Caught in the down­turn

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­ — Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky.

Their greet­ing sounded a lit­tle bit like the un­der­stand­ing style that old sol­diers use.

It was the Toronto air­port ear­lier this week, sleet bat­ter­ing down out­side and the flash­ing-light de-ic­ing trucks work­ing like robotic spi­ders crawl­ing over fat air­craft prey.

Two guys in the same in­dus­try who hadn’t seen each other for a while, both oil work­ers head­ing to their At­lantic Cana­dian homes, two guys talk­ing like sur­vivors af­ter a par­tic­u­larly nasty bat­tle.

Big men, spread wide over the blue vinyl and chrome row seat­ing, talk­ing about when they’d been work­ing on the same pro­ject a while ago.

Se­nior guys — soft around the middle, hands that weren’t on tools daily — talk­ing about their com­pa­tri­ots.

Like count­ing on fin­gers, they counted off where their for­mer friends were now, and where they weren’t. They went through 10 names while I was sit­ting there, and eight were out of work or out of the oil in­dus­try en­tirely. Two more were still work­ing in the busi­ness, but far below the level they had been, and far below their old pay rate.

One of the air­port men had switched com­pa­nies as his old em­ployer shrank, of­fer­ing only lower-level jobs.

“They told me I should be look­ing at roustabout if they asked. Me,” one said, point­ing at his waist. “I’d be dead in a week.”

The other? “I didn’t think I’d be back on the planes again. But I am.”

Care­worn carry-on, fleece jack­ets with com­pany lo­gos, a way of sit­ting — arms thrown out across the backs of the seats on both sides — that sug­gested a com­fort­able reg­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ence with air­ports that most peo­ple don’t have.

Both aware that they were pawns in a global con­flict that isn’t end­ing any­time soon — that they are, right now, sur­vivors in a ten­u­ous in­dus­try.

They knew the daily price for West Texas In­ter­me­di­ate, and they know the price dif­fer­en­tial be­tween that oil and the even lower-priced oil­sands oil.

The same day that I saw the two men, WestJet an­nounced it was drop­ping 88 flights a week from Bri­tish Columbia to oil­patch des­ti­na­tions, with com­pany spokes­woman Lau­ren Ste­wart say­ing, “With the down­turn in the econ­omy, we are see­ing less de­mand for travel to and from en­ergy mar­kets.”

Ear­lier, flights had been cut from Man­i­toba to the oil­patch.

“Iran’s stock­piled mil­lions of bar­rels,” one of the men says. (Some es­ti­mates sug­gest Iran may be hold­ing as much as 46 mil­lion bar­rels of oil in tankers, wait­ing to sell as sanc­tions are lifted.

The coun­try has said it plans to man­age the re­lease of its crude to mar­kets to keep from fur­ther de­press­ing oil prices and the in­dus­try as a whole, but the mar­ket is edgy about the new sup­ply, when global oil sup­ply is al­ready out­strip­ping de­mand. Wars have started over less.)

The slow­ing oil econ­omy is hurt­ing provinces that have an oil in­dus­try, for sure, but it’s also hurt­ing provinces whose only con­nec­tion is the re­mit­tance work­ers, the peo­ple who fly away for good-pay­ing jobs and the ser­vice in­dus­try that gets them out West and back again.

As oil prices go low, and stay low, work­ers aren’t just los­ing their jobs, but their el­i­gi­bil­ity for Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance is start­ing to dry up.

The sur­vivors know just how lucky they are.

“See you on the next swing,” one of the men said, rum­bling to his feet to head for his gate.

“Hope so,” said the other, shak­ing hands. “Not count­ing on it now.”


Like most towns and cities in At­lantic Canada, nearly ev­ery­one in Mi­ramichi, N.B., knows some­one who works “out West.”

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