End of commodity boom real reason for national anger

There’s an ugly feeling across Canada, apparent in the federal election and its results, but long-simmering beforehand.

Politicians have been horrible to each other. But so too have millions of Canadian citizens, these days often portraying each other as enemies rather than as fellow citizens with differing views. This is particularly true on social media, where insults and abuse are everywhere.

We have suggestions of secession from some in both Western Canada and Quebec. We have people of all provinces seemingly uncaring about the concerns and situations of their neighbours.

We have some citizens speaking in tones that can best be described as hateful.

What’s causing the outrage and fury?

Pipelines? Pro or con, those are a common provocation for many.

Carbon taxes? That’s another spur to angry talk from all sides.

Is it Justin Trudeau’s urbane, sleek, happy-socks-wearing demeanour?

Is it Andrew Scheer’s smug-seeming, dimpled countenance?

I suggest it’s from none of these causes, which are just the sparks for a pile of fuel built up from a much more mundane but far deeper source: the end of the commodity boom.

Since the boom subsided in 2014, Canada’s fortunes have markedly ebbed. Oil prices have fallen far beneath the prevailing range of 2006-14, when $100 per barrel oil was nothing special. (The differential between western Canadian crude and the world price, due to inadequate pipeline capacity, makes things much worse.) Metals and minerals have slumped and bring a far lower average price.

And crops, obviously to readers of this newspaper, have fallen into a much lower range of prices, one that offers meagre profitability in a good year.

This is life in the afterglow of the commodity bull market and it’s bad for most Canadians. Farmers and oilfield workers know that directly, finding it hard to cover operating costs, to find work, or to find the confidence to decide to reinvest in operations. That’s been the situation for five years now, and a lot of the bills that piled up during the good times have been coming due, and being put off, and the grind of working off the debt and optimism is wearing people down.

When everybody was preaching to us about peak oil theory, with its permanently high prices, and we were all buying into the idea of the world running out of food (nine billion people by 2050), being residents of a resource-producing region seemed like Honest John’s “easy road to success.”

Now all those assumptions seem dodgy, and there’s no reason to think anything is changing any time soon. Commodity booms usually come only every 15 to 20 years, so long-term commodity prices aren’t likely to substantially rebound for about another decade. That means farmers and other resource producers need to hunker down, achieve industry-leading costs of production, reduce risk and prepare for a long haul of weak returns.

That’s not a recipe for good will and bonhomie, especially after the dreamy future we thought we were moving into.

Urban people, too, are affected by this. But most don’t get it. They wonder why they can’t seem to get ahead these days. Why don’t their wages increase? Why can’t people afford houses? Why does life seem so challenging?

It’s the same cause. Canada lives off resource revenues, with everything from banks to construction firms to the arts industry benefitting when resource revenues are high and the money is flowing around the economy.

That money has been drying up in recent years, but most urban people are clueless about why. Most don’t realize how directly their situation and the situation of their children is dictated by how the resource-producers are doing. Some are slightly interested and some really couldn’t care less.

And some, seething about the frustrations in their lives, lash out at farmers and oilfield people, for WRECKING THE PLANET!

Cows belching methane. Oilsands operations exhaling carbon. The world is being punished, and it’s because of the resource-producers, they believe. That explains to them why everything seems so crappy these days.

Many Canadians have turned against each other in the last couple of years, forming tribes of outrage and finding joy in denunciation.

Others are just dispirited, especially after seeing such a gutter-level federal election campaign of insult and abuse.

Almost none of this would be happening if oil prices were $30 per barrel higher, or canola prices were $3 per bushel higher, or better prices were coming from the world market for aluminum, potash and wood. Everybody would be relatively happy, and Canadian society would be advancing.

Today’s outrages would be minor annoyances.

Instead we’re all mad at each other and looking for somebody to blame for our frustrations.

We might as well stop looking. There’s no politician or type of Canadian that’s causing this.

It’s the commodity cycle speaking, and we wish it wasn’t so.

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