Fallout in Alberta: The oil crash isn't just about lost jobs

At the food bank in Leduc, demand is skyrocketing, and manager Gert Raynar doesn't know how she will keep up. The main problem: those seeking help are the ones who used to donate. CBC's Nick Purdon on the human toll of an oil crash.

Disillusionment has a way of setting all sorts of bad thoughts in motion

Fallout in Alberta

6 years ago
The human toll of Alberta's oil crash 12:03

The story assignment from The National was simple. Go to Alberta and talk to regular people about the crash in the price of oil. Humanize the downturn.

Harsh economic numbers coming out of Alberta aren't hard to find. A projected deficit of $10.4 billion. An unemployment rate of 7.4 per cent, the highest mark since 1996.

Then there was the startling projection from the Conference Board of Canada last week that Alberta will be the only province to see its economy shrink in 2016. 

But what do these figures mean for people? How the downturn affects individual lives is much harder to figure out.

It is not always easy to get people to talk about these kinds of things. People who've just lost their jobs are busy trying to find another one, or they're embarrassed by their situations.

But here are three people who agreed to speak to us and share some of their personal experiences during Alberta's current downturn.

Warren Sonnenberg, Camrose

Warren Sonnenberg, in Camrose, says one of the harder things is having friends and neighbours who are too upset to talk about their own situations. (CBC)

Sonnenberg, 35, worked for five years on a drilling rig in the oil patch. He started at the bottom as a leasehand and worked his way up to derrickhand. Before he was laid off in January he was making $40 an hour. He never thought the good times would end.

"You're feeling this stuff for the first time, and you're feeling this worry and this fear and you're looking around and you don't see any relief," he says. "You want to speak to other people but they're embarrassed by their own situations.

"They don't want to speak about how they filed for bankruptcy, they don't want to talk about the two vehicles they've lost, they don't want to talk about having to move back into their parents' basement.

"And I've had these things happen to several of our friends. It's hard to watch."

Gert Raynar, Leduc

Gert Raynar runs the food bank in Leduc, where demand is skyrocketing and those who used to contribute are now her customers. (CBC)

"We are the canary in the coal mine," Raynar says about the food bank in Leduc where she is the manager. Raynar has never been busier, and she says it's the same situation all across the province.

Demand on the food bank in Medicine Hat, she says, is up an unbelievable 500 per cent over this time last year. But it's the people coming in who get to Raynar.

"The frustration that we see in our clients, feeling like there is no tomorrow. Like I am going to lose everything? And there's no one out there to go to, there's no one who cares.

"Alberta is now the one that is taking the hit, so how can the rest of Canada not come to our help?" she wants to know.

Raynar admits she doesn't see how she is going to keep up with the demand because 80 per cent of the people who now use her services used to donate to the food bank.

Clarence Shields, Leduc

Clarence Shields owns the sprawling Blackjacks roadhouse in Leduc. (CBC)

Clarence Shields owns the sprawling Blackjacks roadhouse in Leduc. It's a kind of unofficial union hall for oil workers.

From 1980 to 1993 Shields's father, Jack Shields, was the Conservative member of Parliament for the then district of Athabasca, which included the town of Fort McMurray.

It's not surprising then that Clarence serves not just beer, but politics, from behind his bar.

Clarence made it through the last big crash in the mid-1980s even though he says he lost everything and had to start again.

Shields argues that what's happening now is similar. He offers a warning from back then, and a reminder that downturns aren't just about job losses — the stakes are much higher than that.

"We were left, as a province with nowhere to turn. We received no support federally, and we were left on our own, and that's what spurred so many of the splinter political parties in Alberta that wanted to separate. That wanted to leave this country."

Now, he says, "you're seeing a rehash of the '80s. You're seeing a generation that has never experienced as quick and as decisive a downturn as we got right now.

"They don't know where to turn. All we have heard from our government so far is 'It'll be OK'. Well it's not OK. We need help. We really need help."


Nick Purdon

Current Affairs Correspondent

Nick Purdon is a Current Affairs Correspondent with CBC News' The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickpurdoncbc


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