Like au­towork­ers, Al­berta’s oil work­ers need help

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion -

A dis­rupted econ­omy kills thou­sands of Cana­dian jobs. The roused me­dia tell the na­tion it’s in cri­sis.

And a sym­pa­thetic Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau has­tens to re­as­sure the stricken work­ers that he’s got their backs and will be there to help sup­port them in their hour of need.

All this pretty much sums up what hap­pened last week af­ter Gen­eral Mo­tors an­nounced its Oshawa as­sem­bly plant would pro­duce no more ve­hi­cles as of De­cem­ber 2019. It’s the com­pas­sion­ate re­sponse Cana­di­ans have come to ex­pect when some­thing bad hap­pens in their econ­omy and to fel­low cit­i­zens, too.

Yet it falls far short of de­scrib­ing how the prime min­is­ter and na­tional me­dia have re­acted to the far more se­vere dis­rup­tion in Al­berta’s oil­patch and the far greater job losses in that strug­gling in­dus­try.

Re­sent­ful Al­ber­tans won­der why. Af­ter wit­ness­ing the al­most hys­ter­i­cal re­sponse to the im­pend­ing clo­sure of On­tario’s small­est auto plant, they can’t fathom why, in com­par­i­son, they seem to be ig­nored.

Per­haps the dif­fer­ences in the two sit­u­a­tions partly ex­plain the dif­fer­ent responses from Cen­tral Canada and politi­cians based there.

Al­berta’s en­ergy sec­tor has been ham­mered since 2014 in a va­ri­ety of com­plex ways. The axe GM low­ered on its Oshawa plant was sud­den and shock­ing. It was easy for TV news crews to de­camp to Oshawa and grab their sound bites from shell-shocked GM work­ers. Trekking to the dis­tant oil­fields of north­ern Al­berta to cover a story that has un­folded over years in­stead of a sin­gle day is more daunt­ing.

But Al­ber­tans don’t buy such ex­cuses. And we Cen­tral Cana­di­ans should try to see things through their eyes. Do­ing so might ex­plain why they turned out in droves to protest Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau’s stopover in Cal­gary late last month. And why Al­berta Premier Rachel Not­ley was in Ot­tawa last week mak­ing an ur­gent plea for help — and ac­cus­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment of not pro­vid­ing it.

The way Al­ber­tans see it, Cen­tral Cana­dian politi­cians are ready to go into hy­per drive to as­sist the 2,800 GM em­ploy­ees be­ing dis­placed in Oshawa, as well as the work­ers at auto parts fac­to­ries who will be im­pacted when that plant is done. But while painful, all this is hap­pen­ing in a prov­ince of 14.3 mil­lion peo­ple with a low un­em­ploy­ment rate.

With its much smaller pop­u­la­tion of 4.3 mil­lion, how­ever, Al­berta has watched more than 40,000 jobs dis­ap­pear from its en­ergy sec­tor in re­cent years. An­other 100,000 peo­ple may have lost di­rect or in­di­rect work in Al­berta and other prov­inces since the oil-price crash. Un­em­ploy­ment has soared. Cal­gary’s busi­ness sec­tion has been dev­as­tated.

Al­ber­tans re­mem­ber the $13 bil­lion Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­va­tives kicked in to save GM and Chrysler in the 2008-09 re­ces­sion, as well as the $393 mil­lion Trudeau’s Lib­er­als have doled out to On­tario’s auto in­dus­try since 2015.

Al­ber­tans won’t be com­forted by Trudeau’s $4.5-bil­lion pur­chase of the Trans Moun­tain Pipe­line to carry their oil, ei­ther. That’s be­cause that pipe­line’s ex­pan­sion is cur­rently go­ing nowhere and they hold Trudeau re­spon­si­ble for killing two other pipe­lines that would have saved them from sell­ing their oil at a dis­count that costs the in­dus­try $80 mil­lion a day. They ex­pect bet­ter from Ot­tawa.

And while many en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists want to shut down the en­tire oil in­dus­try, few are call­ing for an end to On­tario’s auto sec­tor, which also plays a role in green­house gas emis­sions.

Canada is a vast coun­try. Its peo­ple of­ten have vastly dif­fer­ent needs. To keep Canada strong and united, Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau must pay more heed to the needs of Al­berta.

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