Alberta Premier Alison Redford says oil is opening Canada’s fastest-growing province to the world for the first time.
The population of Canada’s main oil-producing region has soared by 37 percent to about 3.7 million in the past decade as companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Statoil ASA attracted workers from China, Venezuela and the Philippines to develop the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.
“Most people around the world believe that it has been a fairly parochial jurisdiction,” Redford, 46, said during an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. “We are now going through a generational change in politics and in business. We have an ability to embrace the world in a way that we’ve never done.”
Alberta, one of only two land-locked Canadian provinces, is turning a farming and cowboy image on its head as the booming energy sector attracts global attention to its oil sands and welcomes newcomers to fill jobs.
The immigrant population of Calgary is growing faster than any Canadian city as oil companies fill as many as 100,000 jobs over the next eight years, according to a study by Deloitte and Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
“I came here because it’s easy to get a job,” said Hong Wei Pei, a 36-year-old accounting clerk from China who arrived in Calgary with her husband and two children in 2009. “Most people here are immigrants and the locals are friendly and welcoming. If you work hard you’ll be successful.”
Alberta has led economic growth in Canada in recent years and per-capita gross domestic product, at C$70,824 ($69,462) last year, is 75 percent higher than Quebec’s and tops among Canadian provinces.
The investment and immigration has changed the face of the province. Albertans elected Canada’s first Muslim mayor to lead Calgary, the province’s largest city, and in Redford has its first female premier, one of only three in Canada. That speaks to the opportunities for immigrants and minorities in the province, says Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose parents emigrated from Tanzania.
“There are very few places in the world where a kid from a minority ethnic community, a minority faith community, could be elected your mayor without anyone blinking an eye,” said Nenshi, in a speech on Oct. 26. “It’s up to us to model to the rest of the world a place where multiculturalism works.”
Visible minorities make up about a quarter of the population of Calgary, which was ranked the world’s fifth-most livable city by The Economist magazine this year.
One reason why Alberta has been successful at integrating immigrants is because the region is so young, says David Liepert, a Calgary-based anesthesiologist who adopted the Islamic religion 16 years ago. Alberta, named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, became a province in 1905 with a population of about 100,000.
“Alberta is still building a society and that makes it open,” said Liepert, 50. “It still has aspects of the frontier culture. It doesn’t matter what your background is.”
The original European settlers, who displaced nomadic native tribes including the Blackfoot and Sarcee nations, had to work together and cooperate in order to manage their farming businesses. They endured a harsh climate where winter temperatures often drop to -40 degrees Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit), said Murray Edwards, a Calgary-based billionaire and vice chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., an oil sands producer.
“There’s a spirit here that I call ‘prairie entrepreneurialism,’” said Edwards, in an interview. “The original homesteaders were fiercely independent, but open to new ideas based on their merits -- not where they come from. That value set has survived to this day.”
Agriculture, including cattle farming, wheat and barley, was the foundation of the local economy a century ago and now accounts for only about 15 percent of the provincial economic output. Though Calgary still holds an annual cowboy fair, known as the Stampede, the main economic driver is now tied to the oil and natural gas sector, which generates about a third of government revenue and employs one in six workers, according to government statistics.
The price of oil, now hovering at $100 a barrel, has helped make the province Canada’s third-largest economy, just behind Quebec, which has twice the population.
“Alberta has got a lot going for it,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, the country’s second largest. “It’s very pro-business and continues to attract immigrants.”
The region is luring bankers too. A generation ago, businesses in Calgary had to go “cap-in-hand” to financiers in Toronto for money, Mike Tims, chairman of Peters & Co., a Calgary-based investment bank, said in an interview. Now, global investment banks including Rothschild, Societe Generale SA and Credit Suisse Group AG have set up shop in Calgary, helping to make the city a growing investment center, he said.
Over the next three years, Alberta will probably be among Canada’s fastest-growing regions, along with its eastern neighbor Saskatchewan and the Atlantic province of Newfoundland, which is also benefiting from an oil boom, Toronto-Dominion predicts.
“We have the most highly educated population per capita in Canada; many of those people are not originally from Canada,” Redford said in the Nov. 15 interview.
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who represents a Calgary district in parliament, forges ahead with a vision to make Canada an “energy superpower,” Alberta, with its 173 billion barrels of recoverable crude, stands to gain. Annual investment in the oil sands is about C$20 billion, filling government coffers and driving demand for engineers, electricians and construction workers.
Not All Cowboys
“We have to continue to attract people from around the world,” said Calgary’s Nenshi, a former consultant at McKinsey & Co. “People are attracted to invest in places because of the great quality of life.”
Calgary has added cultural organizations such as the National Music Centre, as well as a growing number of art galleries and sports facilities. With the Rocky Mountains on the horizon during the average of 297 sunny days a year, the most of any large Canadian city, skiing and hiking are a 45-minute drive away.
“Apart from the weather, Alberta is a very favored place,” said Tims. “There’s certainly a changing perception that we’re not all cowboys.”