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Oil downturn hurts the most vulnerable, say Alberta clergy

By André Forget on March, 19 2015

John Gnatiuk shares a plate of fries with his son, Landon, in Sydney River, N.S. Gnatiuk was laid off last December from his job as a heavy equipment operator and truck driver in Fort McMurray, Alta. The downturn in oil prices has affected workers like him, who commute for work in the oil sands. Photo: Steve Wadden/Reuters

While the dramatic downturn in oil prices that has occurred over the past six months has had a wide-ranging impact on economic prospects across Canada, those who have been hit hardest are people who were already on the margins, according to the Rev. Dale Neufeld, priest-in-charge of the parish of Fort McMurray, Alta.

“There’s an impression that Fort McMurray is a city paved in gold,” said Neufeld, “and people do make a lot of money here, but a lot of the people who came here came because they needed work. They came from hard scenarios in many cases, from economically depressed areas in the country and in the world.” He also noted that many of these workers, especially those from the Maritimes, are sustaining their communities back home through their wages, and that layoffs in Alberta could have wide-reaching consequences for economically marginalized communities around the country. 

Fraser Lawton, bishop of the diocese of Athabasca, agreed. “If you’re in operations in some way, there’s still a fair amount of security,” he said. “Where things have hit is with ancillary things, especially contractors.”

Some of these layoffs have been quite dramatic. Last week the Financial Post reported that 1,000 construction workers had been laid off from Husky Energy’s Sunrise oil sands project near Fort McMurray. Suncor Energy said earlier this year that they, too, would be laying off around 1,000 workers, and Royal Dutch Shell is cutting around 300.

Nor is this likely to be the end. A report released on March 16 by BuildForce Canada, a construction industry-led organization that provides labour market information, estimated that while oil prices would likely begin to rise again in the near future, job losses in construction would likely continue through to 2017, with no rebound expected until 2018.

The strain on the community has been noticeable. The Wood Buffalo Food Bank reported a 75 per cent uptake in usage in January 2015 compared to the previous year, and said that it has almost doubled its distribution of food hampers. The food bank’s executive director, Arianna Johnson, told Fort McMurray Today that 10 per cent of this increase was attributable to individuals losing their jobs. She noted that [for] the working poor, their income just isn't enough to sustain their situations— their rent, their bills and food.

The church's response has largely been pastoral. As Lawton noted, many of the people losing work are not based in the urban centres, but live in remote camps and so don't necessarily have local connections. For those who have moved to Alberta for work, the question is "to either wait things out or look for something else, or to move on to another place or back home."

While there have been some in Neufeld's congregation who have lost their jobs and have come to him for counselling, he said that in general, people are quite stoic. "That's the general Alberta mindset," he explained. "This is the way it is; you've just got to stick it out.”

But while many of the layoffs have hurt vulnerable contractors and migrant labourers from within Canada and abroad, Lawton noted that there has not been a lot of sympathy for the workers. “Something that has really been interesting to see is the cruel delight people take in thinking Alberta is getting its comeuppance,” he said. 

Neufeld said that he had also encountered this attitude. “I talked to somebody from the Canadian Press, and they’re looking for that angle, the downfall of Rome,” he said. “Really, the people who stand to lose are often people who don’t have much in the first place.”

But Lawton and Neufeld both acknowledged the complexity of the situation. While the oil sands are providing many with a living, the environmental cost is enormous.

“Sometimes people seem to make the assumption that if you are working in the oil sands, or in oil in general, that somehow means you don’t care for the environment, which I think is not only false, but is even insulting,” said Lawton. “The reality is, it is ugly-looking, and you can’t get underneath without affecting everything on top first. What’s been remarkable to me in the couple of decades I’ve been around here is the advance and change in mitigating those things, and the recovery processes.”

Lawton also, however, noted that the longer-term problems remain daunting, both from a labour and from an environmental perspective. “Everyone is happy to take money out—workers from away, various levels of government, various companies—but [only] a tiny fraction of that actually comes back to support the people in the area,” he said.

But for Neufeld, who moved to Fort McMurray with his wife a year and a half ago and is encouraged by the youthful and entrepreneurial spirit of the city, the situation is tenuous, but not without hope.

“It’s not an apocalypse,” he said, “but everyone is holding their breath.”

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By André Forget| March, 19 2015
Categories:  News|National News

About the Author

André Forget

André Forget

André Forget joined the Anglican Journal in 2014 as staff writer and social media lead. He also serves as managing editor of Whether Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Winnipeg Review, and the Town Crier.

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