Camrose-Drumheller region sees highest unemployment rate in Alberta
Local officials say a weakened tourism sector, oil and gas industry part of the reason
This story is part of The Big Spend, a CBC News investigation examining the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic.
Until three weeks ago, Bob Willis was planning for the steam-powered train in Stettler to have customers aboard for the Christmas holidays.
But as the pandemic continued and provincial restrictions limited options, it became clear that the central Alberta tourist attraction wouldn't operate for most of 2020.
"We have not turned a wheel since March, which means quite a bit to us," said Willis, general manager of Alberta Prairie Steam Tours.
The tourism industry in central Alberta has been badly hurt by the pandemic, as have tourist centres across the province, with many companies relying on federal supports to get through the pandemic.
Officials say the weakened tourism industry is one reason why the Camrose-Drumheller region over the last four months has seen Alberta's largest increase in unemployment when compared to 2019 numbers.
The statistics are based on three-month moving averages.
Even now, with things opening up a little bit, it still hasn't come back.- Norman Mayer, mayor of Camrose
The regions' oil and gas industries are also part of the reason why the area is seeing higher-than-average unemployment rates compared to the rest of Alberta, officials say.
"Those are two areas that have been hit badly with the shutdown because of COVID-19," said Norman Mayer, mayor of Camrose.
"Even now, with things opening up a little bit, it still hasn't come back."
Several communities within the region have residents who work in oil and gas and related industries.
In the east, hundreds of people in Hardisty, Alta., a central oil and gas hub, are employed in the industry.
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There are also people working for oil and gas companies in the Drumheller area.
"In regards to our oil and gas industry that we do have here, it has been sluggish the last couple of years," said Heather Bitz, executive director of the Drumheller and district chamber of commerce.
The federal economic region of Camrose-Drumheller covers a large portion of the eastern part of the province, extending east to the Saskatchewan border and going as far north as the area northeast of Edmonton. It extends to the south to the Vulcan area.
The area is seeing signs of improvement. The region's unemployment rate was at its highest in August and has dropped since, according to the provincial labour surveys.
But the unemployment rate in November (based on three-month moving averages) remained the highest in the province.
Relying on government aid
Many businesses have relied heavily on the federal government business support programs, like the Canada emergency wage subsidy (CEWS), to keep staff employed during the pandemic.
"We've heard from businesses that the wage subsidy program has been a huge help to a lot of businesses who have applied for it," said Bitz.
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Uptake in the CEWS program in Alberta has been higher than other provinces like B.C. and Manitoba, with 27 per cent — or 46,360— of Alberta businesses with employees (as stated in June) accessing the wage subsidy program at least once, according to Nov. 22 federal government numbers.
Regional statistics aren't available for the wage subsidy program or the business loan program, the two largest supports for businesses.
CBC News obtained regional application data for the third largest program for businesses, the Canada emergency commercial rent assistance program (CECRA), which ended Sept. 30.
Despite the problematic program criteria, the first round of rent subsidies benefited some businesses across Alberta, and in the Camrose-Drumheller region.
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There were 907 applications for rent subsidies from the Camrose-Drumheller region, with the amount received totalling around $4.7 million.
That accounts for almost two per cent of the $281.73 million received from landlords across Alberta.
Since the first round of the program required commercial property owners to apply, it's not clear how many specific businesses received dollars under the program.
Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has said the government expects more businesses to apply for the revised rent subsidy program to get through what she called the second wave of COVID-19.
"As much of our country is fighting a second wave of the coronavirus, this support is especially important now for our businesses and our economy," Freeland said at a news conference last month.
"This is the right thing for us to do and it is the economically smart thing for us to do."
Next few months
For some business owners in the region, rent subsidy isn't enough.
Pat McCarthy has been grounded since March and forced to pivot his business during the pandemic.
The international business and marketing consultant and real estate developer, based in Camrose, is self-employed, and without an office space is ineligible for the wage and rent subsidies.
"We've burned up a lot of our family jewels to stay alive through this so far," he said. "I really am not too interested to keep doing that any longer."
What many small businesses need most is to return to normal sales, said Annie Dormuth, Alberta spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
With that not expected to happen within the next few months, she and other experts have suggested provincial and federal governments look at injecting cash, not loan deferrals, into small businesses.
It would be a welcome financial boost for many businesses in the Camrose area, said Jason Heise, president of the Camrose and district chamber of commerce.
A business owner himself, Heise said many of the programs aren't sufficiently covering expenses and revenue losses.
"The federal government can do more for Western Canada," he said.
Until it does, he said, local businesses will try to hang on.
"They're doing what typical Albertans do: We survive."