The sight of Obama haggling over his own ransom looked especially bizarre from across the northern border. In Canada the debt crisis seems to be happening on another planet. When I went home to visit this summer, oil-rich Albertans appeared hardly to have noticed the carnage unfolding everywhere else. Prudent regulation may have spared the Canadian banking system from the worst of the crash, but there are few signs of restraint at the malls and boat dealerships.
A lot of the cushion must come from the oil sands projects north of Fort McMurray. The army of drivers, mechanics and welders who work there are so unworried about the good times ceasing to roll they find time to laugh at their crass image, and the absurdity of their paycheques.
In Calgary, oversized chrome testicles (‘truck nuts’) hang from the trailer hitches of a thousand gleaming pick-ups, their air-conditioned supercabs festooned with decals barking the roughneck creed ‘Git-R-Done’. Surely some of this is ironic; certainly it’s culturally ‘American’ rather than Canadian. A rash of YouTube videos make sport of the nearly all-male world of Fort Mac, a dismal boomtown of stripmall casinos and diesel fumes which provides scant relief from the boreal moonscape of the tar sands. The city’s sexual desolation has its own internet meme, ‘I work at site’, the catchphrase of an animated truck driver with a gung-ho approach to courtship: ‘My name is Steve. I work at site. I make $250k a year. Let’s go to Mexico. All-inclusive.’
Planet-despoiling and corruption aside, there are at least two things to enjoy about the oil sands boom: a sizable chunk of the loot seems to find its way to hardhat types – it’s not uncommon for the operators of the gargantuan mining vehicles to earn more than the engineers who designed them – and there are an impressive number of good jokes. The comic dividend of the British housing binge was abysmal by comparison; I don’t remember a single decent gag about buy-to-let or 125 per cent mortgages.
But as ever in Canada, it’s the comparison with the US that proves irresistible. During the Bush administration, the fashionable bumper-sticker was ‘Canada: America Done Right’. A TV comedian just updated the slogan: ‘Canada: Like America Six Years Ago’.