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Canadians head to the polls with oil economy in mind

Emma Jacobs Oct 19, 2015
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Until earlier this year, Ketan Rakheja worked full time as a firefighter in Alberta’s oil fields.

“All the rigging and fracking go on in the country, right? So you’re on rural roads, right, like, they’re not paved roads and they just get icy,” he explained.

While sometimes dangerous work, it paid very well. Rakheja, like a lot of workers in the western oil fields, is not from Alberta. For a long time, Alberta absorbed the unemployed from Canada’s economically weaker Atlantic provinces. Many workers even commuted across the country.

But then the global price of oil began to fall.

When Canadians go to the polls Monday for federal parliamentary elections, the economy will be top of mind. Canada’s currency has decreased in value by about 25 percent in two years against the U.S. dollar. The country technically dipped into a recession earlier this year, driven by dropping oil and commodity prices.

“Everyone was saying things are getting bad in Alberta,” recalled Rakheja, who was laid off in January. He has since taken a job in construction that pays less while picking up occasional contract work as a firefighter.

He’s among 36,000 people who have lost jobs in Alberta’s energy sector this year. Deborah Yedlin, business columnist for the Calgary Herald, predicts that number could reach 50,000. This has had a ripple effect in the province.

“Housing sales are down 27 percent year over year in August,” Yedlin said. “If you go for lunch, there’s not as many tables that are in use at the restaurants downtown.”

She said everyone is watching closely as Canada’s three biggest federal parties argue over who can best revive the Canadian economy.

The federal Conservative government of the last 10 years, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, hasn’t accomplished all the energy sector wants — building pipelines or negotiating agreements with Canada’s indigenous groups. But Yedlin said Harper is still seen as pro-business.

“That’s the devil you know,” Yedlin said. 

Also in the running: the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party. They both support oil production, though they might regulate the industry a little more.

Nationally, Rowan O’Grady, president of recruitment firm Hays Canada, said companies are cautious but still hiring.

“We’re not seeing companies outside of Alberta making any strategic news such as hiring freezes or layoffs,” he said, but the loss of Canada’s biggest star has hurt the overall picture.

Rakheja, the oil-fields firefighter, said he’ll probably leave Alberta soon — but others who’ve been laid off will stick around.

“All they’re doing is just waiting by the phone and hoping that the rig calls, so that they can go back,” he said.

Given the global decline in the price of oil, there may not be much any party can do to make that happen faster.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rakheja. The text has been corrected.

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