Todd Hirsch

Chief Economist,
ATB Financial, Chair of the Calgary Arts Academy



Don’t look now but Alberta is changing, and the potent mix of culture and economics are spurring the innovation behind that change, says the province’s Council on Culture Chair.

Todd Hirsch has always been an economist first, but his penchant for linking cultural premises to innovative ideas is why he was tapped to lead the 22-member Premier’s Council on Culture, which aims to put a stamp on Alberta’s unique cultural sector as among the best in the world.

“Looking at the province’s arts and culture in 2013, how deep it is and how much it’s widened, it’s a far more dynamic scene than it was even 10 years ago,” says Hirsch. “But there’s work to do in stimulating creativity here because there’s no question that Alberta’s economy is driven by the energy sector.”

“Looking at the province’s arts and culture in 2013, how deep it is and how much it’s widened, it’s a far more dynamic scene than it was even 10 years ago”

Diversity and innovation

The province has been known as an “oil patch” for decades, and has attracted migrants from all over Canada and other countries with the lure of high-paying jobs and steady employment in an industry that continues to surge forward. Still, Hirsch points out that the energy sector itself is far more diversified than it once was, with oil sands, shale oil, natural gas and renewables being mined in addition to crude oil.

The oil sands have attracted criticism from environmental groups because of the processes used to extract the oil, particularly tailings ponds. But recent homegrown technical innovations, like Steam-assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), have helped extract the oil without cutting down trees.

“That’s the kind of technology Alberta has developed to improve mining our resources, and is a fantastic example of how innovation here is transforming a traditional industry,” he says.

“Alberta has benefited, as has every part of Canada, from the immigrant experience, and we celebrate that.  We want them to bring those cultural dynamics with them to Alberta because we’ll all be richer for it.”

Cultural resources

The influx of migrant workers in the industry, regardless of collar and origin, is also an example of how spending time in a new and unique land can help as a creatively stimulating experience, much like travelling or living abroad can be for local Albertans, he adds.

“It’s great for creative thinkers, but may not be a practical solution for many people, whereas a vibrant arts and culture scene at home is. Having that at home gives us the opportunity as individuals to actually shock our brains into seeing things we haven’t seen before,” he says.

One example he cites is the Calgary Arts Academy, which isn’t an “arts school” in the traditional sense, but rather teaches the regular curriculum using art forms like music, dance, and painting. Another is the Edmonton Fringe Festival, the largest Fringe Theatre festival in North America.

And then there’s the mix of cultures, languages, and customs that have melted together in the province, complementing the unique western heritage that has long been a part of Alberta’s identity. The ties that bind culture and economics are people and ideas, which come from open minds, he says.

“Alberta has benefited, as has every part of Canada, from the immigrant experience, and we celebrate that,” says Hirsch. “We want them to bring those cultural dynamics with them to Alberta because we’ll all be richer for it.”


Ted Kritsonis
editorial@mediaplanet.com