Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

Crude Awakenings

Oil, politics, and coming of age in Alberta’s boomtown


My family moved to Calgary when I was six and a half. The first thing that greeted us as we drove into the downtown core was the Cecil Hotel, a Turkish blue building from the 1910s, vaguely Western and patently seedy. I remember the look of horror in my mother’s eyes when my dad announced: “There’s our hotel.” He was joking, but how was she to know that? We had no idea what expected us out west.

The Cecil was notorious. Even as a kid this was clear from the skinny thighs and gaunt cheeks of the women who hung around there. The hotel was flanked by train tracks and a wooded park, as well as a homeless shelter and a health clinic that I started going to at 15 for cheap birth control. There were two other century-old hotels nearby — in Calgary, buildings over a hundred years are rare. Like Cecil’s Tavern, with its two-dollar beers, both were haunts for drunks and junkies, but the King Eddy had live music while the St Louis was known for Ralph Klein.

When we moved to Calgary in 1996, Klein, or King Ralph as he was known, was in the midst of his 26-year political career, which he kickstarted in 1980 announcing his bid for mayor to drinking buddies at the St Louis, where he reportedly continued to meet with his “shadow cabinet” over the years. The high-school dropout was mayor for nearly a decade, held a couple minister positions in the provincial government after that, and then went on to the highest office in the land, acting as premier of Alberta from 1992 to 2006. A populist somewhere between Rob Ford and Donald Trump, he once gave an environmentalist the middle finger on TV. When his wife got below market price shares in a computer software company he’d publicly endorsed, it was ruled that he broke the law, but unintentionally so he didn’t get in any trouble. Upon the outbreak of mad cow disease, Klein said the rancher should have “shot, shoveled, and shut up” about his infected livestock. When he did things like have a black-out-drunk meltdown shouting racist epithets in a homeless shelter, most people went on just calling him “folksy” and “colorful.”

I believed my older brother when he told me that Ralph Klein poured beer on his cheerios every morning. I announced this in class during a discussion about the government and acutely remember the talking-to I got from the special needs aid. Responsible for supporting a child with down syndrome in our class, she wasn’t really supposed to punish other students but she was so defensive about Klein she cornered me to explain how disrespectful I’d been. She drove a pick-up truck with one of those decals that showed Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes peeing on the logo of whatever brand of car the truck wasn’t.

People liked Ralph because the economy was doing well, though it’d be hard to prove that this had much to do with his laissez-faire style of governance. Alberta runs on oil and gas, and its economy has long been subject to boom and bust cycles. Oil prices soared in the seventies during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when OPEC imposed an embargo on the US for supporting Israel, stoking investments in the Alberta Tar Sands. While it’s the third largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the oil is low quality. The crude bitumen deposit takes a lot of money and energy to process and refine, and is only worthwhile when barrel prices reach a certain premium on the international market.

A bust followed in the eighties. The Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war throttled oil output. In the summer of 1979, gas was being rationed and people were lined up at the pumps across the United States. A portmanteau of stagnation and inflation called stagflation followed, caused by too much money chasing too few goods. The disruptive effects of the oil shocks caused Pierre Trudeau’s federal government to pursue a national energy policy that favored regulation and revenue-sharing. Albertans hated Trudeau for this. New taxes mandated the province to distribute its resource-generated wealth throughout the rest of the country. Critics saw them as crippling the industry. At the same time, the oil shocks had slowed economic activity in industrialized countries and encouraged energy conservation attempts creating declining consumption. All of a sudden by 1981, there was an oil glut. The price of a barrel of oil fell to its lowest in 1986. In Alberta, people tacked bumper stickers onto their gas guzzlers that read: “Please God, let there be another oil boom. I promise not to piss it all away next time.”

Klein was the mayor of Calgary for this entire recession. When he took over as premier in 1992, he enacted an austerity campaign and slashed government spending. It’s hard to say how much this helped Alberta bounce back, but by the mid-nineties the global price of oil was beginning to rebound. We moved to Calgary in 1996 around the time a lot of people were moving out west.

My pre-teen years were marked by my family starting to be able to afford things we couldn’t before. First, we got a lot of unnecessary appliances like an electric waffle maker and an espresso machine from Starbucks. Then we got a nicer car. Right before seventh grade, we moved to a neighborhood where kids mostly went to private school. When I brought girls home from public school, some of them were uncomfortable. They thought we were rich. It was hard to explain that this house with renovated bathrooms and stainless steel appliances didn’t exactly feel normal to me either.

I spent most of my time at dance lessons in a basement underneath a dentist’s office, learning traditional Scottish highland dancing to bagpipe music. While most strip mall dance studios taught a mix of ballet, tap, and jazz and put pre-teen girls on stage in sexualized lycra, there was something chaste about our traditional steps and velvet and wool plaid costumes. I think that’s why we got asked to perform at formal events around the city sometimes. It was wholesome entertainment.

I danced with the Philharmonic orchestra once. Every summer I danced outside in a tent beside a horse jumping show. Calgary’s biggest tourist attraction is 10-day rodeo called The Stampede, and every evening after the bull riding and the calf roping, there’s a dance performance in the stadium which holds about 25,000 people. I got to be a part of it one year. But sometimes these events we performed at were smaller, without any livestock around, private black-tie dinners in hotel ballrooms attended by politicians and dignitaries.

I got my period for the first time dancing at one of these dinners in front of Ralph Klein. I was twelve and a half, and I remember backstage during a costume change, I could hardly fit into my velvet jacket. I had breasts I hadn’t had a week ago. It took three moms backstage pinching and prodding to zip me up. On stage, flat screen TVs played a live feed of the performance. As I was dancing, I could see myself out of the corner of my eye with a split-second lag. When I got off stage, I went to the bathroom, and found dark red in my underwear. I had too many layers of skirts and petticoats for anyone to notice but still it sounds like some sort of archaic ritual: girl gets first blood dancing for the leader.

I remember I made out with a boy from school before I got my period for a second time. He played hockey, had pretty handwriting like a girl, and a small scar between his eyebrows. The next fall, we got drunk at a girl from school’s 13th birthday party and he fondled me in the crawl space. At a halloween party in another suburban basement a couple months later, I gave him a blow job. At school, my friends yelled at me for being a slut so I broke up with him.

Around the same time, the worldwide price of oil rebounded. For the past 20 years, it’d been below $25 per barrel and it rose to above $40 and then more than $50. Alberta benefitted from the post-9/11 energy market. With the ensuing instability in the Middle East, Alberta became a reliable supplier of oil to turn to. China’s growing prosperity meant it was a new customer for the Tar Sands as well. In 2004, Premier Klein announced at the Stampede of all places that the oil boom had provided the province enough funds to pay off all of its debt. The next year, the government actually had a surplus and Klein decided to give every Albertan (except prisoners) $400 checks. We called them Ralph Bucks.

The checks were distributed in 2006. I’d lost my virginity the summer before to an 18-year-old in his pick-up truck and I’d just started dating a new guy who went to private school. Any passing anxieties about my hairy pussy multiplied. Some girls at my high school talked about shaving theirs but that terrified me. Also I was haunted by my older brother saying having sex with a girl who had razor stubble felt “like astroturf.” I imagined all the girls who went to private school must get their vaginas waxed smooth. If I was going to date a guy who went to private school, I had to get a Brazilian. That’s what I saved my Ralph Bucks for, a series of waxes at a strip mall salon that revealed underneath all that hair my vagina looked like an alien. Months later, my boyfriend would say, if you’re doing that for me, you really don’t have to.

I moved away the year after for college. Calgary continued to prosper until the global oil price plummeted a couple of years ago. I’ve only been back once since the crash. There was talk the city would fare better this time around, that maybe the town had grown up and out of being a single-resource economy. Klein was dead. The Cecil was razed. Our house, the one with the new bathrooms and stainless steel fridge, had been demolished and the frame of a half-built McMansion stood in its place. There were for sale signs on front lawns and everywhere the brown grass was sparsely covered with patches of snow. Spring would come, but another boom might not.