Atlantic Canadians caught in downturn of the oil industry

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

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.”

 

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

Organizations: WestJet, Employment Insurance

Geographic location: Toronto, Iran, West Texas Intermediate British Columbia Manitoba

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