Home Month and Year July 2023 A Champion for Alberta

A Champion for Alberta

Mac Van Wielingen on His Advocacy Work in Ottawa

Van Wielingen is the founder, director (1989 - 2018) and partner (present) of ARC Financial Corporation. Photo by EWAN PHOTO VIDEO.

If one had to list powerful Alberta champions – individuals whose love of this province leads them to advocate on its behalf to the rest of the world – Mac Van Wielingen would be at the top. A recognizable face and name within and beyond our borders, Van Wielingen’s entrepreneurial success and philanthropic generosity demand that when he speaks, others listen.  

His biography is unparalleled. Van Wielingen is the founder, director (1989 – 2018) and partner (present) of ARC Financial Corporation, the largest private equity investment management company in Canada focused on the energy sector; he is the founder and chair of Viewpoint Group and co-founder of Viewpoint Investment Partners (VIP), a global, multi-asset, quantitatively-focused investment management company for high net-worth families and institutional investors; he is a founder and former chair (1996 – 2016) of ARC Resources Ltd., a leading company in Canada’s oil and gas sector.  

Van Wielingen was a founding member of the Business Council of Alberta in 2019 and currently serves as Chair of its board. He served on the board of directors for the Institute for Corporate Directors (2018 – 2022), as Chair of the board of Alberta Investment Management Corporation (2014 – 2017), on the Alberta Economic Recovery Council (March 2020 to July 2022) and on the advisory committee that created the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation. This past year, he was appointed to the Order of Canada for his visionary leadership in ethical governance, corporate responsibility and philanthropy. 

He is a founding partner of the Creative Destruction Lab and co-founded the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership at the Haskayne School of Business in 2012.  

“I’m an Alberta patriot,” Van Wielingen, who was born and raised in Calgary to European immigrant parents, admits with a smile. “I love Alberta. My interests are very aligned with my fellow Albertans and Western Canada.” 

The fundamental underpinnings of Alberta, he argues with conviction, are very strong. First, our financial position. “About three years ago we had a $17 billion deficit, and now we’re in surplus,” he points out. “It was the fastest and most dramatic turnaround of any province in Canada’s history. Of course it was driven by oil and gas revenues, but also by stringent cost controls. It was an amazing turnaround and a great starting point.”  

Indeed, today Alberta is trending toward the lowest debt to GDP ratio in Canada, at about 10 per cent.  

“When you look at other fundamentalsbusiness sentiment, investment sentimentthey’re all strong,” he continues. “Capital investment levels this year are expected to be about $65 billion. In 2020, they were $48 billion. And then the number of people moving to Alberta is at the highest pace in two decades. That’s driven by affordability and opportunity. Our labour market and wages are moderate. You put all the pieces together and it’s a very robust picture for Alberta.”  

However, it’s not all rosy. Van Wielingen has serious concern when it comes to politics, both within Albertan and within Canada relating to and affecting Alberta. “I worry about the lack of cohesion and unity within this province,” he says, “and the divisiveness. There’s an enormous divergence of perspectives growing within Alberta. There’s more polarization.”  

This concern has influenced the Business Council’s work, in particular its Define the Decade initiative. “We were intentionally trying to create perspectives that are more unifying to all Albertans,” Van Wielingen explains. “We’re not just representing business and business interests. We’re trying to create a better life for all Albertans.”

His concerns, and those of the Business Council, naturally extend to policy in Ottawa: “What we all want is a united Canada that functions well, but I’m not convinced that it’s functioning very well anymore.”  

A prime example of this disfunction is the federal Liberal government’s often antagonist policies towards Alberta’s energy industry. “This is where some of my disillusionment has arisen over recent years,” Van Wielingen admits. “The essence of it is Alberta’s lack of representation at the decision making level for national policy.” 

Sentiments of alienation arise in this province, he explains, because we’re not at the table making decisions that have an impact on our livelihoods: “It’s very natural we’d be uncomfortable. It would be unnatural not to be.”  

“But worse than that,” Van Wielingen continues, “is the tendency towards polarization. That polarization gets amplified because various groups seek to take advantage of it for their own interests. So polarization persists. It’s the activist community for sure, and there are normal political dynamics that contribute too. But it’s an unusual situation because there are 8 million people in Western Canadain the energy producing regionwho have virtually no representation in national policy.”  

To rectify the situation, Van Wielingen has become a familiar face in Ottawa, regularly travelling there to pitch Alberta and its interests to the federal government. He testified to the Senate committees and to the House of Commons Finance Committee on Bill C-48 (the ‘no more pipelines’ bill) and C-69 (the tanker ban bill), for example.  

“Every time I go I have certain themes,” he says. “My relationships in Ottawa are strong. I’m very comfortable expressing myself candidly.” 

This June, he travelled again to Ottawa to meet with key federal Ministers and the Prime Minister’s office. “I’ve been emphasizing the critical importance of using regulatory efficiency as part of our national competitive strategy. Canada has a reputation where major projects can’t get built, and that needs to change for our country to reach its environmental, economic, and Indigenous partnership ambitions,” he says. “Canada no longer has a choice about the importance of regulatory effectiveness.” 

“The broad perspective I’ve been arguing is with respect to the Europe-lead environmental and climate movement, and the problems they’ve got themselves into now, particularly with Russia,” he says. “The loss of attention and focus on the basics of energy policy is something I’m continuously talking about. Because it needs to be understood, so we can chart a different path”  

In particular, he points to the size of the bet that Europe made on the assumption that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine. “They bet everythingtheir competitiveness, prosperity, affordability, food supply, price levels,” he points out. “They bet the farm and lost. It reflects a lack of strategic thinking. Their perspective became so narrow and rigid.”  

He cautions a similar mindset permeates in Ottawa. For example, the reluctance to develop LNG export facilities, a reluctance also seen in Germany. “It’s just another example of [Germany] failing to appreciate the risk they were taking,” he says. “And now they’re building these receiving facilities on a real hurry-up basis. It looks like they’re going to overbuild capacity, but that’s ok, because they should never take that kind of risk again.”  

“Another theme in my comments relates to the credibility of the entire decarbonization initiative,” Van Wielingen continues. “If we’re not careful, we, as energy and institutional and government leaders, will lose credibility. In Europe they have lost a lot of credibility.”  

Van Wielingen notes that he’s not arguing against climate action or decarbonization, rather for an intelligent and pragmatic implementation of decarbonization strategies. “Emissions caps and reductions targets have to be grounded in realism,” he cautions. “What really worries me about the emissions caps is that the federal government knows that the oil sands players in particular cannot meet those early year deadlines. That’s what I spoke about in Ottawa.”  

Van Wielingen also says that ESG as a standalone construct is too narrow: “It needs to be conjoined with economicsE-ESG.” Canadian energy ESG standards and performance, as noted many times in the pages of this magazine and others, are as good as it gets in the world relative to other energy suppliers.  

“Whether in the energy business or the resource business, we’re in the business of environmental solutions,” Van Wielingen offers. “So it’s not just energy. It’s energy and environmental solutions. It’s agriculture and environmental solutions. It’s a vision for Alberta that I think really does need to take hold.”  

He is encouraged by the fact that more recently federal officials have been more receptive to his message: “Europe’s energy woes have put things into a larger context, involving energy policy, security, reliability and affordability. Now people listen, whereas before they didn’t. The dialogue and tone have changed in Ottawa.” 

An encouraging change in tone, to be sure, that must be built upon. “My argument to Ottawa is always: why won’t you stand in front of the industry, so you’re facing outward to the public and international community and point to the extraordinary positives and advantages of Canada’s energy and resource sector,” he says. “Because it can be evidenced over and over.”  

While Van Wielingen’s approach is based on dialogue, he’s not opposed to a stronger tact, such as is outlined in Premier Danielle Smith’s Alberta Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act. “Alberta needs a different style and approach to represent itself,” he opines. “The linear and analytical ‘just show them the facts’ approach hasn’t worked. It’s not working. I’m very comfortable with a more ambitious, a bit more aggressive style, which starts to look a little bit like Quebec’s style. I’m very comfortable with that.”  

“We need leadership that is more willing to be colourful, dramatic, to really shake things up,” he adds.  

The opportunity costs of not developing Alberta’s energy resources are too much. “Global oil and gas demand has still not peaked,” Van Wielingen points out. “Oil and gas are going to be around for multiple decades. So the question becomes: ‘What is Canada’s strategy?’ Because in that context, our oil sands are arguably the most reliable supply of oil in the world.” 

“Once we break the back of the carbon emissions problem,” he continues, “we’ll be very competitive on that basis as well. It’s in everyone’s interestsEurope, our allies, the developing worldthat Canada stays in the market as a reliable oil supplier.”  

He also welcomes more advocacy from Alberta business, institutional and community leaders. “We can’t be complacent and passive and rest on our laurels,” he warns. “We’ve learned that. Leaders in all sectors need to step up and speak on behalf of Alberta. We need multiple voices in multiple channels. I do see that happening more.”  

Beyond Alberta’s energy industry, Van Wielingen sees economic diversification as growing off of the backbone of both energy and agriculture. For example, on the energy side there are renewables, carbon capture, hydrogen and petrochemicals. On the agriculture side there is food processing. And the tech sector is embedded in everything.

“The perspective needs to be on the synergies between these core parts of our economy and developing ancillary businesses and sub-sectors,” he urges. “To continually expand and add value.”

Alberta’s entrepreneurial spirit, foundational to this province, will continue to attract more and more people here, who in turn will help to evolve the culture and our industries. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Van Wielingen chuckles. “We’ll always have that great entrepreneurial spirit which will continue to be extremely important to the future of Alberta.”