An oilfield protest held in front of the Saskatchewan Legislature in January, 2019

 

The federal government and the environmental movement tend to attribute the anti-Ottawa sentiment on the prairies to “dangerous populism” and our lack of enthusiasm for saving the planet from the climate apocalypse. Similar criticisms have been leveled in the US against populist opponents of policies deemed to be progressive, including the Biden government’s climate change policies. So-called “progressives” and their fellow travellers in the conventional media allege that populists oppose enlightened environmental doctrine and embrace every sort of nasty point of view one might imagine—from white supremacy to misogyny, etc.

Residents of the Canadian Prairies with a bit of historical memory know what populism is all about. We were doing populism here decades before most of today’s media pundits ever heard of it. The United Farmers of Alberta, the agrarian Progressive Party of the 1920s, the wheat pools and Social Credit were all populist movements. Even Saskatchewan’s CCF was a sort of populist-socialist hybrid.

Going all the way back to its North American origins in Texas in the late 1870s, populism has been defined as the effort to defend the economic interests of every day little guys including farmers, small business people and working people against the domination of the big guys. Back in the day, Canada’s big guys were the grain companies, the banks, the CPR, Ottawa and its tariffs on manufactured goods like farm machinery, and Ottawa’s of control over our natural resources (until 1930).

High freight rates, high tariffs, low grain prices, along with the global economic depression and droughts of the 1930s provided the economic discontent sustained agrarian populism on the prairies during the first half of the 20th century.

A truck convoy rolled through Estevan just before Christmas, 2018, protesting federal energy policies. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

There is a body of research and opinion from the US that attributes the origins of the resurgence of populism in that country to the deindustrialization which began in the late 1970s. The US wasn’t alone in this. Over the course of five decades a combination of automation and offshoring eliminated millions of jobs in Europe and North America—processes that left a lot of social and economic hardship in their wake. The two main political parties in the US simply ignored or forgot about the people living in the Rust Belt states and the challenges that confronted globalization’s losers. But as they say, “the forgotten man does not forget.” The response of the forgotten to decades of relative deprivation and being taken for granted politically provided the fuel for the 2016 eruption of populist discontent in the US.

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Looking back just a couple of years to the eight-year period of depressed global oil prices that ran from late 2014 until early 2022 should remind us that not so long ago there was a significant amount of economic hardship to be found in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And those economic challenges provided fertile ground for a resurgence of populist discontent on the prairies.

The surge in prairie alienation and the anti-Ottawa backlash that arose in conjunction with the 2015 election of the Justin Trudeau government were in large part a result of that economic distress. Initially, the tough economic conditions were due mostly to the collapse in global oil prices–later to be combined with the added hardship of COVID-19 and two years of overly zealous lockdown measures. While the Trudeau government was not responsible for low world oil prices, its climate and environmental policies cancelled hope for the improved economic conditions promised by new pipelines and steadily rising global oil consumption.

Cancelled pipelines, the Tanker Ban, the No More Pipelines bill and green transition policies that punish the oil producing provinces were a kick in guts for unemployed energy sector workers who were counting on new pipelines and the modestly higher oil prices they promised. As was the case back in the days of the NEP, the federal assault on provincial energy revenues and the constitutional domain of the producing provinces would be responsible for what might be referred to as a wave of “petro-populism.”

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All too apparent

Early in its first term in office it became all too apparent that the Justin Trudeau government was intent on limiting and/or reversing further growth in Canada’s oil and gas industries. Ottawa wouldn’t be satisfied with just cancelling pipelines it was intent on cancelling the industry’s future.

The federal game plan mirrored many of the goals extolled by the international environmental movement. Well-financed environmental groups waged an anti-Alberta-oil campaign from around 2008 until the Biden government’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2021. Their anti-oil propaganda campaign served as free advertising for Ottawa’s environmental agenda. The federal NDP, the Bloc and Greens provided the Liberal government with political backing in support of its assault on oil.

Job losses

Not much has been done by the Canadian government or academics to quantify the extent of the misery associated with job losses resulting from the eight-year depression in the oil patch. There are, however, publicly available data sets that can help illustrate the extent of the economic problems underlying the discontent. Some of the more telling data points are provided below.

In Alberta in 2014 there were approximately 175,300 people, mostly blue collar workers, employed in oil and gas production. The number of jobs in the sector fell to 155,300 for 2015 which was the first full year of the oil price depression. By 2016 there were only 135,800 people working in oil and gas production in the province—a decline of 39,500 jobs since 2014. Not surprisingly, employment numbers fell further in 2020, the worst of the COVID-19 years, when just 130,300 Albertans were employed in the oil and gas patches.

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World prices for oil returned to more respectable levels in early 2022 in conjunction with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, as of 2023, job numbers in the oil patch had not returned to pre-2015 levels. Eight years of low oil prices had encouraged the adoption of more advanced drilling technologies, increasing per capita labour productivity which in turn put downward pressure on job numbers. No less problematic has been a decline in investor enthusiasm for the expansion of conventional heavy, medium and light crude oil production. There were just 136,300 people working in oil and gas production in Alberta in 2023 – 39,000 fewer than in 2014.

Employment in Saskatchewan’s much smaller oil and gas production sector experienced a proportionally higher rate of job losses than Alberta’s. The number of jobs in those sectors in Saskatchewan fell by over one- third between 2014 and 2016, from an estimated 7,800 workers in 2014 to approximately 5,000 in 2016.*

The socioeconomic impacts of jobs losses extended well beyond those who actually lost them. They affected mood of those still working who wondered if their own jobs would survive. And, they had adverse economic and psychological effects on the families of those who were out of work (or worried they might soon be).  On average, blue collar workers in the oil patch earned around 30% more than other Albertans. Good luck finding work that paid as well when thousands of other people were chasing the same jobs.

As Albertans know all too well, tough times in the oil and gas sectors ripple throughout the provincial economy. Alberta’s GDP shrank by 3.5% from 2014 to 2015 and another 3.6% between 2015 and 2016 (in chained 2012 dollars). Overall “official” unemployment in the province rose from 4.7% in 2014 to 6.9% and 8.1% for 2015 and 2016.

After oil and gas production, manufacturing and construction were the sectors which fared the worst during the oil price depression. There were 144,500 people working in Alberta’s manufacturing sector in 2014. The total fell to just 115,500 by 2016—a loss of 29,000 jobs. While I’m not yet clear as to precisely how many of the lost jobs were directly attributable to the loss of manufacturing activity associated with oil and gas production, it seems reasonably safe to assume it was significant. Job losses in construction were likely due to the postponement and cancellation of oil sands mine and plant expansions along with a decline in new housing starts. The fall in new housing demand was associated with the overall decline in economic activity and increasing out-migration.

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In both Alberta and Saskatchewan, construction job numbers actually increased from 2014 to 2015. The rising economic fortunes associated with pre-oil-price-collapse GDP growth from 2011 to 2014 had encouraged housing developers and some oil companies to commit to increased construction activity for 2015. By the end of that year the new reality had extinguished their optimism.

There were 264,100 people employed in construction in Alberta in 2015. The total would fall to 241,000 for 2017. In Saskatchewan construction job numbers fell from 57,200 in 2015 to 51,300 for 2017. What journalists in Saskatchewan referred to as the “SaskaBoom” was clearly over. Even though house prices fell by a relatively modest amount in both provinces – new residential construction declined significantly. Saskatchewan’s GDP growth for 2015 and 2016 was negative due mostly to falling oil prices (potash prices would also collapse but not until fiscal 2016-2017). The optimism required to sustain investment in more new subdivisions declined in concert with declining oil and potash prices.

All told, in 2017, the worst year for employment during the period of low oil prices prior to the arrival of COVID-19, approximately 89,000 jobs had been lost in oil and gas production, manufacturing and construction in Alberta and Saskatchewan. That was more than enough grief to fuel a populist prairie fire; especially given the impact of the ripple effects felt throughout the provincial economies. Tough times in the oil patch are of course responsible for belt tightening across the board in all sorts of business form convenience stores and gas bars to real estate agencies. Add the family members of the unemployed and the economically anxious to the mix and you have an army of pissed-off prospective populists.

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Laurentian Elite

Under today’s brand of prairie populism the little guys are epitomized by thousands of small and medium-sized businesses associated with oil and gas production, construction and manufacturing, along with the tens of thousands of blue collar workers whose jobs disappeared between 2014 and 2022. The big guys include: “Big Green”— the incredibly well-financed international environmental movement, Canada’s federal cabinet, federal Liberal, Bloc, Green and NDP Members of Parliament, along with many senior federal civil servants. Together they form Canada’s governing compact sometimes referred to as the Laurentian Elite.

Prim e Minister Justin Trudeau in Regina in January, 2019. Oilfield protests took place during his visit. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Tables 1 and 2 accompanying this article describe job numbers and job losses before, during and after the eight-year period of depressed oil prices in both provinces. The numbers are telling but give only a partial picture of socio-economic conditions in the oil producing provinces on the Prairies. More work needs to be done to reflect the negative economic, socio-psychological and health outcomes associated with the job losses the tables describe.

Nonetheless, the data presented above and in the tables do lend support to the contention that the recent surge in anti-Ottawa feeling and populist-style discontent on the Prairies are rooted in several years of economic misfortune and the ongoing federal assault on the conventional energy sector.

*Many of the jobs that disappeared in Saskatchewan’s oil patch were formerly held by workers who were normally Alberta residents so there may be a double counting error my numbers. Furthermore, the Saskatchewan fossil fuel production employment numbers are difficult to calculate with precision and should be considered rough estimates.

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Table 1 Alberta and Saskatchewan employment figures 2014-2023 and annual unemployment rates

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
FFP AB 175,300 155,300 135,800 144,800 153,200 145,600 130,300 141,500 138,500 136,300
Const AB 256,400 264,100* 251,900 241,000 245,400 236,800 214,400 226,700 237,400 241,500
MFG AB 144,500 139,900 115,500 119,200 129,800 136,000 125,800 124,600 130,500 144,700
Total  AB 576,200 559,300 503,200 505,000 528,400 518,400 470,500 492,800 506,400 523,500
FFP SK** 7,860 6,600 4,960 4,660 4,600 4,500 2,560 3,760 5,300 5,100
Const. SK 53,400 57,200* 56,200 51,300 50,700 49,500 41,600 41,000 44,100 46,100
Total SK 61,260 63,800 62,800 55,960 55,300 54,000 44,160 44,760 49,400 51,200
AB + SK 637,460 623,100 566,000 560,960 583,700 572,400 451,660 537,560 555,800 586,700
Unem AB 4.7% 6.9% 8.1% 7.8% 6.8% 6.9% 11.3% 8.6% 5.8% 5.9%
Unem SK 4.1% 3.9% 5.1% 6.4% 6.3% 5.5% 8.4% 6.6% 4.7% 4.8%
Unem Can 6.9% 6..9% 7.1% 6.3% 5.8% 5.5% 9.7% 7.5% 5.3% 5.4%

Key for the table: FFP = primary fossil fuel production (excluding refining). Const = construction, including industrial, commercial, and residential. Mfg = manufacturing for all purposes. Unem = official unemployment rate.

*Note: the asterisk highlights the construction employment totals for 2025 which was the peak employment year for construction during the 2014-2023 period.

** Note: the double asterisk is to alert readers to the ball-park estimating employed in determining the Saskatchewan FFP employment numbers and the possibility of double counting.

Note: Manufacturing jobs and job losses are not presented for Saskatchewan because with the exception of the COVID years manufacturing job numbers steadily increased in the province.

Sources for both tables are listed after table 2

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Table 2 Alberta and Saskatchewan Jobs loss totals since 2014 for fossil fuel production and manufacturing and jobs lost in construction since 2015

2014 No. employed 2015 No. jobs < 2014 2016 No. jobs < 2014 2017

No. jobs < 2014

2018 No. jobs < 2014 2019 No jobs < 2014 2020 No. jobs < 2014 2021 No. jobs <2014 2022 No. jobs < 2014 2023

No. jobs

<2014

Alberta
FFP 175,300 20,000 39,500 30,500 22,100 29,700 45,000 33,800 36,800 39,000
Const* 256,400* 264,100* 12,200 24,000 18,700 27,300 49,700 37,400 26,700 22,600
MFG 144,500 4,600 29,000 25,300 14,700 8,500 16,600 19,900 14,000 -200
AB total 576,200 24,600 80,700 79,800 55,500 65,500 111,300 91,100 77,500 61,400
Sask.
FFP 7,860 1,800 2,900 3,200 3,260 3,360 3,760 3,460 2,560 2,760
Const* 53,400* 57,200* 1,000 5,900 6,500 7,700 15,600 16,200 13,100 11,100
SK total 61,260 1,800 3,900 9,100 9,760 11,060 19,360 19,660 15,660 13,860
G Total 637,460 26,400 84,600 88,900 65,260 76,560 130,660 110,760 93,160 75,260
UE SK 3.9% 5.1% 6.4% 6.3% 6.2% 5.6% 8.4% 6.6% 4.7% 4.8%
UE AB 4.7% 6.9% 8.1% 7.8% 6.8% 6.9% 11.4% 8.6% 5.8% 5.9%
UE Ca 6.9% 6..9% 7.1% 6.3% 5.8% 5.7% 9.7% 7.5% 5.3% 5.4%

Key for the table: FFP = primary fossil fuel production excluding refining. Const = construction, including industrial, commercial, and residential. Mfg = manufacturing for all purposes. UE = official unemployment rate. G total = grand total for Saskatchewan and Alberta.

*Note: for construction sector in both provinces the peak year for employment was 2015. Therefore in all columns to the right of 2015 show the jobs lost since 2015. The construction employment peak was not 2014 as is the case for FFE and Mfg. The peak construction employment was 2015, due to the planning of an commitment to projects during the higher oil price environment for oil from and rising GDP from 2011-2014. Therefore 2015 is the base year for construction employment and job losses.

** Note: the double asterisk is to alert readers to the ball-park estimating employed in determining the Saskatchewan FFP employment numbers and the possibility of double counting.

Note: Manufacturing jobs and job losses were not presented for Saskatchewan because with the exception of the covid years manufacturing job numbers steadily increased in the province.

Principal Sources for Tables 1 and 2

Alberta Labour Market Reviews 2013 to 2021-2022. https://www.alberta.ca/labour-force-statistics-annual-reviewsextraction. Abbreviation used in profiles is MOG = mining oil and gas. Alberta includes revenue figure coal mined for electrical power production.

Government of Alberta (2015). Industry Profiles: Mining and Oil and Gas Extraction Industry 2015. p.2 (2015 report presents 2014 employment totals) https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/f5a3586b-9fad-47a5-8741-e46cf5008d16/resource/d28591ac-460a-4e32-9dfd-cdac16b50693/download/6848779-2015-08-industry-profiles-mining-and-oil-and-gas-extraction-industry.pdf

Statistics Canada Employment by Industry Saskatchewan 2021-2022  and Archived  Employment by industry, annual (accessed 2023) provinces and economic regions: Saskatchewan 2013-2020  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1410035501&pickMembers%5B0%5D=1.9&pickMembers%5B1%5D=3.1&pickMembers%5B2%5D=4.1&cubeTimeFrame.startMonth=01&cubeTimeFrame.startYear=2021-2022

Government of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan Dashboard Employment [2007-2022]

https://dashboard.saskatchewan.ca/business-economy/employment-labour-market/employment#by-industry-tab

 

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