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Blinding Rays of Sunshine – The Ampersand May 2021

May 1, 2021

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Homer Simpson attempts to cheer up his despondent son, Bart, who has just confided in Homer that “This is the worst day of my life.” Homer bends down on one knee, places his hand on Bart’s shoulder and consolingly says, “This is the worst day of your life, so far.”


In that spirit, I think it’s fair to say that I hit my pandemic nadir in April. Of 2021. The wind just went out of the sails. So close to the goal line, only to see it move. Planning our rooftop Stampede party and a family vacation one day, back in lockdown amidst rising case numbers and double mutant variant strains the next. I’ve never run a marathon, but I can now imagine how it would feel to approach the finishing tape only to have the people holding it start running – sprinting – away from you.


Yet another quarantine for a son in grade 11.  A daughter who isn’t at university even though she’s in university. The two Boards on which I serve – The YMCA and the CMLC – both having to deal with bad news as the Y again locks down and lays off while the Calgary Event Centre gets put on hold. The brief tease of spring, replaced by the usual Calgary April snow. A profound sense of deju vu, comparing this April to last which, strangely, is more discouraging than comparing last April to the one prior. And, to top it off, the Costco liquor store, for weeks now, completely sold out of Lagavulin single malt Scotch whiskey?!  Talk about a vaccine shortage. Low spirits, indeed.


And yet in that same month, on April 23rd to be precise, I received my first dose of the vaccine; a feeling of incredible relief, even euphoria. Many friends and family got theirs, too – Gen Xr’s far more enthusiastic to receive their #GenXZeneca pokes than the Baby Boomer crowd. Moreover, our firm enjoyed its best month since September 2019 all but ensuring our fourth consecutive quarter of growth.


Reasons for hope tempered by moments of despair. Like being an Edmonton Oilers fan.


So, which is it? Good news or bad? Is the worst ahead or behind? Is the Third Wave the third period of the game, the variant having pulled the goalie and firing everything at us before the horn sounds and we win or, like actual waves, one of an infinite number lapping the coastline for the rest of our days?


The answer is probably somewhere in the middle; that elusive, fraught, narrow spit of land where thoughtful consideration lives. Thoughtful consideration is in short supply these days.  No surprise, then, to listen to the untethered optimism pouring from our government leaders lately.


Of course, we’re used to the optimistic notes in these parts. We hear it all the time. Calgary’s can-do spirit. Inviting you to “be part of the energy.”  Resilient. Entrepreneurial. Vibrant.  A city that seemed to attract only optimists—people inspired to succeed by their own talents and efforts. On it goes.


But of late those optimistic tones have been super-sized. The recent flurry of amazingly, super-duper positive news seems a bit over the top; forced, canned and all of it a bit too doth protest too much-y. Indeed, lately, Calgary has been clinging to its 5th most livable city in the world status the way a punch-drunk boxer hangs on to the hope of a right hook.


That statistic – 5th!, did you hear?! – was on full display, among countless others, during the recent euphoric Report to Community hosted by Calgary Economic Development who gamely stepped into the ring to do battle with Reality at the virtual pay-per-view event. The conference, marked by soaring speeches and stirring statistics, was so brimming with optimism, so gushing with positivity, you could hardly be faulted for thinking you wandered into the wrong Zoom.


This was Bagdad Bob claiming the infidels were retreating. Donald Trump’s miraculously disappearing virus. I looked around the room at one point to try to read the expression on other attendees’ faces but then I remembered I was alone in my kitchen.


I snapped back to the screen to hear the CED CEO breathlessly exclaim, “it’s an exciting time to be in Calgary!” Clearly, I’m watching the wrong Netflix shows.  And when Premier Kenney gushed that “2021 is going to be Alberta’s year!” I thought, wow, legalized marijuana is totally underrated. I had to quickly check my calendar to confirm that 2021 is, in fact, one third over. If this is Alberta’s year, I’d like another spin of the wheel, Pat. It felt like Reg Dunlop telling the Charlestown Chiefs to ‘go get ‘em’ enthusiastically cheered on by the overly exuberant Hanson brothers.


Everywhere you look, unbridled enthusiasm!  This tweet from Premier Kenney:



Or put another away, “Amazing News! Due to the ongoing painfully slow vaccine rollout, a league hanging by a thread will delay the start of its season by over two months, only to play in half full stadiums (unlike the half empty ones they’re used to playing in) and host its championship game in an outdoor venue in mid-December!  A great Alberta summer is coming!”


The infidels are retreating!


Or this exuberant post from the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation:



Okay, waaaaiiit a minute. Calgary is the world’s most affordable city for housing? Because “the average person there is able to afford 60.3 more square feet in 2020 than in 2016…a bigger positive jump than anywhere else in the world.”  Is this what it’s come to in our quest for good news?


One day, like a miracle, it will disappear! 


The survey, which you can read about here, basically theorizes, I think, that because we have more supply and perhaps fewer people living here, our person-to-affordable-square-feet ratio is tops in the world?  Since when is that even a metric? The article notes that “as a comparison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was found to have the second-biggest improvement in affordability.” Ha! Take that, Jeddah. You suck.


So maybe I’m not moved by the data; that I now can afford 60.3 more square feet to spend in solitude, than I could in 2016, when I could go do things with people. I’d happily sell my 60.3 square foot plot for a pint in a pub with friends.


Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown so incredulous about data, generally, and politicians, specifically, that I no longer know who or what to believe. Six, out of seven million people, develop complications from a vaccine and we halt using it? Have you never listened to the possible side effects on those prescription drug ads? Just consider the commercial for the prescription sleep aid Lunesta: a soothing voice tells you the drug might deliver you to “the land of restful sleep” or, alternatively, that you might end up driving your car in a foggy sleep, feel suicidal, or experience an allergic reaction that leads to fatal throat swelling. But, hey, gotta get your eight hours, right?


As for the directions from our political leaders? Don’t get me started. This article from The Vancouver Sun called it pretzel logic. To summarize, you can fly from Calgary to Kelowna, no questions asked. But you can’t drive. You can drive from the US to Canada, few questions asked. But you can’t fly without a government mandated three-day hotel stay. Unless you just pay the fine? As of Friday April 16th, if you lived in Ontario you couldn’t go to a playground. The next day you could.  As of Friday April 23rd, if you lived in Alberta, you couldn’t travel to BC. Later that night, you could. For now. You can drive through Manitoba, but you can’t stop for the night without isolating for 14 more. Casinos open. Schools closed. Or is it the other way around? Restaurants, bad; Enclosed patios, good? What if it’s a leap year? No wonder I’m confused. I practically have to write the LSAT every morning before getting out of bed.


So what, then, of the unbridled optimism shining through all this confusion and isolation?  Surely, it’s not just a PR campaign designed to make us feel better, underpinned by nothing? The problem with my mom telling me as a kid that avocado tasted like peanut butter in an attempt to get me to eat avocado is that it doesn’t taste like peanut butter. This isn’t that. There really is some good news out there. You can read a good summary here but, in short, in addition to steadily rising commodity prices, it’s about technology and innovation, about more companies and jobs being attracted to the city, $353 million in venture capital flowing into Calgary last year, 16 trade deals secured, a recovering film and TV business, the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF), a $100-million business investment fund established in 2018, committing $43 million for 14 projects since its inception resulting in $636 million of OCIF, private and other government funds going into the economy — a 15-to-1 investment result!


Yeah, baby! Somebody, turn up the music! Let’s get this party started!!


Sorry to be a downer, but a shortened CFL season, 16 trade deals and 60.3 extra square feet to reside, aside, I’m just not feelin’ it down here on planet earth.


Why the skepticism? Well, 14 months of chasing the horizon will do that to a guy. But the real challenge is that we live in complicated times and if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Premier Kenney, in explaining the latest lockdowns on April 7th strayed into the thoughtful consideration minefield saying his government’s approach has been to find “a sensible, safe middle ground.” His reward?  Turns out, trying to find “middle ground” these days is like trying to appease two screaming kids, both of whom want to sit in the front seat, by saying they can share it. How’s that working out? Well, according to this survey, roughly half of Albertans think the government is going too far and the other half think it’s not going far enough.


There you have it. The perineum of public opinion. A 12% strip of middle ground that offers Goldilocks lukewarm porridge, a lumpy mattress and a wobbly chair. And you know what happened to Goldilocks? She never came back to that house.


What to do, then?  Too optimistic and you’re Pollyanna. Too pessimistic and you’re Debbie Downer. Strive for the middle ground and everyone hates you.


Perhaps the answer is to remove the subjectivity and unreliability of human spin and self-interest and rely more heavily on the science and data. As someone in the people business, this sentiment does not come naturally. Yet, it has been interesting over these past months as we have launched our leadership advisory practice, immersing ourselves in the world of psychometric assessments, how swiftly and almost unquestioningly our clients gravitate to the science, over even their own human instincts, inherently trusting it to de-risk their hiring decision.


Why shouldn’t the same de-risking instincts apply to the pandemic?  Well, for starters, even those assessment results must be interpreted by a human. The human behind the Alberta science, the beleaguered Dr. Deena Hinshaw is, I am quite convinced, not out to get us. She’s just a civil servant, reviewing and explaining the data, thanklessly doing the best she can to, you know, keep us alive.


Sure, there are costs. Massive ones. I’m a small business owner. I’m aware. But when the politicians inflate morsels of good news into blinding rays of sunshine, they lose credibility. And when they pull a “heads I win, tails you lose” when the news isn’t good, or they’d rather not own the decision, it’s just not helpful.


This Alphonse-and-Gaston routine is growing old.  As is 2021.


And so, we sit here on the First of May, month five of “Alberta’s Year.” Can you fault us for not yet purchasing our tickets to the Alberta’s Back, Baby! summer concert tour?  Another cancelled, or certainly scaled down Calgary Stampede reality will soon set in. More disturbingly, white hats are giving way to white hoods as hate crimes are way up in our city. Long before COVID, we lost our nerve on the Olympic file by voting ‘no’ to hosting the games. Now, we’ve learned that the new Events Centre deal is on pause. Young people are leaving the city. Anti-mask protests, tiki torches and Trump flags fly in downtown Calgary. The Green Line faces more delay.  Most incredibly, one in Five Albertans don’t plan on getting vaccinated when the vaccine is about the only sure way out of this mess.


Even the Calgary Flames, once a sure bet themselves, recently inexplicably demonstrated the furthest thing from Western hospitality after a recent game by keeping the puck from a rookie NHL goalie who had secured his first ever win.


In fairness, I actually don’t think the Flames player intentionally deprived the rookie goalie of his “moment.” I think he was just really frustrated. Like all of us. Let’s not toss the puck out with the bath water, or something like that.


My frustration stems, in part, from the inconsistent and ever-changing messages from our leaders about the data, not from the data itself. It seems the strategy du jour is to lather us in positive news. Though I appreciate the efforts of our political leaders to strike an optimistic tone, let’s just call it what it is. And this has absolutely been the worst month of the pandemic. The worst month of the pandemic, so far.