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Canada's Oil Country Is Bleeding Jobs and Suicides Are on the Rise in Alberta

Once the engine driving the Canadian economy, in 2013 Alberta created 87 percent of net new jobs in the country. But as oil prices continue to tumble, the job letting has been fast and furious.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
December 24, 2015, 4:35pm
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

There was supposed to be a life path for an Alberta oil worker.

It started after leaving high school — with or without a diploma — and an entry level job somewhere in the field. If you were born into a family with a legacy in the trades, you might luck out and get a job as a maintenance worker at a plant. If not, there was no need to worry. Someone was hiring. From there, you parlayed your time into a journeyman ticket.

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And then you worked. You worked hard. You worked to get yourself that house, to support your kids, and have a nice retirement just like your parents did before you.

What's happening right now in Alberta was never supposed to happen. Not in oil country.

Chase Marose was born and raised in Taber, Alberta; he's a journeyman welder with a plethora of experience. Last month, Marose was laid off. All those former coworkers, once brothers in arms, are now his competition. He figures he has applied to over a hundred jobs, but the only support he's been able to provide to his wife and two daughters is Employment Insurance.

"It sucks," he said in an interview. "When you're used to getting $6,500, and you get set back to $1,800 a month, it's a big change. You can get by, but it's not very easy. You have to really budget."

Marose isn't alone. And the economic forecast in the heart of Canada's oil sands looks grim.

Once the engine driving the Canadian economy, in 2013 Alberta created 87 percent of all net new jobs in the country. But as oil prices continue to tumble — all the way to $36 a barrel — and energy companies scramble to make sense of their prospects, the job letting has been fast and it has been furious.

This month, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers announced the country's oil and gas sector wilk shed 100,000 jobs by the end of this year, 40,000 of them direct. Alberta alone has seen more than 63,000 job losses in the first eight months of the year, according to Statistics Canada. There has been a spike in people relying on employment insurance, too, from 33,390 in January to 59,800 this month. Numbers from earlier this month show that companies have laid off 116 groups of 50 people or more in Alberta, for a total of 18,123 pink slips in 2015. By comparison, 11,694 people were laid off in 2013 and 2014 combined.

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As a columnist in the Calgary Herald wrote recently, "about the only certainty around how many jobs have been lost in Canada's energy sector with the plunge in oil prices is that more are coming."

Watch the VICE News documentary Alberta's Boom Time Hangover here:

According to an economist who studies the Albertan labor market, the province hasn't seen numbers like this numbers since the late eighties.

"The current Albertan unemployment rate of 7 percent is as high as it was during the recession at the end of the 2000's and now matches the national average of 7.1, which it hasn't done on a monthly basis since 1989," said Joseph Marchand an associate professor of economics at the University of Alberta. "So, it's quite historic. And not in a good way."

Joe MacKay, the owner of BGS Enterprises, a company that helps Albertans find employment again, said that, frankly, the demand for jobs is overwhelming for many employers.

"We do a lot of work with small or medium sized companies," said MacKay. "One thing that's interesting in talking to employers in our network is that it's going back to the way it was during the '90s crash. Where they don't even want to even put out job ads because they will get a couple of hundred resumes."

He says this is the first time he has seen both young and older oil workers coming to his company in equal numbers to try and secure employment.

There's another upsetting trend rising alongside the unemployment rate that shows that there may be a real human cost to this epidemic of unemployment. Some media outlets have connected the recent job market crash in oil and gas to an uptick in suicides. From January to July, during the start of the crash, Albertan suicides increased by 30 percent. In hard numbers, that's 327 suicides in Alberta, compared to 252 over the same period last year. That means Alberta, a province of just over four million, is on track for more than 650 suicides this year. But there is no way to concretely connect the two statistics at this point, experts warn.

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"Can you correlate it to an individual level, yes you can. But you can't to a population level," said Mara Grunau, the executive director of Canada's Center for Suicide Prevention. "The research that we have says that for every 1 percent increase in unemployment, there will be a 0.79 percent increase in suicide rates, but you won't see those numbers for two years."

That's because, according to Grunau, that's how long it takes for personal resources to become exhausted, so there is a possibility that the suicide numbers may get far worse before they get better. The ramifications of jobs not returning is a scary thought when considering the demographics of Albertan suicides: 73 percent are male, 63 percent are middle aged, and the victim is more likely to be receiving social services than not. According to BGS this is the exact demographic they see lining up at their door to find work.

But Joseph Marchand says that all may not be lost for the Alberta oil worker.

"I expect that energy prices will eventually pick back up, and that will shift labor demand in the province outward once again, likely in the form of a third boom [since 1970]," said Marchand. "As for when that will happen, it seems like it will not be very soon."

And that's cold comfort to people like Marose, who has had to stop taking his children to movies and his wife to dinner because he has no idea when he'll be able to provide for his family again. His wife can't work because she cares for their youngest daughter who suffers from epilepsy and, at times, has to be fed through a tube.

As of right now the outlook is bleak.

"I am worried. I don't know what's going to happen here. This could last for a few years, or it could turn around in a couple of months. It's hard to say," said Marose. "It's boom or bust. There is no real middle ground."

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter: @MackLamoureux

Image via Flickr user Williamson