As election day approaches, some Albertans are feeling neglected by federal leaders as the province experiences economic recovery but continues to grapple with rising unemployment.
“You see all the election coverage, and they talk about the pipeline but they don’t necessarily talk about Alberta,” said realtor Sarah Johnston.
In a trendy Calgary neighbourhood close to the city’s core, Johnston recently hosted three showings in one day at a sleek, modern townhouse, but most of those who stopped in weren’t ready to buy. The city’s real estate market has been tough, she says.
“My client has moved out of the province just to look for better opportunities, and so we’re both just trying to rent it and sell it at the same time. It’s literally what’s going to come first,” Johnston said.
Most of the realtor’s listings this year are with clients who have already left the city, attracted by job opportunities elsewhere.
Ray Farkas is leaving later this week. The chemical engineer made the difficult decision to move away from Calgary after losing his job in the oil and gas industry four years ago.
It means leaving three children behind, but after four years of working in construction just to make ends meet, Farkas felt he had no choice but to take an offer in the Middle East.
“The kids are going to university in four years so I need to have things sorted out before then,” he said.
This version of Alberta is new. Prior to 2014, the western province was the land of opportunity, home of the so-called “Alberta advantage.”
In 2012, 60,000 people flew in and out of Fort McMurray each year just to work. Last year, that number plummeted to around 18,000.
“That’s had a lot of impact on the retail sector and restaurants in town, as well. There’s fewer people in the community,” said Bryce Kumka, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce.
It’s been five years since the collapse in global oil prices sent Alberta’s economy into a tailspin. The impact on jobs was catastrophic, with tens of thousands of people suddenly unemployed.
Since then, the recovery has been slow, but the economy is growing. A recent forecast by ATB projects a 0.8 per cent increase in Alberta’s GDP in 2019 and a two per cent gain in 2020.
But unemployment rates are rising as well. The province’s unemployment rate was 7.2 per cent in August 2019, up 0.5 percentage points from August 2018.
“That’s the biggest issue: our unemployment rate remains among the highest in any city,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. “We’re not used to this. We’re supposed to be the lowest.”
Nenshi says he’s heard very little from any federal party leader about what can be done to help turn things around.
“I haven’t heard from any of the candidates, not one. What’s your plan for Alberta?
“Because here’s the thing: if Alberta is not firing on all cylinders then you’ll never balance the federal budget,” Nenshi said.
“You’ll never have the revenues you need, and the country as a whole will be much poorer.”
Back in the vacant Calgary townhouse, Johnston agrees that Albertans are being overlooked on the campaign trail.
“I think that we’re completely ignored,” she said. “It’s not just statistics and data — it’s humans.”