katie.mehnert

The Death of the Alberta Dream

Blog Post created by katie.mehnert Champion on Apr 8, 2016

 

Late last year, Brandon MacKay listed his Kawasaki dirt bike for sale on Kijiji, the online classifieds site. It was the only treat the 25-year-old had given himself in three years living in Fort McMurray. The rest he’d spent on supporting and visiting his wife and kids in Pictou County, N.S. But in crafting the ad for the bike—$4,400 or best offer—MacKay did what any sales agent would advise against: he revealed his desperation to sell. “I lost my job and am in need of money for my wife and kids for Christmas.”

MacKay had followed a well-worn path to prosperity for East Coasters: with limited job prospects at home, the engineering technologist flew to Alberta’s oil sands capital and found a job in mechanical sales. It was good money. He bought a 30-acre plot and 2,000-sq.-foot house for his family back east. One day, while he was setting up for a client visit, his branch manager summoned MacKay for what he thought would be a meeting about sales projections for 2016. “Before I could even sit down,” MacKay recalls, “he told me it was my last day.”

Now MacKay is faced with a reality that would have been inconceivable a year ago: he might have to leave Alberta to find a job.

MacKay’s ordeal is just one example of the upheaval many Albertans, new and old, have suffered since oil prices began their long, hard crash. It’s affected everyone from steel-toed rig hands to French-cuffed executives, with layoffs hitting Calgary and Fort Mac, not to mention the many small towns across Alberta that rely heavily on the energy sector.

As this downturn has unfolded, the great oil rout of 2014-15 seemed, at least at first, to be following a similar pattern to other busts. Some big oil sands projects get delayed, rig and well activity shrivels and Employment Insurance rolls spike, leading to knock-on effects: Calgary towers thin out, the real estate market softens, and cuts spread to everything from shops to restaurants. Yet past plunges were reliably followed by a bungee-like snap back in growth, as oil prices regained their upward momentum. It’s a pattern a generation of Albertans has come to expect, after the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the 9/11 terrorism shock and the 2008 financial crisis.

But the broad optimism of early 2015 has gradually given way to dread. This feels more like the awful 1980s, with no swift recovery to come—not in a world glutted by oil, as Saudi Arabia battles to squeeze out higher-cost producers like Russia and the United States. Before Christmas 2014, as prices thudded from above US$100 per barrel to below US$60 for the first time since the Great Recession, oilpatch observers wondered how soon US$80 oil would return. Instead, the OPEC cartel’s decision to keep pumping, and the surprising resilience of U.S. producers, have pushed oil down to below US$40.

Energy companies are preparing for a grim 2016. Analysts predict budgets will get slashed further, and that more energy firms may have to cut staff, having already laid off thousands. Ongoing oil sands construction projects will continue to wind down with little to replace them, hitting both the residential and commercial real estate sectors hard. For instance, in nearly one-sixth of all the office space in downtown Calgary, the fluorescent lights now shine on empty cubicles, and it’s forecast to get worse. Reports of the symptoms pop up almost daily: more insolvencies, more business for moving trucks and repo crews, even a noticeable uptick in suicides. The Calgary Stampede itself has been forced to lay off staff, as its offseason event bookings dried up. In November, the Alberta unemployment rate came within one-tenth of a percentage point of the national average, the closest it’s been since 1989. Those trend lines are expected to cross over next year, making it more clear to Canadian job-seekers that the Alberta dream is in decline.

Brandon MacKay works on this motorbike in his trailer turned into a make shift garage, in Fort McMurray Alberta, November 14, 2015. Brandon MacKay was recently laid off from his job. (Photograph by Jason Franson)

Brandon MacKay works on this motorbike in his trailer turned into a make shift garage, in Fort McMurray Alberta, November 14, 2015. Brandon MacKay was recently laid off from his job. (Photograph by Jason Franson)

The rest of the country isn’t immune from those ominous grinding sounds coming from Canada’s longtime economic engine. Canadian GDP dipped into recession territory in the first half of 2015 on the oil shock, and though the country managed a rebound in the third quarter, Alberta’s troubles—as well as slumps in other oil-rich provinces like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland—have left a gaping wound. The energy sector had long driven Canada’s trade surplus, papering over weakness elsewhere while soaking up large numbers of unemployed and underemployed people from regions like the Maritimes and hard-hit southwestern Ontario. Many economists predict a gradual rebound, but nothing head and shoulders above national growth rates, as had been typical for Alberta. “Average growth” is an unfamiliar term in Alberta, and will take some getting used to.

But even average growth seems a ways off, as troubles keep filtering through the province. In Alberta’s southeast, Medicine Hat drew international acclaim in the spring of 2015 after it became the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness, having pursued an ambitious five-year agenda to put people into subsidized housing within 10 days of them landing in emergency shelters. After so much progress, Medicine Hat’s Salvation Army shelter is back to averaging 17 clients a night, up about one-third since 2014—too many to promptly find them all affordable housing. Local demand for donated clothing and household items also rose by more than a quarter over the last year, says manager Murray Jaster. But donations slumped too, and he had to reduce staff. When he’s out along the Trans-Canada Highway that dissects Medicine Hat, Jaster has noticed more hitchhikers than he’s seen in years—people looking to take the long road home, or perhaps to wherever in Canada the jobs may be. “Man, we’re a have-not province all of a sudden,” Jaster says. “Who can believe it? I can’t.”

To be sure, the oil crash isn’t yet deep or dark enough to have actually lowered Alberta to the status of federal welfare case, qualifying for equalization payments. It still remains a wealthy province, with the highest average weekly income in Canada. “It’s still not that bad relative to the rest of the country,” says University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe. “I think we were just used to things being so good that we lost a little bit of perspective.”

But, to Jaster’s point, there is much his province used to have that now seems gone. Most noticeable is Alberta’s eroding status as the Promised Land for so many Canadians from other parts of the country. Over the last decade, net interprovincial migration by 18- to 44-year-olds, the key working demographic, swelled Alberta’s population by 200,000, according to a report by a rather envious Business Council of British Columbia. (That province netted fewer than 40,000 over that stretch, while all other provinces were net losers.) The momentum has shifted. While 1,200 more Canadians still moved to the province than left it during the third quarter of 2015, that was the smallest gain since 2010—when the province was recovering from the 2009 oil price collapse—and less than half the average of the last 50 years.

READ MORE OF THE STORY HERE. (Macleans)

 

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