 2015 Edition. A sort of perfect storm, the result of an economic crisis, fatigue of the Progressive Conservative brand and division within the Albertan right-wing. Many pundits have  made reference to “Bob Rae-osis” as an inevitable sickness that would plagued dipper ranks and would push their eventual government and the province of Alberta to the edge of oblivion.

For the pundits trading in such theories, the underlying argument in using such logic is the NDP can only be a protest vote, voting for any other party outside of the deemed centre of gravity of “governability” is fruitless and that even if you vote for change, by the end of “change’s” mandate you’ll be begging for the return of status-quo.

Within this logical framework, an NDP victory is just a blip, a wave that will eventually recede. For the pundits and the panelists that use this rhetoric, the reason behind the NDP’s success isn’t about the NDP or because of the NDP, its pretty much: a success despite the NDP.

What’s Really Happening in Alberta?

To recognize that Notely and her “populist rhetoric” of asking the rich and multinational corporations, the oil moguls, to pay their fair share, the message of a more equal redistribution, struck a cord with the Albertan electorate is to recognize that the Albertan Model, the neoliberal ideology of the Calgary School has failed.

An electoral defeat might seem inevitable, but the demise of the neoconservative model that has swept the country cannot occur. Through their subliminal messaging the mainstream media, Fraser Institute and the spin doctors of the extreme centre are attempting to safe face avoid a complete wreck. Forget the glitter and the shine, its damage control time.

NDP Rally-260
Alberta is not Quebec, Rachel Notley is not Jack Layton (photo by Chris Zacchia, Corona Theatre, Montreal, 2011)

The constant references to Bob Rae are contrasted with the references made to Jack’s Layton’s Orange Wave in Quebec. Needless to say, the realities of Ontario in the early 1990s, Quebec in 2011 and Alberta in 2015 are very different.

While this message has the appearance of positivity, it’s also a scripted one. In 2011 the NDP was blessed with an exceptional leader, but exceptional leaders are nothing within an ordinary context. Jack Layton had three kicks at the can 03, 05 and 08 before success.

Likewise, to now pin the extraordinary accession of the NDP brand in Alberta only on Notley is to dismiss the sociological underlying trends that have turned what was once the cradle of neoconservatism into fertile ground for social-democracy. It is to refuse to accept that a majority of Albertans are refusing austerity, the Conservative model on steroids, that Jim Prentice has tried to impose on them.

In that sense, the real headline here wouldn’t be that the NDP have won it’s that Albertans have refuted the Conservative model of society, that the Conservative model of economic management has been an utter failure and that the Conservative ideological buzzwords such as job creation, tax breaks and user-payer are wearing out. There might not be a clear victor in Alberta yet, but there is one clear loser and that’s neoconservative ideology and rhetoric.

A New Rhetoric for Alberta

Alberta since time immemorial has been the land that supposedly embodied and harvested a profound belief in social conservative values and free enterprise. The Social Credit and later the Progressive Conservative movements were bread and nourished there.

The idea that “every man an island,” that über-individualism was the answer, that society didn’t exist, was paramount. Or at least so was the story that was sold to the rest of Canada. And then from there steamed the Reform movement, the accession of neoliberalism within Canadian society.

From the ashes of prairie radicalism, prairie libertarianism was born and it swept the west. But until the mid-1990s it couldn’t make a breakthrough in the vote rich province of Ontario. Then Mike Harris came along.

Mike Harris and his “common sense revolution” was a tilde-wave. Not because the Progressive Conservatives hadn’t held power in Ontario before, but because of the way in which he won.

Ontario was the Liberal province, a Liberal stronghold in practice and in theory. The Progressive Conservative brand in Ontario was in many ways very distant in its rhetoric and its political agenda from its Conservative cousins in the West.

Harris’s transformation of the Ontarian Progressive Conservatives, aligning them with the neoconservative movement, especially the Gingrich Republicans, changed the face of Ontario and Canadian politics forever. Internal divisions and the doubling down of the Rae administration also helped his rise.

Only time will tell if the prophecy of an NDP government in Alberta will come true. It’s certain that if the NDP does form government in Alberta on May 5th, they have will have to fight tooth and nail, as leaked cables from the Rae administration have proved, to make sure that their democratic mandate is respected.

As Russell Brandt said, rightfully so this past Monday, democracy is about popular mobilization and social movements. The NDP will need them to fulfill their democratic mandate, if not they will face the same fate as Bob Rae.

* Featured image Dave Cournoyer, Creative Commons

For over eight weeks, photographer Robert Van Waarden travelled from Hardisty Alberta to Saint-John New Brunswick in order to talk with and photograph residents living along the projected path of TransCanada’s EnergyEast pipeline. He has chronicled his many stops and is now in the process of curating his images and short films for an upcoming travelling exhibit that will revisit the communities he visited along the pipeline’s route.

While travelling the country by car, he has witnessed first-hand the generosity and hospitality of countless Canadians. Van Waarden has been able to discuss at length with those who will bear the brunt of the risk if ever the pipeline is built, and says that the main concerns residents have with the project is water safety, spills and climate change. These are legitimate concerns.  Gaspé is fighting Petrolia over regulations that would protect the town’s drinking water from harm caused by hydraulic fracturing while in Alberta, the lakes surrounding the oil sands are being polluted at an alarming rate.


TransCanada’s EnergyEast pipeline is slated to cross the Nipigon River which flows into Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh-water lake that millions of Canadians and Americans rely on for drinking water.  Van Waarden interviewed Keith Hobbs, mayor of Thunder Bay and Chair of the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities, an opponent of  the EnergyEast pipeline.   

Despite environmental concerns, some see the pipeline as a positive economic force that will create jobs and stimulate Canada’s economy. Some figures seem to back them up: in the last year, nine out of ten new jobs in Canada were created in Alberta, and while countries across the globe still struggle to reboot their economy, Canada’s export markets has become an engine of growth.

Some people are ready to take on the immediate environmental risk to their community (let alone the global reach of tar-sands pollution) for the promise of some direct or trickle-down economic gain. It’s unfortunate that people are being put in this situation and that the discussion is constrained to tar-sand jobs vs. no jobs when in fact, green energy initiatives have the potential to create even more jobs , stimulate technological innovation and sustainable growth with less risk for both people and the environment.

Van Waarden also met with First Nations people who have opened their homes and hearts and shared their experience among them Kanesetake Grand Chief Serge Simon who discussed his community’s oppositions to the pipeline.

Along the Pipeline | Serge Simon, Grand Chief Kanesatake, Quebec from Robert van Waarden on Vimeo.

If First Nations have often been sidelined when it comes to natural resources development and extraction, the recent Supreme Court decision in favour of the Tsilhqot’in in British Columbia will no doubt shake things up a bit. Van Waarden says that the “First Nations could stop this pipeline and that they are taking it seriously. From what I have seen and heard they are going to be a force to reckon with.”

“We live in a beautiful country and there is an incredible amount of land and people that would be impacted by this pipeline. There are many strong voices and opinions in this country and the common thread throughout is that Canadians and First Nations are questioning the direction we are headed. It has been an honour to listen to and photograph so many diverse individuals and communities”

For more images and video, please visit link

Not since Confederation has a nation-building project determined so much of Canada’s future, divided Canadians and equaled the endeavor of CP Rail, than Alberta pipelines. Several projects have been proposed but nothing perhaps more politically contentious than the Keystone XL, which would run pipelines from Alberta to parts of central United States. While Northern Gateway would transport bitumen from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia and then ship it to Asian markets.

Canadians must decide whether it would be better off becoming gas station of the world or global leaders combating climate change. Petroleum is a dangerous market and there are potential socio-economic and environmental risks facing Canadians. Outside factors are influencing whether Canada takes on those risks.

Despite some financialists, think-tanks and environmental expert warnings, PM Stephen Harper has vowed continuing support for Canada’s future in crude oil. Consequently, Conservatives have enforced gag orders on climate change scientists from speaking to the media and further removed environmental protections through Bill C-45, opposed by Idle No More.

Harper would ensure risks of environmental catastrophes from pipeline projects including clear-cut forests, depleted wildlife and risks of oil spillage into nearby bodies of water, poisoning communities. Even the most optimistic pipeline job projections, according to Cornell University, appear to be pipedreams. 85 to 90% of the people hired to do the work would be non-local and predominately temporary workers.

Oil venture in Canada is also up against time and technology. There is the impending deadline of Congress facing President Barrack Obama on whether to approve Keystone. If Obama rejects the deal, Canada would scrap Endbridge. There is also the rapid pace of American petroleum technology innovations.

Obama will likely announce a national synthetic oil technology policy. Synthetic oil is a greener, cheaper technology which could be harnessed in the United States. Its production utilizes a combination of non-food crops, natural gas and coal. The result of which is a much more sleeker and finer product.


Princeton University concluded it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% if non-food crops are used to produce that fuel. A national program would require further assessments and thereby extend Keystone’s deadline further down the road, effectively putting Alberta’s already uncertain future in the cruder, harsher tar sand oil in the stone ages with the dinosaurs.

This is the likely reason why Obama neglected to mention Keystone in his State of the Union address. Instead, the president emphasized cutting climate change, harkening back to his 2008 campaign promise to achieve American energy independence within ten years. All signs appear to point in this direction with John Kerry’s appointment to Secretary of State, Kerry being the most outspoken Democrat on tackling climate change.

Should American backing fall through, Alberta should not rely on its Chinese state-owned oil partner, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), to be its safety net. A Chinese ambassador to Canada has revealed that Beijing would not wait on Canada if Alberta-BC issues are not resolved in a timely manner.

Alberta oil is only lucrative to Chinese investors so long as it will have pipeline clients. Alberta currently trades at a $40 discount per barrel of oil to the US. Since there are no pipelines to cancel out high transport costs to distant clients this is done to maintain interest. This means negative dividend returns for Alberta.

Currently, Premier Alison Redford’s government is bleeding $6 billion. China is only willing to cover the cost of cargo shipments to keep Alberta oil afloat until Canada could find other larger markets to invest in pipelines. BC’s blockade of Alberta’s Gateway deal would deny access to Asian markets. A ThreeHundredEight poll suggests a BC NDP victory this May with leader Adrian Dix promising to kill Northern Gateway. Northern Gateway is expected to be complete by 2017 or 2019.

Although Canada may be a politically stable source of oil, China could secure its oil supply by other means. China could diversify its clients while further weaning itself off of dirty oil towards sustainable energies. Unlike Washington, Beijing is not beholden to whomever it does business with. This ensures China’s access to petroleum could come from multiple markets.

Bottom line, Canadians could see themselves sitting on surplus black gold sold at red dot prices. In the end, Canada could be left holding the bag. Not quite the Dutch Disease prophesy, but still a crude awakening for Canadians.

We can’t talk about it at the holiday dinner table because one of the kids picked himself up and got himself out of debt by getting a job there. Sure, we’ve touched on it briefly after a couple of mojitos, but when I first learned that my brother-in-law was a mechanic for the larger-than-life trucks that speckle Fort McMurray, Canada’s oil-country, it put a frog in my throat, especially since I used to be heavily associated with Greenpeace, a leading campaigner against the Alberta tar sands.

Getting into the pros and cons of the Alberta operation would lead to an unpolite family dinner conversation. But in all truth, like Ellen Cantarow said, energy is ugly, so what the hell. And tar sands are as ugly as energy can be. “Tar sands are sandy soils laden with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Getting oil out of them is a dirty, dangerous and deadly process,”   said Cantarow in her article.

Yes, my brother-in-law knows all about the displacement of the local indigenous population; he’s spoken to a few of them; shared a beer with them; and he has a right to earn a living, after all, even if it’s being employed in what many people consider a stain on Canada. Even Barack Obama is beginning to take a stand against importing the stuff into the land of the free.

“These tarsands, there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there and we’ve got to examine all those questions,” said Obama in an article from last Sunday’s Calgary Herald.

Some of the fuss around what Obama said was due to the fact that he called them “tar sands” – a term typically used by environmental activists.

According to Cantarow, “tar sands is a colloquialism for 54,000 square miles of bitumen that veins sand and clay beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, one of Canada’s western provinces. Black as it is, bitumen isn’t actually tar, though it looks and smells like tar, and has its consistency on a very cold day—hence, that term ‘tar sands’.”

Regardless of what it’s called, it is the last bastion of an oil-hungry world. The process for separating the fuel from the sediment is so economically and temporally arduous that it’s really a last resort when reserves are low to create a push for other sources.

While my tar-sands-working family associate isn’t likely to join the growing throngs of people opposed to his work, he claims that he’s not the one doing the extraction, after all, he’s just the mechanic.

You don’t have to cop out of making a difference like my brother-in-law, though. One way to tackle this slippery issue is to vote for the parties who don’t support the tar sands, such as Stephen “Tar” per and Micheal “Oil Rig”natieff. Greenpeace Canada has prepared a federal election guide (pdf)   to stopping the tar sands. also has a petition you can sign to send to our oily leaders. Sign it here!

* Tar Sands image courtesy of