Living the Bust
You’ve seen the numbers – now, hear from those rebuilding their lives after losing their oil-and-gas sector jobs
Alberta Venture, February 2016
Carson McVey’s three-year sojourn to Alberta bookends a recent chapter of the province’s economic history. A welder by trade, McVey* arrived from Prince Edward Island three years ago, one of thousands of young men from the East Coast coming for work.
When he landed in Edmonton, his employment prospects were promising – he crashed on a friend’s couch and found work the next day. Later, he found a job at a rig shop in Nisku, but two days after starting he received a phone call from Trinidad Design and Manufacturing, offering him better pay. Soon he was building one of the biggest land rigs in North America, Trinidad Rig 58. “We were absolutely flat out for the time I was there, working 12-hour days, six days a week,” McVey says. “I was told it’d be like this until 2016 or later. But by mid-January we laid off all our temporary foreign workers [on the rig]. We were told things were OK and we still had stuff to build, but in the following two weeks we had a rig cancellation every single day. We went from having 20 drilling rigs to build to zero.” A month later, Trinidad laid off one in five salaried employees and much of its manufacturing division, including McVey. He’d been there eight months.
His Employment Insurance application hit a snag when Service Canada asked him for a record of all the jobs he’d had the past two years. McVey says that since he’d quit to take the more lucrative position at Trinidad, his claim was denied. He appealed but the process took months. “By the skin of my teeth and my credit card, I sneak in another month while waiting for a response,” he says. “Coming on the end of May, I tell them, ‘This is it. You can either approve me with back pay or I’m headed back to the East Coast.’ ”
The end of the month came. McVey sold everything he could on Kijiji and packed the rest into his car. After two days on the road, he checked his bank account. There was an EI deposit. “Too little, too late,” he says. “My credit is ruined. I lost everything I worked for while in Alberta.”
McVey’s story is hardly unique. As of press time, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimated that almost 35,000 Albertans had lost their jobs in the petroleum sector. With layoffs come symptomatic issues, like family separation, stress, foreclosures and bankruptcy.
Cory Vo is another casualty of the oil and gas downturn. He’s a University of Calgary graduate with a degree in petroleum economics. He also studied psychology, his passion, but he ultimately went into the energy sector. “In Calgary, oil and gas is kind of like a safety blanket,” he says. The irony in his voice is palpable.
He took a job with Petro Canada in 2005. Those were the boom times, and Vo found himself in a position to give back. He organized food drives for the Calgary Food Bank, even working for two nights straight to package food hampers. As a result of the impending Petro Canada-Suncor merger, the company offered to send him to Newfoundland, but he declined, and near the end of 2007 took a severance package. He launched a handful of hospitality businesses in Southeast Asia, which did well for a while. But after revenues tanked for a few years in a row he liquidated his assets and returned to Canada. Being out of the oil patch for four years didn’t look good on a resumé, he says, and he struggled to find work well into 2012. He was recently married, supporting his parents and about to have a daughter. The family was having a hard time paying the bills and Vo found himself coming full circle. “I reached out to a local social worker in Calgary,” he says. “She said, ‘If you’re having a tough time, go to the food bank – it’s free.’ So that’s when I decided to sign up for hampers. It was an interesting experience to come home, stuck in a rut finding work, and I came to the food bank having this really humbling experience. Like, ‘Here I am – I’m back, but to receive.’”
He eventually found full-time work at another oil and gas company in 2015, on a contract basis. But in October, he was laid off again. Now he’s running his own business, Total Entertainment, where he’s a DJ, plays in a band and offers everything from karaoke to photo booths to comedians and dancers. He gets between five and seven contracts per month. “It’s not bad, but it’s not stable,” Vo says. The vulnerability compounds the stress of providing for his parents and daughter. He says he has “no sense of being victimized,” and while that’s due in part to his resilience and resourcefulness – like his investment in performance equipment while he had a job with Petro Canada – it’s also because he’s been here before.
To extend the metaphor of the dive in oil prices, Tamisan Bencz-Knight is dealing with the ripples. As the manager of strategic partnerships with the Edmonton Food Bank, she says that in 2013, it was serving 13,687 people per month. But just 18 months later, that number rose to 15,580. (Lots of people assume that’s composed of laid-off men who failed to put away enough of their exorbitant incomes, but 40 per cent of the clients are children and 66 per cent are female.) That benchmark represents the end of almost 20 years of progress for the food bank, when its number of clients steadily decreased. As of last September, 18,530 people in Edmonton were on EI – 86 per cent more than in September 2014. In Alberta, the 58,000 on EI constitute a 99 per cent increase.
“All of the sudden, in September 2014, our numbers started to go the wrong way,” Bencz-Knight says. “And we haven’t seen the end of it yet.” In just one week, five families came to Edmonton, and to the Edmonton Food Bank, from Fort McMurray. “They couldn’t survive, because of the cost of living.” Meanwhile, the Calgary Food Bank reported that 93 per cent of its new clients were workers who’d recently lost their jobs. Bencz-Knight says one thing that’s particular to this recent bout of layoffs is “the stress level of our clients.” Many are navigating the EI system for the first time. “Close to 70 per cent of all the people walking in our door aren’t associated with any other social service agency or social workers,” she says. “They’re literally navigating the government system, and all the social services, by themselves.”
Fort McMurray, however, is the real ground zero of the crash in crude prices. Arianna Johnson, the executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, describes two tables: on one, four packages of ground beef, a turkey, stuffing, 50 cans of fruit, vegetables and soup and 36 packages of dry food. The table is full to its edges and the cans are stacked in threes. On the other: enough empty space to host a Thanksgiving dinner. Behind the table, barren shelves. The first table she’s described is the food bank’s 2014 hamper, which was supposed to last a family between three and five days. The second table is 2015’s. The increase in new clients has been so overwhelming that she’s had to scale the hampers back.
It’s an increase to the order of 70 per cent over last year, well above the 23 per cent rise for all other food banks in Alberta. She started to see an influx of laid-off workers at the tail end of 2014, but in January 2015 it spiked. “We’re going to have to work a bit harder this year for our financial contributions,” she says. “But as much as we know we’ll struggle this year, we know that those who can will step up.” The food bank usually has one major food drive every year, with a host of smaller drives propping it up. This year, they’ve had to organize two big drives, with the aim of collecting an extra 75,000 pounds of food. Most startlingly, Johnson says that since July, at least 15 major contributors to the Wood Buffalo Food Bank have become clients. “It’s a bit of a frightening experience for us,” she says.
As for McVey, he’s back on Prince Edward Island, employed full time at the job he had before he came to Alberta. The province has seen an exodus of the same young men who arrived for jobs they couldn’t find at home. Irving Shipbuilding, a major New Brunswick employer, even held a job fair in Fort McMurray to lure these workers back to the East Coast. In one final twist of irony, it was held at MacDonald Island Park, the $300-million recreation centre constructed during the town’s heyday and sponsored by the very resource companies that have made so many of these cuts.
*McVey requested that we not use his real name
Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.