China can't buy Albertans' love

New poll suggests the province's residents are cooling to Beijing, despite all that cash spent in the oil patch

Photograph by Jeff McIntosh/CP

China’s thirst for oil is Alberta’s insurance policy—a guarantee of investment and jobs amid economic turmoil in the U.S. and Europe. Small wonder, then, that Albertans have been reliably sanguine when it comes to forging close economic ties with China. More sanguine, at least, than other Canadians.

That might be changing.

In an Alberta-only poll released today, 64 per cent of respondents said they disapproved of Chinese investment in the province if it took the form of full ownership of assets; a lukewarm 37 per cent said they found partial ownership acceptable. That’s a sharp break from one year ago, when a healthy majority agreed with the proposition that they should welcome Chinese investment.

The survey was commissioned by the University of Alberta’s China Institute, which has emerged as a valuable source of insight into Canada’s hot-and-cold relationship with Beijing.

The results come as Chinese companies buy up fat swaths of the oil patch—before state-controlled oil giant CNOOC made its $15.1-billion bid for Calgary based Nexen Inc. but after Sinopec’s $2.1-billion purchase of Calgary-based Daylight Energy Ltd. and PetroChina’s acquisition last fall of Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.—a deal that gave China its first full ownership of an oil sands project.

Since then, Albertans have had a sneak preview of the future that proponents of closer trade ties with China, and the reviews have been less than glowing. Last June, a Sinopec subsidiary operating near Fort McMurray, Alta. topped the province’s list of “dead-beat” employers who haven’t been paying their workers. The same company faced charges over the deaths of two workers flown to one of its sites in 2007.

There’s also discernible anxiety over the sheer pace of Chinese acquisition—a sense that the familiar troika of Canadian, U.S. and European interests that have developed the oil patch for decades could suddenly give way to state-run entities that answer first to Beijing.

Finally, Albertans seem worried about what happens to Canada and its values when China becomes the world’s premier power: more than half of those polled agreed with the statement that “China’s growing economic strength poses a threat to Canada.” Fully 71 per cent said Alberta should take human rights into consideration when conducting business in China.

So much for Albertans putting their own interests first.

Yes, it’s just one province. But the shift in attitude is important, says Gordon Houlden, the China Institute’s director, because it will feed into the Harper government’s calculations on whether to allow deals like the CNOOC-Nexen purchase. “There’s a clear sense in Alberta that these are Albertan resources and Albertans should have the primary say in how their exploited,” he says, “and there are still consultations with the provinces on individual decisions.”

Houlden points to the 2010 rejection of a proposed takeover of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan by Australian interests an example of how regional attitudes can influence federal decisions: “I believe provincial opinion in that case was important.”

That’s not to say Albertans won’t warm again to Chinese money. Forty-seven per cent of those surveyed regard China as a stable trading partner, more than twice the proportion who don’t.

But the results expose a very real ambivalence underlying all the cheerleading for open trade with China. To paraphrase a certain prime minister, Canadians seem disinclined to sell out their values to the almighty dollar.

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