Stelco Hamilton, sunset. By Phil Armishaw via Flickr.

Gas, or things that burn it.

Every once in a while, an article comes out from the depths of downtown Toronto or Vancouver. In this article, someone will yell about the rent being too damn high and Canadian investment in the tech sector being too low, foreign investment in property being too high for the locals, and the future is now doomed because we once invested in oil.

Canada has over-invested in the tar sands. We made a bet that the Americans wouldn’t destroy the Dakotas to bake their own, and the bet did not pay off. Perhaps this was signalled by Obama’s decision to veto the Keystone XL, which really very few urban Canadians were interested in supporting anyway: we like the thought of our unspoiled forests, and are generally opposed to environmental devastation even if it is on the other side of the country. Perhaps the change wasn’t signalled at all — the plunge of China’s economy over the course of 2015 was not publicly mass-anticipated by anyone but perhaps the horoscope books.

Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis, 1997–2002

The problem is not only that, though. Canada has under-invested in manufacturing, for sure — this is because Canada’s manufacturing centres are largely located in Ontario and Quebec, which are not an area of the country which supports the Conservative party, generally. Therefore, the Conservative party does not support it back: the Conservative party supports its own, and its own are in the West. Because cities are, in general, more liberal places than the rural landscapes that support them, and because a large percentage of Canada’s population lives in cities, the split is probably here to stay: resources in the West, manufacturing in the middle, and nothing at all out East. The money will move with the party politics — it is all but guaranteed that Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario will benefit mightily from the Liberal majority, if only in the short term.

Donald Sutherland in The Hunger Games. He’s Canadian.

Thinking generic tech investment would save the economy is a terrible mistake, though. Capital represents both cities, and not so much wealth-creation as wealth concentration, which is the very thing that has brought the rents up. Foreign investment in the urban cores of first-world capitals is not only Canada’s problem, and nor is the Rent Too High Problem. If you want to skip the links, they lead to complaints about Moscow, San Francisco, Paris, London, New York, and Seattle. One of them goes to Hong Kong, which apparently can’t even rent to Gucci. I picked Moscow because it’s not even inside NATO: unbalanced investment in privately owned real estate isn’t only a Canada problem. Capital concentration is a separate problem from resource extraction and economic balance, but it does not look like the answer to a country where people can choose where to live to me.

Canada used to manufacture a lot of high-technology things, it’s true. Primarily, Central Canada has been used as a manufacturing base for engines — trains from Bombardier, planes from DeHavilland, and automobiles all through Scarborough. Two of those three died long before PM Harper came to cut our subsidies (and a reminder that the Bombardier train purchase by Toronto was protested as uncompetitive). Blackberry died in the middle, but a large part of that was that Apple put a whole computer in your pocket. There are still cars made in Oshawa and Aldershot — cars not terribly needed as capital concentrates in the Capital and young people can’t afford anything. Canada has made gas or things that burn it for at least thirty years, and it would be a mistake to think that a country with a population of 36m. can pivot so quickly to a pure-brains math economy: we need jobs for people who want to work with their hands, too. People lately employed in building buildings, which have sold to foreign investors as well as locals.

To move forward, Canada does need to pull subsidies from oil and gas and put them back into non-primary-resource extraction fields. We need to work out a better deal than the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, too. We need to look at how we tax income from investment vehicles, and how we keep people in houses while asking investment income to come in at the same rate as working income. As the article mentions, this will be time-consuming, particularly as Canada does not have direct access to a potential talent pool of hundreds of millions of people. But to present us as having made the wrong choice during ten years of resource extraction boom times is perhaps to misunderstand how to pay for giant stretches of empty land during a global slowdown.