Alberta's Boom Has Dark Sidegreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Alberta's boom has dark side for residents, workers, cities and businesses
EDMONTON (CP) - When people ask Deana Shorten about Alberta's booming economy, she grimaces in dismay. "Is it a boom?" she asks. "For whom?" While Alberta rockets into 2001, powered by multibillion-dollar surpluses as a result of spiralling natural gas prices and $30 US per barrel crude oil, Shorten warns that the streets are not paved with gold for middle- and low-income earners.
Despite Alberta's prosperity and thousands of new jobs, the 35-year-old Edmonton mother of four is struggling to make ends meet.
"Don't come here until you have a guaranteed job and a place to live," said Shorten, who is back combing the want ads after her $14 an hour contract job expired.
"Good, decent jobs are hard to find.
"If I took a job at $6 an hour, I might as well just put my kids in the government's hands and say: 'You take care of them because I can't.' "
While revenue is rising rapidly in Alberta, so too is the cost of doing business and the cost of just getting by.
Edmonton and Calgary inflation rates are leading the country and skyrocketing energy prices, which are helping to fill provincial coffers, threaten to boost the cost of living even higher over the cold winter months.
The cost of heating a home with natural gas in Alberta is expected to be twice as high as in Ontario in 2001.
While the Alberta government is attempting to soften the blow by subsidizing homeowners $50 a month for the first four months of the year, landlords can't be forced to pass the subsidy on to tenants.
Another $300 energy rebate to Albertans over age 16 along with a monthly $40 credit on residential electricity bills beginning in January won't do much to ease the pain for many Albertans, said Brian Bechtel, an Edmonton social activist.
Provincial social assistance levels have not changed since the early 1990s despite a cost of living that is increasing at an alarming rate.
Add to that the fact that while Alberta is Canada's only province without a provincial sales tax, it is also one of two provinces that charges an annual health insurance premium of more than $800 per family.
Bechtel said many tenants will be forced to move from place to place as energy costs drive up rents.
"These people see themselves falling further and further behind," he said.
Marjorie Bencz of Edmonton's Food Bank said that as many low-income Albertans spend more on shelter and heat, they'll have less for food.
The result, say social agencies, is more families going to food banks and more children going to school hungry.
Locally funded hot lunch and school snack programs feed 7,000 children in 30 Edmonton schools daily and more than 15,000 people rely on Edmonton's food bank for groceries.
"There seems to be this myth that economic growth is good for average people," said Patti Lawrence, a researcher with the South Peace Social Planning Council in the northwestern city of Grande Prairie.
"It's really good for people who own big companies or who are making all the money, but it doesn't trickle down to average families. What we're seeing is people who are not part of the boom are out in the cold."
She said that while Grande Prairie is booming, particularly in the retail sector and in restaurants and bars, most businesses offer only $5.90 per hour minimum-wage jobs.
When the money falls short, people have to turn to charities and churches to get by.
"People working in the volunteer sector are burnt out and there's a big crisis going on that nobody seems to want to talk about," Lawrence said.
In Calgary, the boom is creating traffic gridlock and putting pressure on schools, hospitals and neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, the oilpatch is seeing a 135 per cent increase in on-the-job accidents as it recruits a younger and less experienced workforce to operate a record number of drilling and servicing rigs.
Don Herring, president of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, called the increase in accidents disturbing: "That's clearly the dark side of the boom."
The surge in workplace injuries generally in the province has forced the Workers' Compensation Board to hike its premiums for the first time in several years.
But the boom's most dramatic impact has been felt in the northern oilsands city of Fort McMurray, where oilfield construction projects are proceeding at a frenetic pace.
Guy Boutilier, member of the legislature for Fort McMurray and the city's former mayor, said the $30-billion contruction boom has boosted the area population by 10,000, most of them transient workers.
The influx has put incredible pressure on the housing market and boosted crime rates.
"Money doesn't always bring prosperity; sometimes it brings in evil," said Phil Meagher, a city councillor and high school vice-principal.
Impaired driving offences have nearly doubled over the previous year, and the police and courts are struggling to cope.
When provincial court Judge Stan Peck saw 18 impaired driving cases on his Oct. 25 court docket, he handed out jail sentences to drive the message home.
"It's about time people realize I will use every method I have to keep drinking and driving off the roads," he declared as he sent three first-time offenders to jail.
RCMP are also struggling to address a signifigant increase in illegal drug use and other crimes. Police officers each have about 140 cases annually - about double the workload they should be handling, according to Insp. Paul McLennan.
Housing has become the most critical issue in the city of 42,000. Housing prices have risen dramatically to become the third-highest in Canada. Rents have doubled.
Jean Jensen, a low-cost housing advocate, calls it a crisis.
She said local wage-earners in the retail and hospitality industries cannot compete with the highly paid construction workers for housing.
"The minimum wage earner can no longer survive here," said Jensen, 71, whose own rent for a two-bedroom apartment is jumping to $900 from $470 per month.
Several Fort McMurray businesses, including the Tim Hortons Donuts and Wendy's restaurants, have had to reduce their hours of service because they can't get staff.
Mayor Doug Faulkner said no one is sleeping out in the snow but the municipality needs $60 million in social housing and affordable housing over the next five years.
"We can't wait much longer," he said. "We have a quality of life here that will be affected.
"People think we're at the end of the rainbow here and that we have lots of wealth and lots of jobs. But the reality is: the oil industry has lots of wealth. We don't."
-- Rachel Gibson (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 20, 2000
The same thing is happening in the U. S., only the numbers affected are greater. The media will not even cover this crises. The number of "working poor" flooding food banks in affluent Northern N. J. are increasing daily. I've been told that even white collar workers who come in wearing suits are qualifying for food bank help because of the growing disparity in wealth. Ralph Nader spoke about this in his campaign, but the U. S. media does not want, or will not, cover this story.
The backbone of a democracy is a strong middle-class. This is dispearing in the U. S., and now it appears it is happening in Canada as well.
-- K (email@example.com), December 21, 2000.
K, I've never seen our red-nosed premier so frightened. Not only are consumers up-in-arms (both power and heat bills have more than doubled since summer), but now businesses are threatening to leave the province! Always a shoo-in for further governance, he realizes his re-election in the spring has suddenly been seriously jeopardized. Yet he has given away for a song our investment in the power industry, and he refuses to backtrack and to re-regulate.
The last sentence in the article was most prophetic: only a few are benefitting from the oil and natural gas price windfalls. The rest are paying for it--dearly.
-- Rachel Gibson (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 21, 2000.