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The Cultural Relocation

Before there was $50-a-barrel oil or fluoride in the water, western Canadians waited breathlessly for news from the East

Mar 1, 2007

by Rick Spence

Whether it was the first radio broadcasts (brought to you by the CNR), political tidings from Ottawa or the latest fashions from the Eaton’s catalogue, Toronto and Montreal set the pace and the West did its best to keep up.

Now, not so much. In the two-plus years I’ve been writing “From Outside In,” Canada has turned inside-out. Edmonton and Calgary (and sometimes Vancouver) have caught the wind, while the East drifts in the doldrums. The West – led by Conservative thought leader Stephen Harper, whose upbringing in Liberal Etobicoke, Ont., seems not to have stuck – is playing the tune. And if Montreal and Toronto aren’t dancing, it may be because the tempo is too fast.

Evidence for this continental drift is all around. While Vancouver prepares for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Toronto is still trying to figure out wha’ happened to its bid for the 2015 World’s Fair. Stung by the SARS scare of 2003, a powerhouse committee worked on the fair for years until they suddenly realized – the day before the bid was due – that it would cost a lot of money. Toronto of course blamed the provincial government’s lack of support, while Queen’s Park pointed its bony finger at Ottawa. “It’s a missed opportunity,” mayor David Miller told reporters. “Unfortunately, this is the nature of our country.” Luckily, no one ever told that to Vancouver (Expo 86, Olympics 2010), Edmonton (all kinds of world championship events) or Calgary (’88 Olympics).

Ontarians can’t turn on the radio or open a newspaper without being remind-ed of the Rise of the West. An incessant commercial from a public-service union trying to protect members’ jobs tells us that Alberta nursing homes provide 3.5 hours of care per patient per day, compared to about an hour in Ontario (or less, if American Idol is on that night).

A recent newspaper ad campaign by the Calgary Health Region, desperately seeking nurses to bandage up Cowtown’s growing population, enraged folks from Hamilton to Halifax. “They’re trying to steal our nurses,” whined Hamilton Health Sciences spokeswoman Gayle Holmes to the Hamilton Spectator. “It’s the start of the war over talent.”

Just before Christmas came the news Torontonians found hardest to bear: Edmonton had been named 2007’s “big city cultural capital” of Canada. (While most were surprised at Edmonton having culture, a few did wonder when Edmonton became a big city.) Bob Magee, a radio host on music station CHFI, spoke for all Hogtown when he said, “Were we asleep or what?” In case his listeners didn’t get the point, he added, “I’ve lived in Edmonton, and there was nothing there.”
I checked with Bob to find out what he meant by “nothing.” It turns out he moved to Edmonton in 1971 to work at CHED, though he only lasted 10 months. (“I couldn’t deal with more than 10 months of cold weather,” he says.) “With the possible exception of Procol Harum recording with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, it was a cultural wasteland,” Magee recalls. “No West Edmonton Mall – no High Level Bridge waterfall – nothing.”

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Torontonians would have been even more disappointed if they had ever heard of the competition, which is co-ordinated by the Canadian Heritage department. For 2007, Edmonton edged out four cities from Quebec.

Finally, there’s the matter of Hollywood North. Toronto used to host A-class productions such as X-Men. Its January production schedule included, well, mainly TV series. Big, big names such as, umm, Best Years, Face to Face, Rent a Goalie and – OK, here’s a household name – Holmes on Homes. By contrast, tourists still flock to Alberta for the Brokeback Mountain tour (see the bridge where Ennis met the bear!). And superbabe Jessica Alba made headlines this summer shooting scenes for a new movie with the penguins at – where else? – West Edmonton Mall.

Just ask Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II or David Miller. The fall of empires is never pretty.

Rick Spence is a Toronto writer and business consultant. Movie-industry trucks parked beside his house for four weeks last summer filming a made-for-TV movie starring Lara Flynn Boyle. So there.

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