Canadians revel in Alberta's downfall, or do they?

Albertans are struggling as the energy industry continues to sputter. Making matters worse, there is a pervasive feeling that some Canadians enjoy watching the province's hard times. But does the rest of Canada really take pleasure in Alberta's pain?

Is the West finally in? Broad support for the struggling province suggests Western alienation may be over

Tour of Hardisty Alberta

6 years ago
Duration 1:14
A tour of Hardisty Alberta in the heart of Alberta's sputtering oil patch.

First published on March 15, 2016.

It hasn't been an easy year for the Engebretsen family.

Like many Albertans, their livelihoods depend on Alberta's volatile oil and gas sector, and like many of their friends and neighbours in Lloydminster, the last year and a half has seen their hopes and dreams come crashing down to earth.

About two years ago with oil selling at around $100 US per barrel, Darren Engebretsen gambled that the good times were here to stay for a little longer. He doubled down, investing in an expensive oil services truck and striking out on his own.

Engebretsen spent about $130,000 on his truck and initially the oil rig mechanic flourished, landing lucrative contracts and as much business as he could handle. 

Then the price of oil began to tumble, and business dried up. Soon he couldn't make the payments on his truck and he had to shut down his once promising business. 

"I feel for everybody out there, I know I am not the only guy in the same boat, lots of guys are in the same spot."

That spot means Engebretsen now commutes to Calgary to work as a mechanic in the construction industry just to pay the bills. It also means less money and a lot less time with his wife Jolien and their two small children. 

The Engebretsen family of Lloydminster, Alta., keeps smiling despite enduring a tough year and a half since the price of oil began to plummet. (Colin Hall/CBC)

But for Jolien Engebretsen, it is the reaction of some other Canadians to the plight of Alberta that makes these tough times even harder.

"They are laughing at us; I just feel like we are a joke and we shouldn't be. If things happen out East that are, you know, hurting their economy, I am not going to sit on social media and laugh at them, I am going to feel sorry for them."

Jolien feels alienated and abandoned by people in Central Canada and she believes other Canadians are exacerbating the hard times here by opposing pipelines that would carry Alberta crude to tidewater. 

"It is a slap across the face that they would rather see everyone in Alberta lose absolutely everything that they have worked for and have no compassion for you at all."

It is a sense of isolation and anger that many Albertans feel in their bones, something they simply know to be true.

But is it?

A new poll of 2,098 Canadians between Feb. 16-26 commissioned by the CBC suggests that the rest of the country is sympathetic to Albertans' plight. 

  • 92 per cent of Canadians say that the energy industry is important for the national economy.
  • 63 per cent believe Alberta should immediately receive $700 million in federal infrastructure money.
  • 56 per cent say that the federal government should remove restrictions on EI for Albertans.
  • 59 per cent believe that Alberta needs federal government help to help combat slumping oil prices.
  • 59 per cent of Canadians support the Energy East pipeline.

Frank Graves is with EKOS, the firm that conducted the poll. He says the broad support for Alberta and the energy sector from across Canada was one of the things that stood out for him.

Frank Graves of the polling firm EKOS says he was surprised by the broad support for Alberta expressed by Canadians across the country. (Vic Modderman/CBC)

"It may just be people thinking that we help each other out in this country but it also may be a more realistic appraisal to say that we need a strong Alberta economy to have a strong national economy."

Two provinces over, that is the view of Terry Nelson the Grand Chief of Manitoba's Southern Chiefs Organization. 

"The reality is that Alberta energy exports also benefited a lot of other people." 

And Nelson says he has no problem with the controversial Energy East pipeline crossing his land in Manitoba as it makes its way across the Prairies to refineries on the East Coast.

Terry Nelson is the grand chief of Manitoba's Southern Chiefs' Organization. (CBC)

"As long as we are driving our vehicles and stuff like that and we have plastics in our lives and we have all kinds of the benefits of oil, then opposing a pipeline does not save mother Earth."

Of course, that view isn't universal. 

Simone Landry owns a horse farm in Mascouche, Que. If it is built, the Energy East pipeline will essentially run through her front yard, something that doesn't excite Landry.

"There's no need for pipelines. They tell you it's safe, but there's no 100 per cent safe, there's going to be leakage. Even small leakage will damage my land."

Quebecers are actually divided on pipelines, just 51 per cent say that they are safe or somewhat safe, far lower than the national number of 70 per cent. 

The Energy East pipeline would run right past Simone Landry's farm in Quebec. (Simone Landry)

Residents of Quebec are also split on providing extra infrastructure money for Alberta's struggling economy, with just 50 per cent of residents in favour of the $700-million investment.

For her part, Simone Landry struggles with anything that supports the energy industry and a continued reliance on fossil fuels.

"It has nothing to do with the number of people who are out of work. I mean, our people have been out of work, we've lost big companies."

Still, even in Quebec, where opposition to pipelines and the energy industry is at its highest, half of residents support helping out Alberta, a telling number according to University of Calgary political scientist Anthony Sayers.

"I think Albertans can take some solace from this sort of survey and say, look, you know people outside of Alberta sort of get us and are willing to work with us on this. Canadians are aware of the role that Alberta plays in the Canadian economy."

Sayers says Albertans are understandably sensitive to outside opinions about the energy industry because it plays such a vital role in the province's economy.

University of Calgary political scientist Anthony Sayers. (Erin Collins/CBC)

"Albertans know that the energy industry is central to their economic well-being, so they are doubly defensive because they are saying no, no, no, really, be good to us. We are the defenders of this particular view of Canada, this particular view of energy."

Back in Lloydminster, the Engebretsen family faces an uncertain future.

The truck that was once the key to the family's future prosperity now sits in an auction yard waiting to be sold off. Darren Engebretsen says the price it fetches on the block will in large part determine the family's economic future.

"I wish it would just be sold so I would know what it went for, know what I owe."

Like many Albertans, the family is just hanging on, patiently waiting for the price of oil to rebound, for a return to the good times. But as the downturn approaches two years here, Joliel Engebretsen isn't sure how much longer the family will be able to hold out.

"You can only tough it out for so long, you know. We didn't expect it to be a year and a half and still no end in sight."

The ups and downs of the energy economy are nothing new for Albertans, they have survived major downturns before and most believe they will make it through this one as well.

The difference this time is that the rest of the country appears to have their backs while they wait.

CBC commissioned EKOS to survey how Canadians feel about the environment, economy and energy — including pipelines. This week we break down the numbers in our in-depth series.


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.


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