Canadian business leaders discuss oil downturn at Calgary Stampede

Business titans and politicians of all stripes tried to put aside worries about Alberta’s economic woes for a spell on Sunday as they mingled at one of Calgary’s signature Stampede events. It was often in vain, however.

The city plays host to scads of pancake-flipping parties during the 10-day Western festival, none higher-profile than the Hays Breakfast. The energy-industry downturn that has dragged on for nearly three years has tempered Stampede events, especially those hosted by oil companies, which have slashed spending on operations and laid off thousands of workers.

Revellers, from corporate bosses to federal and provincial party leaders to regular citizens, still make the early-morning drive to the annual breakfast hosted by former Liberal senator Dan Hays, though. The state of the economy is an unavoidable topic of conversation over coffee, sausages and orange juice fortified with just a splash of vodka.

This year, there’s no shortage of fodder. Oil majors such as Royal Dutch Shell PLC and ConocoPhillips Co. have exited the oil sands in a $30-billion sell-off of assets that has raised questions about Alberta’s attractiveness as a place to invest. Taxes and red tape faced by industry have added to economic worries, said Jim Peplinski, the former NHL star who runs a large vehicle-leasing business that counts the oil-patch companies among clients.

“From an economic perspective, we’ve just got to live with $40-50 (U.S.) [a barrel] oil. I’m pretty comfortable that the friends that I’ve had in Calgary over the past 40 years have adjusted,” Mr. Peplinski said as the morning sun began to heat up at Calgary’s Heritage Park, site of the breakfast.

“But I’m really concerned about tax rates and useless administration.”

Alberta has projected a $10.3-billion budget deficit and is adding to its debt as Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government seeks to protect the social safety net in the face of a massive shortfall in oil and gas revenue.

The province has also implemented a carbon tax, to the ire of Ms. Notley’s Conservative and Wildrose Party foes, who are set to vote on merging as a way to avoid vote splitting on the right in the next election.

Meanwhile, oil prices have weakened again, despite a move by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to cap production as a way to deal with a global glut of crude. This has added to the concern over the provincial and national economy, although some of that gets cast aside for a while in Calgary by Stampede merrymaking.

“We party, we don’t necessarily work regular hours and we take advantage of the Stampede and enjoy life. We do that whether oil is at $47 or $150,” said Mr. Hays, now a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, as a band belted out a Shania Twain cover.

“These are all people who know the business well, the deal makers, and they have interaction with political leaders at events like this. And this one is not unlike most.”

The 67th edition of the breakfast was joined by such politicos as federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Liberal Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr, Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen, provincial Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

A notable no-show was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in Germany the past three days for the Group of 20 summit. International obligations did not appear to wash as an excuse for bailing on the Stampede, at least among political opponents who raised a ruckus over the perceived sleight. It came on the heels of a Canada Day gaffe in which the Prime Minister forgot to mention the province in a speech. He later apologized.

“Let’s be clear – the Prime Minister cares deeply about Calgary, this province and this country,” Mr. Hehr, the member of Parliament for Calgary Centre, said.

“The Prime Minister’s been here the last four Stampedes. He’s been here since the election seven times. We’ve had two of our four cabinet retreats in Calgary and area. My goodness. I’d stack up his record to the former government’s any day.”

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