Office-To-Residential Conversions: Won't Save Calgary's Downtown

The BIG IDEA that arose from the City of Calgary’s “Downtown Economic Summit” this past March was the need to convert some of our downtown’s vacant office space into residential. Doing so would help create a more vibrant downtown in evenings and weekends when it tends to become a ghost town when the 150,000 downtown office workers leave.

 There are numerous smaller, older office buildings surrounding Hotchkiss Gardens in downtown Calgary, that could potentially be converted to residential. However, due to lack of parking, building code requirements and other factors many are not suitable for conversion. 

There are numerous smaller, older office buildings surrounding Hotchkiss Gardens in downtown Calgary, that could potentially be converted to residential. However, due to lack of parking, building code requirements and other factors many are not suitable for conversion. 

Feasibility?

This idea is not new. In the early ‘90s (also a time when Calgary’s downtown office vacancies were very high), Paul Maas, an architect and urban planner at the City of Calgary championed the idea that Calgary’s downtown core needed more residential development.  He advocated for residential above the shops in the historic buildings along Stephen Avenue. He also thought old office buildings would make for ideal conversions to residential. His ideas fell on deaf ears, partly because at that time, there was no market for residential development in the core or surrounding \ communities.  

The Calgary Downtown Association even had an architect on staff for a time, researching the feasibility of office conversions to residential.  His conclusion - conversions were too costly, complex and there was no market for residential in the core.

  Built in 1958, the owners of Sierra Place (7th Ave and 6th St. SW) have decided to convert the 92,000 sq.ft. of office space to 100 residential units. 

Built in 1958, the owners of Sierra Place (7th Ave and 6th St. SW) have decided to convert the 92,000 sq.ft. of office space to 100 residential units. 

Have Times Changed?

Fast forward to today. There has been an incredible renaissance in urban living, not only in Calgary but in major cities across North America for more than a decade now.  Today, new residential buildings are routinely under construction in the communities surrounding our downtown - West Downtown, Eau Claire, East Village, Bridgeland/Riverside, Inglewood, Victoria Park, Beltline, Mission and Hillhurst. 

But in the downtown core itself (9th to 4th Ave SW and 8th St SW to Centre Street), there has only been two buildings with any residential component built since the ‘90s - Germain hotel, office, condo project and the TELUS Sky, currently under construction.

  Telus Sky currently under construction at 7th Avenue and Centre St. will have 422,000 sq.ft. of office space on the lower level and 341 residential units on the top floors. It has been designed by the world renown architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group. 

Telus Sky currently under construction at 7th Avenue and Centre St. will have 422,000 sq.ft. of office space on the lower level and 341 residential units on the top floors. It has been designed by the world renown architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group. 

Office Conversions Are Difficult

Over the years, numerous studies have documented the difficulties of office-to-residential conversions - building code issues, costs, lack of market and parking requirements being the key ones.

To get a current picture of the feasibility of office conversion in Calgary, I spoke with decided with Bruce McKenzie, Vice President, Business Development, NORR Calgary office as they have probably designed more urban residential buildings in Calgary than any other architectural firm.

He was quick to agree - office conversions face many challenges including:

  • Inability to control construction costs due to unforeseen extras (renovation / code extras).
  • Lack of parking means most likely these properties will remain rental (and probably should as people aren’t apt to take the risk of an old building and the potential future condo fee escalations).
  • Mechanical systems are totally unusable from office to condo/rental so a total gut job is usually needed.
  • Never able to achieve National Energy Code of Canada for buildings’ envelop requirements.
  • Floor plate sizes are too deep to create usable residential space at appropriate scale i.e. smaller units, which are typically what the market wants in conversion buildings.

That being said, NORR Calgary is currently doing several conversion studies, with one downtown Calgary project in working drawings.

  Rocky Mountain Plaza is another example of an older building that might be considered for conversion given it proximity to Olympic Plaza, Art Commons, Stephen Avenue Walk and Glenbow. 

Rocky Mountain Plaza is another example of an older building that might be considered for conversion given it proximity to Olympic Plaza, Art Commons, Stephen Avenue Walk and Glenbow. 

Criteria For Conversion

I also connected with Strategic Group who owns a number of older buildings in downtown Calgary and are doing an office-to-residential conversion of the Harley Court building in downtown Edmonton.

COO Randy Ferguson, indicates his firm is a big proponent of conversion when certain criteria are met: 

  1. Design efficiency.  (Note: Not as many office buildings are designed in a way that facilitate repurposing as many people would think – side core; offset core; odd rectangular buildings; oversized floor plates all drive inefficiency and quickly are eliminated as they can’t meet this requirement. Also must be able to accommodate built-in amenities - rooftop terrace, fitness, community space.)
  2. Location. Must have urban living amenities nearby - grocery, street life, churches, arts facilities, sports facilities, cool restaurants, bars and shopping
  3. Near major employment districts
  4. Close proximity to high speed public transportation
  5. Walkable 24/7 streets
  6. Rental demand in the neighbourhood
  7. A mix of architectural expression and affordability in the neighbourhood
  Older buildings along downtown's 7th Avenue are more attractive for conversions even though they lack parking, as they have excellent access to transit.   

Older buildings along downtown's 7th Avenue are more attractive for conversions even though they lack parking, as they have excellent access to transit.  

He indicated the three biggest barriers to conversions are:

  1. Inefficiency of design
  2. Zoning
  3. Lack of demand for residential

Ferguson says Strategic Group “is currently studying the assets they own in Calgary to ascertain which may be appropriate for conversion and whether or not office or residential are the highest and best use” adding “some office buildings are too successful to convert.”

When asked how the City of Calgary could foster more office conversions his response is plain and clear - “We believe the call to action is not to provide incentives, rather to facilitate the approval process by expediting matters such as zoning, permitting and plans examination. This would outweigh any incentive a municipality is at liberty to provide.”

Recently, while surfing Twitter, I learned Winnipeg-based Artis REIT has proposed the redevelopment of Calgary’s Sierra Place (7th Ave and 5th St SW) office building to residential. Zeidler BKDI architects have recently submitted a development permit on their behalf, proposing to convert the ten-storey, 92,000 square foot building into a 72-suite residential building. 

Obviously, while converting old office buildings to residential is difficult, it is not impossible.  

 The PanCanadian Building (located across from the Fairmont Palliser Hotel) has been renamed The Edison and is being marketed as a funky space for start-ups.  Already Silicon Valley's RocketSpace has leased 75,000 sq.ft. for a co-working space that could accommodate as many as 1,000 start-ups. 

The PanCanadian Building (located across from the Fairmont Palliser Hotel) has been renamed The Edison and is being marketed as a funky space for start-ups.  Already Silicon Valley's RocketSpace has leased 75,000 sq.ft. for a co-working space that could accommodate as many as 1,000 start-ups. 

Old Buildings Are Not The Problem

Calgary’s downtown office space vacancy problem is not with its older buildings, but rather with its tall shiny new buildings.  Some quick math shows older office buildings (C Class) make up only 6% of the total downtown office space (or about 2.3 million square feet) of which 630,000 square feet is vacant.  The conversion of three or four older office buildings will not solve our downtown office vacancy problem.

On the other hand, Class A and AA office space (newer buildings, best location, best amenities) make up 72% of the total downtown office space.  Currently, there is about 7 million square feet of vacant A and AA space (or about 65% of the total current vacant space – becoming higher with the completion of Brookfield Place and TELUS Sky).   The reality is Class A or AA office buildings are not good candidates for conversions from both a design perspective and location, as well the owners (pension funds) have deep pockets and for them the best return on their investment is still as offices. 

  At the beginning of 2017, Calgary has more office space under construction than any city in Canada, even more than Toronto. Downtown Calgary's office space surplus is the result of too much new construction over the past few years. 

At the beginning of 2017, Calgary has more office space under construction than any city in Canada, even more than Toronto. Downtown Calgary's office space surplus is the result of too much new construction over the past few years. 

  Just one of several new office towers being built for the Amazon campus in downtown Seattle. They are all quite spectacular. 

Just one of several new office towers being built for the Amazon campus in downtown Seattle. They are all quite spectacular. 

Last Word

Also let’s not forget a healthy downtown needs older office buildings. They offer the cheaper rent and funky character spaces that are often very attractive to start-up business, i.e. the exact businesses we want to attract downtown to help diversify the economic base.

Today’s start-up in a tired older office building could be tomorrow’s Amazon, which by the way, has created a funky, new multi-new building campus (9 million square feet in all) in downtown Seattle, for its 25,000+ employees.  

Office-to-residential conversions will not save our downtown!

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on September 30, 2017.

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What does "Smarter Growth" mean?

We have likely all read or heard the term “smart growth” but do we know what the term means? Smart Growth America defines smart growth as “an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighbourhoods, and community engagement.”  

Makes sense.  Seems reasonable.

The devil is in the details.

In Calgary, the Smarter Growth Initiative website (smartergrowth.ca) is the work of BILD Calgary Region, the new name for the recent amalgamation of the Calgary Home Builders’ Association and the Urban Development Institute.

If you are at all interested in urban development or city building in Calgary, check this site out.  It is full of articles written in plain English covering almost every urban development or city building topic you can imagine. While some of the articles may be a bit too simplistic for some (writing for the public is a delicate balance between too much and too little information), in my opinion most Calgarians will benefit from the clear, concise and credible information presented.

It a also a great place to learn about the various acronyms that developers, planners and politicians throw around - like MGA (Municipal Government Act), MDP (Municipal Development Plan) or MAC (Major Activity Centre). Here, these and more are explained in layman’s language.

Everything You Need To Know

Want to understand the Calgary’s infrastructure saga? If so, there is a great article entitled “Who Pays For What?” outlining who pays for roads and pathways, streetlights, public spaces, traffic lights, sound barriers, water, sewer and other utilities. Dig deeper and you can download a Deputy City Manager’s Office Report to Council that details the new off-site levies bylaw and all the rates. It will be an interesting read for some.

Interested in Affordable Housing? The video,“4 Factors In Housing Affordability” is worth watching. Want to know more about the benefits of mixed-use developments, or what placemaking is or the new energy codes of Alberta Homes? Links to articles on these subjects and more can be found on the home page.

Or, click on the “Innovation” tab and you can read articles about “A Natural Cure For Urban Stress,” “Centres of Innovation,” and “Do tiny homes have a future in Canada?”

On the Policy page, you can read what Councillor Farrell thinks about growth, what Guy Huntingford, CEO, BILD Calgary Region thinks about the housing crunch or how to make sense of developer levies.

The Development page has instructive pieces like, “Main Streets YYC,” “Innovation in a New Complete Community,” “Designing Streets for Safety” and “Secondary Suites With A Difference.”

There is even a Smarter Growth Initiative newsletter that you can sign up for, which will keep you posted on new development news as it unfolds.

Something To Think About

The stated goal of the Smarter Growth Initiative is “to engage Calgarians in dialogue on the topics affecting planning and development.”  Given the municipal election this fall, it would be wise for all Calgarians to educate themselves about how Calgary can grow smarter.

Note: This blog was commissioned by the Smarter Growth Initiative. However, they had no influence on its content.  

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Calgary: Time to think outside the car?

It seems everyday for the past month or so there have been one or more articles on my Twitter or Flipboard feeds dealing with how car ownership in North America is declining and the impact this will have on cities in the future.

It started in mid September with a Flipboard headline that read “Lyft’s President Says Car Ownership will ‘All But End’ in U.S. Cities by 2025.”  While it is hard to believe car ownership will end by 2025, it does make one think – what if car ownership was to shrink by 15% by 2025 and by 30% by 2050 from the current level of approximately million vehicles.   

A 2016 GasBuddy Calgary poll (22,044 voters) indicated 16% of Calgary households have 4 or more vehicles, 20% three or more, 40% two vehicles, 21% one vehicle and only 1% no vehicle.

What if some Calgarians were to decide they could live with one less car and use car-sharing to replace it? Could this already be happening?

Research says… 

In July 2016, Elliot Martin and Susan Shaheen, of the University of California, Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Resource Center published, “Impacts of car2go on vehicle ownership, modal shift, vehicle miles travelled, and greenhouse gas emissions:

An analysis of five North American cities. ” Calgary was one of those cities.

The Calgary findings for 2015 were enlightening:

  • Car2go removed an estimated 6,058 vehicles from Calgary roads (existing car owners who sold their car or individuals who were planning on buying a car but decided against doing so.
  • Car2go reduced overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by up to an estimated 52.9 kilometers for the year or 6% reduction in VMT traveled per car2go household.
  • Car2go prevented up to an estimated 8,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from polluting Calgary’s air. That’s an estimated 4% reduction. 
  • Car2go resulted in a slight increase in walking and bicycle ridership frequencies (10% and 2%, respectively). 

These findings are based on a sample of 1,498 Calgary car2go users. Similar results were found in the other four cities studied – San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver and Washington DC.

Link: Impact of Car2go...

 The Times They Are A Changin’

Obviously some Calgarians have already or are now making the decision to live with one less car  - or without a car at all. This number is going to increase as car-sharing programs expand the geographic area they operate in. As well, new competition will result in more cars and better pricing, which will make car-sharing even more attractive to more Calgarians. 

In addition, services like Uber and Lyft are sure to become commonplace over the next 5 years in Calgary and Calgary will probably have a bike-sharing program in the near future (over 500 cities world-wide already have programs), making living without two cars, more feasible especially in the inner city.

And then there is Calgary’s multi-billion dollar transit expansion plans like the Green-Line and several cross-town Bus Rapid Transit routes designed to make transit a more viable option for Calgarians’ everyday transportation needs.  

In addition, the Calgary Regional Partnership is piloting (October 2016 to October 2018) a regional transit system for Black Diamond, High River, Okotoks and Turner Valley, which may be expanded to Strathmore and Chestermere in 2018.

Little by little, Calgarians are being offered more options for commuting to work and other activities. 

I suspect many Calgary households would be willing to give up one of their cars if offered a viable alternative - especially for their Monday to Friday commute.  Who wouldn’t want to save some of the $10,000+ per year it costs to drive a car in Calgary, not counting parking fees and hassles if going downtown? Money that could be used to buy a bigger home, take a vacation or save for a child’s education.

Looking ahead…

Is it possible that we could return to building houses with just a single garage?  What impact would that have on how we build new suburbs?

Could we see more condos and apartment buildings with no parking (like N3 in East Village)?  Will the next generation rather spend $50,000 (the cost of an underground parking space) on a bigger condo than a parking stall for a car that sits idle 95% of the time?
Could we see downtown, hospital, post-secondary and airport parkades being converted to new uses?  
Could driving around looking for a parking spot at Chinook Centre, Market Mall and Southcentre at Christmas all but disappear?

With fewer cars on the road, could gridlock on Deerfoot, Glenmore and Crowchild Trails become a thing of the past?

And heaven forbid we might even see lower downtown parking rates as supply exceeds demand?

Fewer cars and less demand for parking would also make it easier to create wider sidewalks and more bike lanes where appropriate.  

Never Say Never…

I remember in the early ‘90s when the City of Calgary’s GO Plan set a goal of a 50/50 modal split for downtown commuters by 2020 i.e. 50% would use transit and 50% would drive many said it would never happen. Today the Downtown modal split is 49% transit, 10% walk/cycle and 41% drive.

Link: City of Calgary, 2016 Calgary Downtown Cordon Count 

While Calgarians love their cars, they are also young and highly educated, the ideal demographics for car and bike sharing programs, as well as services like Uber and Lyft (90% of Uber users are 16 to 44 years of age and 80% have a post-secondary degree). 

LInk: Rideshare Passenger Demographics 

Indeed, Calgarians have already demonstrated they love car-sharing with 99,000 car2go members, second only to Vancouver (118,000 members) in North America. 

Perhaps we don’t need to spend billions on Crowchild Trail, but rather fast track bigger and better car-sharing programs and private transportation services like Uber and Lyft?

Last Word 

Maybe it is high time to think outside the car!

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Calgary 2026 Olympics: To bid or not to bid?

An edited version of this blog was published by CBC News Calgary as part of their "Calgary at a Crossroads" feature, January 23, 2017.  

“How many Calgarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Ten. One to screw in the light bulb and nine to talk about how great the ’88 Winter Olympics were.”  This was a popular joke in Alberta in the early ‘90s. 

This is not a joke!

Speaking of jokes, it seemed like a joke in June 2016 when the rumour started that Calgary was thinking about bidding for the 2026 Winter Olympics given the City and Province is in the middle of one of its biggest recessions in their history.  That “joke” seems to be getting more and more traction especially with City Council giving five million dollar to a hand-picked committee of sport and Olympic boosters to determine if indeed Calgary should bid again.

It’s the ‘80s all over again!

It is ironic that the current economic climate is very similar to that of the early ‘80s when the ‘88s bid was made.  The City’s collective swagger had disappeared in the early ‘80s after the boom of the ‘70s, not unlike today.

Calgary’s energy industry was in the dumpster in the ‘80s (due to the National Energy Policy introduced by then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau). Today, it is in the dumpster because of a glut of world oil and the introduction of a Carbon Tax (introduced by now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau) due to current research that carbon fuels (in particular, the oil sands) are dirty energy.

Downtown’s vacant office space reached 18% in the mid ‘80s; today it is 22% and rising.  Another interesting comparison - the Performing Arts Centre (now Arts Commons) opened in 1985, in 2016 the new National Music Museum opened and the new Central Library will open in 2018. 

Back in 1981 the south leg of the LRT opened followed by the 1985 opening of the northeast leg with the northwest line linking downtown with the University of Calgary  - in time for the 1988 Olympics. Fast forward to today - in 2012 the West Leg of LRT opened and today we are looking at how to finance the Green Line (i.e. the North and Southeast leg combined).

The early ‘80s also saw the completion of Deerfoot Trail to the southern edge of the city; today’s equivalent is the completion of the Ring Road.

In the 1980 municipal election, few expected Ralph Klein to become mayor; in the 2010 election, few expected Naheed Nenshi to win.  Klein served three terms winning subsequent elections in landslides.  Nenshi has announced he will seek a third term in 2017 and everyone expects he will win easily.  Both were/are populist politicians and masters of the media.

In the ‘80s, Calgary was suffering Edmonton envy as they had an NHL team and we didn’t.  Today, Calgary’s envy is because they have a shiny new NHL arena and we don’t.

Is this the right time?

One could argue “Yes” as all of the ’88 legacy facilities are in desperate need of updating. The Olympic Plaza’s bricks are crumbling; the Saddledome doesn’t work for NHL hockey or major concerts, the Oval and Canada Olympic Park’s facilities don’t meet current Olympic standards. 

The Mayor has indicated CalgaryNext (new arena, stadium and fieldhouse proposal) would not be tied to any Olympic bid as the International Olympic Committee looks more favourably on cities that refurbish existing facilities. But you can bet that if we get the Olympics, we will get a new arena and upgraded stadium.    

Since the ’88 Olympics, Calgary has become the adopted home of many winter athletes who live and train here year-round.  Today, eight national winter sports organizations call Calgary home. In the early ‘80s, there were none.  Continuing to have Calgary as Canada’s premiere winter sports city is important to Calgary’s identity and tourism.

As hosting the Winter Olympics also includes a major cultural celebration, it would allow Tourism Calgary to showcase our new arts, architecture and attractions.  

Since 1988, Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010) have hosted successful Winter Olympics, which have elevated their status as world-class skiing, event and tourism cities.

Is this the wrong time?

The times have changed since 1988. It is estimated the bill for security alone for the 2026 Winter Olympics could exceed 1.5 billion dollars (the Vancouver Olympics spent one billion). One could easily argue this money would be better spent on schools, hospitals and recreation centres used by all Calgarians.  It is costing the City $5 million just to determine if we want to bid or not, which could have built 25 affordable homes for needy families and individuals. 

Others question why Calgary and Canada would want to be involved with the Olympic movement given the corruption of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members and the prevalence of athlete doping.  IOC members have a history of secret bank accounts, taking bribes and/or opulent gifts in return for their vote. They also travel in 5 star hotels and restaurants, while the athletes, (including Canada’s) live near poverty levels.

Every potential 2022 Olympic host city with a democratically elected government pulled out of the bidding, many citing cost concerns. The only two cities left in the bidding were Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Beijing won. What does that say?

The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 were widely considered a success, mainly because it helped the nation show the world how much it had emerged as a modern economic power. "Beijing did it as an advertisement. They got tremendous value because they didn't care about the cost. It was like buying a ton of television ads," said Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. (CNN Money, July 30, 2012)

No other mega–project consistently overruns its budget like the Olympics. Research also points out there are always significant government costs that should be, but aren’t attributed to the Games (in Calgary, that could include new arena, stadium improvements and LRT to airport). In addition, the economic benefits of the Games that are postulated by government agencies are rarely realized.

(Riley, Charles. “6 Olympic Budget Blowouts.” CNN Money. 2014. Updated January 20, 2014. Accessed: November 19, 2014.)

Calgary needs to get its swagger back

I was surprised when I asked dozens of friends and colleagues over the holidays “Do you think Calgary should bid for the 2026 Olympics?” Nobody said,  “Yes!” 

In fact, one parent of a potential athlete at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 said he didn’t think it is a good idea because of the corruption of the IOC and the fact Olympic funding for programming and facilities benefits less than 1% of Canadian athletes. 

One of the things that made the Calgary Winter Olympics unique and successful was the use of thousands of volunteers (the teal green Olympic coats were worn proudly for years after the Olympics). It was their gold medal. The volunteers not only allowed the Games to make a profit, but it brought the city together. There was a common goal to make these games a financial success after the Montreal Olympic fiasco. 

When the 1988 Calgary Olympics were over there was a tremendous sense of civic pride, a renewed confidence and a feeling Calgary could become be transformed from a provincial Canadian prairie city to a more cosmopolitan city. Calgary got its swagger back in ’88.

Will it take until ’26 to get it back this time!

An Expert’s Opinion

Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary whose research is focused on the impact of the Olympics and World Fairs on cities told me “Mega events are always controversial.  These projects can fragment a city in the planning stages; while at the same time bring the city together during the event. They are valuable in grabbing the world’s attention and sending a message to the world that the city is ambitious.” At the same time, agrees that they are notoriously difficult to budget accurately and most often run over budget. 

Hiller notes, “Federal and provincial governments respond to city projects. If there are no projects, there is no reason to them to give Calgary extra money, it will go to some other city.” He points to how the Green Line project has enabled the Calgary to get special funding from senior levels of government.  

In Hiller’s experience “the Olympics give a city new purpose, new energy, it mobilizes people and bring them together.  Nothing touches people globally like the Olympics. People watch the Games who aren’t interested in sports at any other time.  The opening and closing ceremonies have some of the highest TV ratings ever.” 

His final comment to me -  “It is never black or white.”

Backstory: It is interesting to note that Hiller was not approached by the City to be on the Olympic Bid Evaluation Committee despite being probably the most qualified person to do so.

IMHO

If the politicians have an extra billion dollars to spend on security for the Olympics, a better idea might be to spend it on developing the infrastructure to create a major volunteer-based winter event in Calgary that will attract international attention annually not just for two weeks in 2026. 

Maybe something that rivals the Calgary Stampede (or perhaps something that builds on the Stampede) putting Calgary and Canada on the international map every winter - or even biennially - not just once every 40 years.  Something we control, not something we have to bid for!

Any brilliant ideas?   

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Canada: The Foundations Of Its Future

Given 2017 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, I think every Canadian should read a book about Canada – past, present or future. This idea occurred to me when I recently found the book “Canada: The Foundations Of Its Future” in a Montreal thrift store. 

Inside back cover artwork

True confession

I admit I was originally attracted to the book by its lovely coloured reproduction of historical paintings of Canada.  Then I became more intrigued when I noticed the author was none other than Stephen Leacock.  I had always thought of him as humourist, never as a historian.

Upon closer look, it turns out the book is “a private and limited edition” copy published by The House of Seagram in MCMXLI (yes, they used Roman numerals in the old days). 

Ironically, the 1941 publishing date is almost exactly in the middle of Canada’s history, i.e. 76 years from today and 74 years from Confederation.  

Painting by Adam Sherriff Scott, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

painting by Frederick H. Varley, A.R.C.A., Vancouver, B.C. 1941

painting by Hal Ross Perrigard, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Better Perspective

Written in a reader-friendly manner (not even once did I fall asleep), the book is a wealth of information. For this baby boomer, it brings back memories of what I learned (forgot) about Canadian history decades ago in history classes at school.  It was so much different reading Leacock’s stories now having since visited every province in Canada and one territory, as well as internationally. Consequently, a much broader perspective of Canada and the world, enables me to understand and appreciate the history of our country.

The older I get, the more interested I am in history. Funny how that is.

Charles W. Jefferys, R.C.A., Toronto, Ont., 1941

Lessons Learned

painting by Charles W Jefferys, R.C.A., Toronto., 1941

What is amazing is how relevant the book is to the plethora of issues facing Canada today – First Nations poverty, Arctic Sovereignty, Immigration Policy, Natural Resources, Climate Change, Religious Persecution, Economic Change, Booms & Busts and Technological Change.

It was interesting to re-read the history of arctic exploration, specifically the search for the Northwest Passage in the context of today’s climate change.  A hundred years ago, the shrinking of the polar ice caps would have been good news.  It also made me wonder about Canada’s claim to arctic sovereignty given we have so little settlement there.

I now have a much greater appreciation for the longstanding and entrenched French vs. English duality of Canada, which is still influences Canada politically, culturally and economically even today.

painting by Adam Sherriff Scott, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Leacock’s stories about the violence and injustices between the early settlers and First Nations.  Having lived next to and worked on the Siksika Reserve near Gleichen Alberta in the early ‘80s, I now have a hands-on appreciation of both sides. Indeed, one of Canada biggest issues today has to be the well-being of our First Nations people.  I wish I had answers!  

I was also reminded of the everyday hardships faced by early Canadian settlers – a far cry from the comforts and conveniences of our everyday lives today.  How easily we forget!  We really should focus more on being grateful than griping.

Then there is a reminder of the important role immigrants (mostly poor) played in shaping the identity and development of Canada since Day One.  Immigration issues are still top of mind today.   In 1913, a whopping 400,870 new immigrants came to Canada, which then had population of 7.5 million. Leacock states, “There were more foreign-language newspapers in the Canadian West than anywhere else in the world.  Immigrants were exchanging European poverty for a new chance…we have to remember that their energy and industry and their new patriotism towards their new home played a large part in the making of our Western Dominion.”

Perhaps the biggest enlightenment was how our attitude towards nature and the exploitation of natural resources has changed over the past 150 years.  Leacock constantly references the importance of exploiting our natural resources as the key to Canada’s future.  It is amazing how that attitude has changed. 

It was interesting to also be reminded how Canada’s economy has evolved from one of fur trading, to fishing, to forestry and then mining. There was no mention of oil and gas.

Oh, how much the world has changed and yet how it is still the same.

painting by Hal Ross Perrigard, A.R.C.A., Montreal, P.Q., 1941

Samuel Bronfman’s Preface

“It is no magic fiat which achieves this: it is the people of Canada who have made and are making Canada. The coureur de bois; the merchant-adventurer; the explorer; the colonist; the homesteader; all who came early, wrestled with Nature; and won – these are the precursors who made our country.”

artwork by Ernest Neumann, Montreal, P.Q., 1941 

“Certainly the future decades of this century, which in the words of the late Sir Wilfred Laurier “belong to Canada,” will see Canadians zealously dedicating themselves to the further development of the boundless resources of our country, and will see, too, those resources flowing to the farthest corner of the world – a Canadian contribution to the welfare of humanity.”

Nor can we leave unmentioned the part which Canada is playing and will continue to play as intermediary between the two greatest forces for good that exist in the world to-day.  Because of our geographic location upon this continent, and our spiritual location with the Empire, we are destined – as we indeed, have already seized that destiny – to bring closer together the best of the Old World and New.

Leacock’s Libations

Canadians instinctively think more of what is still to come in their country than of what has happened in the past. People of older lands typically and commonly look back. They think of their thousands of years of history…majesty of the past.”

“The emigrant ship….was the world’s symbol of peace and progress…”

“Then came the discovery of gold and quickened the pace of life.”

“Life received a new wakefulness from the arc lamp and the electric light bulb…”

“Many came in caravans of prairie schooners – children, chattel and all.”

“Calgary was non-existent at Confederation. When the Canadian Pacific was built it was just a poor place, a few shacks. They moved it a mile or so, on ropes, rather than move the railway line.”

painting by T.M. Schintz,  High River, Alta., 1941

painting by W.J.Phillips, R.C.A., Winnipeg, Man., 1941

Last Word

I leave this to Bronfman wrote in the preface, “To encompass them the vision of the early pioneers must still be with us still, for where there is no vision, the people perish. It is the vision of a free Canada, a united Canada, a mighty Dominion…are manifested the various groups of different origins and separate creeds, working together in harmonious unison, each making its own contribution to the complete achievement which is the Canadian mosaic.” 

Does Canada have a vision today?  

It would be an interesting 2017 project for the Globe & Mail, Postmedia or Maclean’s Magazine to ask our Prime Minister, Premiers and big city mayors to independently submit their vision for Canada’s future.  It would be interesting to see how much they have in common? 

Maybe we should also ask corporate CEOs too (perhaps one from each province and territory). Why stop there - lets ask social agency, cultural and postsecondary CEOs also.

I wonder, "Is it realistic in today’s world for any democracy to work in harmonious unison?”