Why I Am Tired of Hearing About Alberta's Prodigious Wealth
(or, It’s my province and I’ll cry if I want to)
I did not celebrate the Alberta Centennial, which took place last year. Yee-haw. It's not because Alberta has treated me poorly. On the contrary, I was lucky to be born here and I love coming back.
I’ve lived all over Canada and in half a dozen other countries, but when I return to Calgary, my heart jumps in my chest and my head tilts back, leaving me open-mouthed, gazing up at the stunning, tossed-high-and-wide sky. It nevers takes me long to find my way to the Bow, that blue and green river where my dark-eyed grandmother used to swim, and where my great grandfather went walking with my mother when she was a little girl. I love the words that my mother still uses to name the places of her childhood, Sunnyside, the milk-wagon, Centre Street Bridge and its lions, the cottonwoods.
There was something magical about those tall poplars, because they shed real cotton--white stuff floating through the air and drifting over the grass like snow in summer--and because they were planted as a living memorial to the boys from Calgary who had been killed and lost in the Great War. My great grandfather--the same one who walked with my mother among those trees by the Bow--had been in that war. Deep, subterrenean, swimming in my child’s mind was the magic embodied in the old cottonwoods: a young man had survived that terrible, violent time and he and my great grandma had a daughter who gave birth to my mother, who gave birth to me and my brothers and sisters. All that was a kind of miracle, because what if he’d died and become a tree instead?
When my mother was a child, the thoroughfare where the cottonwoods grow was called Sunnyside Boulevard, but then the name was changed to Memorial Drive, which sounded important to me, and rather grand, full of river and trees and war and history. And still, when I hear those words, I remember the child I was then and know better who I am now, because that’s what happens when you love something deeply or when you go home.
After visiting Sunnyside--as I always do when I come to the city--I cross the bridge at 10th Street, then walk east on the other side of the river. Across a narrow band of grass, the buildings of downtown Calgary rise up like convincing demands, orders of shining glass and steel and concrete. Sometimes I go downtown to see my mother where she still works, across from the library, at City Hall, and sometimes I just keep walking east to 4th Street and 8th Avenue, until I get to the St. Louis Hotel, just down the street from the King Eddy on 9th. I used to dance there when I was old enough to look old enough to get into such a place, where men drank seriously and played the blues and dancing women thrashed around and it felt dangerous, like another time, because it was.
That stretch of old downtown is still rundown, though there are newer buildings beside the roughshod ones, and it’s all interestingly close to the main police station, which many call the cop shop. That stretch is also just a stone’s throw away from the Cecil Hotel, where over the years both my dad and Premier Ralph Klein have had a lot to drink and where an old family friend has lost a truckload of money in the VLT’s. Anyway, that whole area has another name now, different than the one it had when I was growing up, and unofficial. But anyone who lives or works near there knows the name, it’s a kind of new Memorial Drive, though most people want nothing better than to forget it’s called Crack Alley.
Many people walk through this small maze of streets, and many of them are surprisingly young, younger than I was when I snuck into the King Eddy and danced my heart out. There are older people, too, men and women. Sometimes their hands are empty but busy searching, picking through their pockets or even scrabbling at cracks in the pavement, looking for something they’ve lost. You know what they’ve lost when you look at their faces, the ghost-rings of hunger around their eyes, addicts’ eyes, and their hunger is not for the VLT machine in every bar, not for the alcohol at every second corner, not for the cigarette everywhere, but for the crack pipe and the burning crackling rocks of cheap cocaine that give the drug its name.
Depending how long you stay here, five minutes, an afternoon, an evening, you will see many crack addicts--a dozen, two dozen, twenty-five, one hundred. If you come here every day you will see more and more of them, different faces with the same gauntness and the same eyes moving back and forth with nervous desperation. The young ones are the most heartbreaking, because in their thin, sallow faces, you can see the fuller flesh and the lush beauty of the youth that was there once and should be there still, but is not.
Those skeletal teenagers provided the most obvious of my reasons for not celebrating the Alberta Centennial at any of the parties arranged by the provincial government. Because that same government has cut and cut and cut funding to the programs that try to help these young addicts. Because there is no room in the rehab centres. Because in this province that aggressively promotes and profits from addictive behaviour, there aren’t enough rehab centres to go around. Because the provincial and municipal government doesn’t give youth-at-risk programs in Albertan communities more desperately-needed funding. Because the provincial government doesn’t provide the men and women who end up in prison--often because of crimes connected to their addictions--any access to counselling, postsecondary education programs, or even half-decent libraries.
But I had other reasons to boycott the big party. Like a little boy’s legs. I have seen his ankles twisted awkwardly, the shin bones arching out, his knobby knees angled inward. He gets enough to eat now, every day, but the reason his twisted legs hurt him is because he had rickets as a toddler. Rickets. Do you remember reading about that strange ailment, caused by vitamin deficiencies? Do you remember seeing the photographs of bow-legged African and Asian children? Well, the boy I know got rickets living in a house in southern Alberta, where his mother worked, very hard, but there were other children, too, and there was noise and stress and fear about the future and he did not get enough to eat.
I wish that boy’s hunger--the prolonged malnutrition that bent up his legs--was a rare, freak accident. But it is not. Hunger and malnutrition is a crime committed daily in Alberta, wrought by greed and hard-heartedness and ignorance. In this wealthy, debt-free province, there are almost 100,000 children living in poverty, most of them from working families. In this booming, resource-rich place, almost 50,000 people rely on eighty food banks to get enough to eat: half of those people are children. Many others are senior citizens or disabled. In this province that is pouring millions of dollars into Centennial celebrations, the minimum wage is still effectively five dollars and ninety cents per hour. The government "plans" to raise it to seven dollars per hour, but they can’t tell us when that will happen. And seven bucks an hour is still not a living wage--just a degrading one. In this powerful, money-making province, we are losing the ability--and forgetting it ever existed--to take care of the weak, the damaged, the hungry, and the vulnerable. If my great grandfather were alive, he would tell me that there has not been so much homelessness and hunger in Alberta since the Great Depression, and he would be right.
Because I am his granddaughter, I learned from the trees and the river that watered them. I learned that my life depended, in a mysterious way, upon remembering the ones who had gone before me, but without my good fortune. In Alberta today, those people are not soldiers who died in a distant war. They are very much alive, and they struggle every day. What does the Alberta Centennial mean to them? Has anyone bothered to ask?