Monday, December 10, 2012

Relocating to Canada: The Western Provinces

Another excellent guest article written by blog reader and contributor J. Vanne. I really appreciate the level of detail J. has gone into. Believe me, this is the kind of research that would otherwise takes months to recollect. Check the other “Relocating to Canada” articles by J. covering the other regions.
Thanks J.!
If you live in a potential relocation country or have relocated recently yourself and want to share your experiences, feel free to email me about it.

The Western Provinces:   Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba

As noted in the previous article, the goal of examining different Canadian regions for you is two-fold:  a.) to look at regions that might be good locales in a slow, grinding, on-going economic downturn, and b.) examine areas the might be suitable in a more serious societal and/or economic breakdown (the so-called “zombie apocalypse”). The goal is to provide a range of options for those who think we will see “merely” continued socialist economic malaise, all the way through to examining locations that might fare better in a much more serious apocalypse.

The Canadian Rockies, which are on the western edge of Alberta, aren’t exactly “prairie,” but I am putting these three “prairie” provinces together for the sake of brevity.  There is a very clear bifurcation in Canadian minds between western and eastern Canada. Westerners – of which I consider myself one – still have a residual distaste for easterners in that back in the 1980s (and earlier) Ontario – which basically ran Canada until recently (and largely still does), essentially expropriated the wealth (in the form of natural resources) of western Canada for itself, and its cronies in Quebec.  The name Pierre Trudeau still evokes distaste for me, as it does many Albertans, who recall – as just one egregious example – the National Energy Plan that stole oil wealth from Alberta and funneled it to the east. These are historical grievances, it is true, and some of these misgivings are less pronounced today. However, if you do decide to make the move, knowing the cultural landscape will help you navigate the cultural currents and eddies you will be swimming in.

The great divide between west and east is simply this: after one leaves Winnipeg (the orange coloured province at the far right of the map above, located north of Fargo, ND.), there is really nothing (no disrespect to Thunder Bay, Sudbury, or Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario intended) until one hits Toronto, which is basically a two day drive – on mostly two lane highway-  away. Thus, there is a massive, discrete physical, geographic divide in Canada that the US simply doesn’t have. That is, in the US you can edge your way east to west, hitting a large city every few hours (e.g., NYC to Albany to Buffalo to Cleveland to Detroit to Indy to Chicago to Des Moines to Omaha,  etc.) Canada simply does not have that slow graduation from east to west, as the area north of Lake Superior, known as the Canadian Shield, is sparsely inhabited.
This being said, a nice smaller city – around 100,000 people – is Thunder Bay, right on Lake Superior, and just up the road from Duluth, MN. Sault Ste Marie, is also nice, if you like the terrain of northern Michigan, but skip industrial Sudbury, home of what was the world’s largest smokestack, whose plume scientists could supposedly trace all the way to Europe in the 1980s. These towns are cold – where temperatures can easily reach below –40 F and more (minus 40 C is approximately the same in Fahrenheit, by way of reference). And please note this well: when I refer to temperatures, I am not including wind chill, which routinely results in all kinds of fantastic numbers being bandied about. The prairie provinces are simply cold in the winter, end of story. If you are considering these provinces, you must factor this into your equations.  I will not be examining the northern parts of any of these three provinces – as these areas are remote, difficult to get to, and even colder than the already cold southern sections.

Let’s begin with Alberta – another province where I have lived – which is Canada’s most conservative province. Think Texas, with Mounties (actually, the main training base for the RCMP is in next door Saskatchewan).  By some accounts, Alberta has as much oil in its tar sands as Saudi Arabia, so the analogy to Texas is apt. And there is also a tiny separatist streak with Alberta, as well. When I lived in Alberta in the 1980s, there was a separatist Member of Parliament (in the Western Canada Concept Party), while today there is the Wild Rose Party (details at ) – less strident than the old WCC party, but still with a strong western independent streak.  What this means for you practically is that you will find more of a typical western “can-do, self-reliant attitude among Albertans than other locations in Canada. This is a major plus for those seeking to avoid the obvious ramifications of the implosion of the nanny state.
Economic freedom is also big in Alberta. The Daily Caller, citing a study by the Fraser Institute, The Economic Freedom of North America 2012, found at  noted that “Canadian provinces now lead US states in average economic freedom, with the provincial average at 6.8 compared to 6.7 out of 10 for US states,” with Alberta the most economically free state or province in North America (followed by Delaware, Saskatchewan, Texas and then Nevada.  Issues examined in this report included size of government, discriminatory taxation, labour market freedom, regulation of credit, regulation of business, the legal system and property rights. Interestingly, this same study concludes the eastern province of Prince Edward Island is the least free in North America. (Note: this article indicates the U.S. states with the highest levels of freedom include Wyoming, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, South Dakota, Illinois, Nebraska and Utah).

Alberta, the Wild Rose Province, is heavily reliant on oil – particularly the oil sands. Where will oil be in five years? Is Hubbert’s peak oil theory correct? Or has fracking (think the Bakken oil field, as one example) and other technologies made that theory irrelevant? Will the boom in natural gas somehow replace oil in cars (recall that Honda already manufactures a CNG vehicle in its Wisconsin plant)? If fracking changes gas and/or oil production, will the impact be near term, or not visible until further out on the time line? What about political shenanigans, such as Obama cancelling the XL oil pipeline from Alberta – how will political decisions factor in? Or will this oil not coming to the US now simply find a “home” in China? The key issue here is that energy is almost always politicized (think Hugo Chavez, Argentina recently nationalizing Spanish oil giant Repsol, or pick your favourite Arab oil corruptocrat du jour). And the reason I bring this up is that I lived in Alberta in the mid-1980s, during the oil bust period. When I moved from the province in the 1980s there were literally no U-Haul trailers available, so many people were leaving, and police were stopping many vehicles crossing the Manitoba/Ontario border with western license plates, looking for old, outstanding traffic tickets and the like. Even though I was doing the speed limit, car was stopped three times just across the border. On the US side of the border, people in Texas can tell similar stories. An economy predicated on resources is not a pretty place to be when the boom goes bust.
So… this is the upshot: While the western economies are much more diversified than 25 years ago, they are still heavy on natural resources. British Columbia has lumber, Alberta oil and gas, Saskatchewan has potash, one of the richest uranium deposits in the world, and – along with neighbouring Manitoba – lots and lots and lots of farmland. Be aware that these resources are significant parts of their provincial economies.
But, lets return to Alberta. Where, exactly, are the oil sands? See below:

You will probably not live in this area, so I will not examine Fort McMurray, the regional centre for Alberta’s oil sands (also, it is extremely expensive there). And as you consider Alberta’s economic stability, you must reflect on this: what is the break-even point for tar sand oil production costs vs. a barrel of oil? As of 2012, the price to produce a barrel from the tar sands is estimated at $50 to $70. So, if you are considering a move to this province, you will most likely want to examine the tar sand “equation.” Here are some links on the topic to help start your deliberations:
Canada’s National Energy Board:
The Economist:
Of course, simply googling “average cost per barrel of Alberta tar sands” will lead you to a wealth of information to continue your research.   Many of you have just lived through the housing bust, so you don’t want to go from the frying pan to the fire – if it turns out that way.
The above being noted, let’s examine some suggested regions and towns for the person relocating. First, consider of your assumptions: If one thinks there will be a more “soft” depression, perhaps hallmarked by inflation, then banking on oil – a hard commodity – may be a good bet, if the depression does not take oil demand down. You will also be in a province that serioiusly respects free enterprise, self-reliance and is not generally socialist. However, in a “zombie apocalypse” scenario  – e.g, an EMP or solar flare taking out the power grid… or perhaps there really are killer tomatoes of some variety waiting to take us out  (and if so, maybe you could give Monsanto a call, as they may want to patent those suckers) -  the winters will be cold and dark. The upside of cold winters, as noted elsewhere, is that there are generally no street riots at -40 C!

Assuming a “soft” depression scenario, one extremely fertile agricultural area is the Peace River region, west-northwest of Edmonton approximately four hours. Unfortunately, the growing season is short; however, if you can accommodate to the cold temperatures, the region is large enough to have reasonable health, education and cultural facilities in the region’s hub, Grande Prairie. The land itself is exceptionally fertile. Edmonton is the province’s capitol, and Calgary, is three hours south by superhighway, are both around 1 million people. Currently, housing prices are high, due to the oil boom. In my opinion, there is downside risk as of Dec., 2012, and I personally would not buy. The Canadian website The Poog just did a December review on Canadian housing prices, at so this is worth reviewing for an up-to-date report.
Cities of the size of Calgary and Edmonton do have some crime, bad areas, etc., but are not megalopolises. Risk in these two cities would be muted, but not non-existent, in the “soft” or “hard” scenarios I have outlined. Calgary is much dryer than Edmonton, with less trees. However, it is much closer to the Rockies, a major plus. Note that Calgary get chinook winds, meaning winters can have warm days.

For both the hard to soft depression types, I am going to suggest some other options: Red Deer, Bragg Creek, or regions outside of Calgary. Let’s examine each, in turn:
Bragg Creek, which is west of Calgary, and east of the towns of Banff and Canmore, is unique in that it abuts the famous Banff (Rocky Mountain) National Park immediately to the west, and has all aboriginal (Sarcee) land to the east, until one hits the Calgary area. What this means to you is that it is basically open land all directions from this little town. About 50 kilometres west of Calgary, one can access the city on a superhighway, yet one is not in or near the city, as the Sarcee land between Bragg Creek and Calgary is not developed.  In a more serious meltdown situation, one would be insulated to some degree from urban masses, but while one awaits that day of apocalypse, Calgary is still a reasonable commute. You are also right in the foothills at the start of the Canadian Rockies.  Redwood Meadows is a similar small town nearby, but the land here is leased to the Indians – you would not own it. While expensive, Bragg Creek would be my most highly recommended site to relocate in Alberta, under either “a soft” or “hard” downturn scenarios.

Other locales outside of Calgary that might warrant your consideration is the area that includes small towns such as Turner Valley, Priddis or Black Diamond south of the city an hour or so.  Advantages of this region are similar to Bragg Creek, but this area is dryer and slightly less scenic.
Similarly, running an hour’s drive north from Calgary, there are a number of towns that have a strong agricultural base – Airdrie, Carstairs, Olds, or any of the small towns around them – yet access to the advantages of Calgary. Red Deer, population 100,000, is a small city in its own right, and – while too far to commute to the large cities of Edmonton or Calgary – would be worth consideration. And for those looking to live while at the same time keeping one eye out for the collapse, the David Thompson Highway will put you into the Rockies at Saskatchewan Crossing.
The next province east from Alberta is Saskatchewan. As noted above, Saskatchewan also is strongly into economic liberty. There are two primary cities here, Regina, the capitol, and Saskatoon, several hundred kilometres to the northwest. Along with eastern Alberta, farming and rich agricultural land is everywhere. Potash, uranium are also bringing in boom times for the province (Saskatchewan also has some tar sands, which are as of yet mostly unexploited).  But most westerners have an almost genetic predisposition to be wary of boom times based on natural resources, for it would not be the first boom followed by bust – and you, as a relocator, may wish to pay heed to the native wisdom gathered over the years! Housing has gone from dirt cheap to expensive in the cities. Have housing prices reached a zenith in Alberta and Saskatchewan? In my opinion, they probably have, so be wary in that regard.
Regina and Saskatoon are both around the 200,000 population mark, have universities, and are large enough to have reasonable cultural attractions, shopping and the like. Caveat, however: these towns are cold, flat and windy in the winter. And I mean cold by Canadian standards. On the other hand, there are advantages: cold keeps out the “riff-raff,” and there is more economic opportunity, as many simply refuse to go where it is cold. And one other point: given the obvious “hayseed” sensitivities, these cities make an extra effort to have cultural activities. This is the very reason the world renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet is based in the province next door, Manitoba.
And if the aforementioned Kerguelen Islands are not an option for you (and I’ll bet you still haven’t found them on a map without google, have you!), there are any number of small towns dotted across the prairies where the topsoil is rich, rural land affordable, and population density low. And rumours persist to this day that when the heat was on, Al Capone would retreat to Moose Jaw until the coast was clear.
Worried about social unrest? The RCMP training location is in Regina. How does a house a few blocks away from that campus sound?

Your author above…. being escorted off to an Arctic gulag to do 10 – 20 hard time breaking ice chunks for mixing metaphors while blogging.
In sum, for one concerned about a serious apocalypse, there are many small, out of the way locations in Saskatchewan that – if you can adapt to the cold – would provide an affordable redoubt with fertile land. In a situation of continued “mere” Obama-inspired economic malaise with no Armageddon,  the larger cities of Regina and Saskatoon offer acceptable cultural attractions, good universities, and enough another amenities to make it livable. Both have regularly scheduled air service, albeit a bit more expensive with no daily direct flights to Paris or Maui. Nor will you find Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian hanging out in a local eatery. On the other hand, you will find many of the amenities of large cities, without the cost of crime, pollution and long commutes. Because people are not flocking to the Canadian prairies due to the cold, if you can adapt, you could prosper here. And remember  one thing about the cold – there is no poor weather, only poor clothing!
The final western province to be examined is Manitoba. And let’s get the tough stuff out of the way first. Yes, it, too, is cold in the winter Similar to Saskatchewan, the land is very fertile in the south (the north will not be examined in this article – again, you will probably not live there), and immediately to the north of Winnipeg are a number of large lakes. Winnipeg is approximately 700,000 in population, and has many of the same attractions that Regina would have – several universities, shopping, cultural attractions (including the Royal Winnipeg Ballet being based there).  And – just by the by – if you have ever wanted to go polar bear watching, Churchill, Manitoba – on Hudson Bay – is the possibly the premier destination for doing so.

Manitoba has not seem the same degree resource boom of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and thus one would find better housing value.  Immediately west of Winnipeg are the towns of Portage la Prairie and Brandon – communities that might have your name on them, if you are looking for that type of environment. Note that Manitoba does not show up as high as Alberta or Saskatchewan on the economic freedom side of the equation; on the other hand, this province has not seen the boom of the other two, and housing increases are more muted.

I am intentionally leaving out Yukon, a western territory, as well as the two Arctic territories, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, simply because you are not going to live there.  Suffice to say that Whitehorse and Yellowknife, the capitals of each territory, respectively, have a somewhat young-ish population of around 20,000 each. In any type of economic or societal meltdown, these areas would be isolated and extremely difficult to live in.  Even the Inuit (do not call them Eskimos!), who were more adapted to the Arctic than you will ever be, were always at the margins in terms of their culture surviving.

So, there you have it. In summary, Manitoba has less economic freedom, but also less of a housing boom. As with the other two provinces, fertile land abounds, and it is less dry – similar to the U.S. – as one goes east from the Rockies. Saskatchewan has several significant resources, economic freedom, and is a province that – due to the cold climate – does not attract the “easy living” types. Finally, Alberta has a strong sense of economic freedom, and the magnificent Rockies. The downside is high house prices and an economy that could have risk related to the oil sands.
In the next installment, we’ll move east to Ontario, then finish off with the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland).


Steve said...

The NEP proposed by Trudeau is in retrospect brilliant and the greatest missed opportunity in Canadian history. Look at Norway, Canada should have been this times 100. Instead Alberta sells oil to the US at $30 below world price, Ontario buys gasonline from the US at $0.11 per liter higher than world price. Thats all you need to know about the brainpower of Alberta.(currently running a defict, incredible)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting stuff. Two mirnor comments.

Capital, not capitol...
The graphics do not show up (tried in two different browsers).


gaga said...

Oil is predicted to hit an average of $50 next year, so caution on depending on the tar sand boom is sensible.

Anonymous said...

To clarify cold: when I lived in Winnipeg, one January the temperature did not go above -20 celcius for a month. The nigh time low was regularly below -40. But don't worry, its' a "dry" cold. Every time someone said that I wanted to hold their faces in the nearest snowbank until they stopped wiggling. But the northern lights were a beautiful show.

Don Williams said...

1) I found it easier to follow the survey with a map of Canada's population density -- see

2) Regarding a "soft collapse" It would be interesting to see what parts of Canada have economies that are strongly dependent on trade with the USA .

I suspect that simple geography plays a role -- it is easier for Canadian cities to trade with US cities 100 miles to the south than with other Canadian cites a 1000+ miles to the east or west.

Plus Those ties are getting more intense with the North America Super Corridor, which links in Mexico as well:

3) Plus the USA and Canadian electrical grids are interconnected:

Anonymous said...

Fine, Steve, build your wealth on the STOLEN labour and resources of your countrymen. That's all we need to know about where you stand in regards to earning a living and making your way in the world.
Socialize, steal, lie and cheat.

When the first proposals to build pipelines East to the rest of Canada were put forward, who quashed them? right. Eastern Canada. and now you whine.

Steve said...


The whole NEP fight was over pipelines, the east wanted them Alberta wanted the refinery built in Alberta. Guess who won, Texas!!

Now both Alberta and Ontario are being screwed, so if that makes you happy it explains your opinion. Tell me a bad thing about the way Norway has handled its resources?? Thats what the NEP was. Only Trudeau was 30 years ahead of the rest of the world.

RamboMoe said...

Very interesting, as a Canadian it's always cool to learn about the rest of the country. It's such a big (cold) place.