What a difference a few years and the price of a barrel of oil make.

It doesn't seem that long ago that you couldn't walk down a street in Calgary, the Houston of Canada, without meeting an oil man who would cut you in on a great opportunity.This was the era of Canada's blue-eyed sheiks. At the other end of the country, in the Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the normally cautious Maritimers were waxing lyric on highly promising oil and gas discoveries. The Hibernia field off Newfoundland was said to contain as much oil as in Saudi Arabia.

The impact of Hibernia on Newfoundland was to have been so tremendous that serious concerns were being raised about preserving the legendary Newfoundland way of life.

Economists across the country were enthusiastically measuring a major

shift in economic activity away from the manufacturing provinces of Ontario and Quebec in central Canada and toward the frontier regions, the west and the Atlantic coast. Politicians saw the trend as creating a more balanced economy and, in the end, as a powerful tool to promote national unity.

But as we mentioned at the outset, what a difference a couple of years and the world price of oil make.

Today, the pendulum has swung back dramatically. Cheap resources are fueling strong growth in Quebec and Ontario. Depressed oil and commodity prices have had an awesome effect on the other half of the vast country.

In a recent analysis, the Royal Bank of Canada said the oil-price collapse will hit Alberta the hardest, followed by Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. This year and 1987 are forecast to be a no-growth period for Alberta.

The other provinces are expected to benefit, on balance, from the positive effects of lower production costs and increased exports to energy-importing countries where economic activity will be bolstered by lower energy prices.

The extent of the devastation in the west and in Atlantic Canada can be weighed by looking at the current status of major or mega projects in the energy sector.

In western Canada, more than C$17 billion worth of these projects have been canceled, postponed or severely reduced. This has included the virtual shelving of Husky Oil's C$3.7 billion oil upgrader project.

Plunging oil prices (the recent firming up hasn't been sufficient) have

put some 50,000 people out of work in Alberta alone.

On the northern frontier, Gulf Canada's decision in August to pull out of the Beaufort Sea, despite a recent promising discovery, was a huge blow to the 50,000 residents of the remote region. Gulf had been the last major player to be still active in the Beaufort Sea exploration activity.

Jack Gallagher, former chairman of Dome Petroleum before the latter's spectacular collapse, was known as Smilin Jack during the heady days he

daringly promoted Beaufort's potential. Today, he acknowledges that without either significantly higher world prices or a regulated price structure in Canada for frontier oil, investors will be unwilling to gamble on the development of northern reserves.

In Atlantic Canada, the numbers are even more startling. Close to C$25 billion in energy projects has been delayed or put on hold. This includes Mobil's C$3.7 billion Hibernia offshore project as well as Mobil's C$2.4 billion Nova Scotia offshore project.

With Petrocanada similarly delaying its Newfoundland plans, it means that offshore drilling activity on Canada's Atlantic coast has halted nearly completely.

A federal government booklet entitled Major Projects Inventory lists 67 projects worth C$500 million or more. While few projects are going ahead in the west and in Atlantic Canada, the survival rate is much higher in Ontario and Quebec.

In Ontario, for instance, only C$2.5 billion in big projects have been scrapped while others worth C$13 billion are proceeding. In Quebec, delays and cutbacks have affected about C$5 billion worth of Hydro-Quebec projects, but other projects worth an equivalent amount are going ahead. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is, meanwhile, continuing his efforts to win over U.S. capital for a C$2.5 billion phase two hydro-power project at James Bay.

Unless the trend is checked, the federal Tory government has a growing political problem to resolve.

A sharply divided economy between have and have-not provinces will not make things easier for Prime Minister Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party he leads when the next election is held in two years.

In the past, the perception that Quebec and Ontario exploit the cheap resources of the West in particular has caused great resentment. And in the case of Alberta, it was one of the factors that helped to spark the creation of a separatist party. The latter never made much headway, but such sentiments are already starting to rise again.

The increasing regional imbalance, in short, is threatening Canada's fragile national harmony and could emerge as the single most important issue the government will have to handle in the years ahead.

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