From the perspective of the rest of Canada, there is not an eye roll gigantic enough to match the puerility of a story out of central Alberta, where a school had to call the RCMP over parents’ angry social-media posts. The trouble stemmed from a Grade 4 assignment in a school in Blackfalds, where students were made to watch two videos about the oil sands – one from Greenpeace and one from the province – and assess and analyze their impact. Parents were so enraged by the critical thinking exercise that they contemplated staging a confrontation, which compelled school administrators to call the police.
But no doubt many in Alberta were nodding their heads. In small towns such as Blackfalds, where oil and gas is the dominant industry by number of jobs and where the dip in oil prices resulted in an absolute economic pummelling, it’s not hard to see why bringing Greenpeace into the classroom would elicit such an emotional (if also irrational) reaction.
Oil and gas in these regions is as much an identity as an employer, and when the perception is that that identity is under attack from everyone – blasted by other provinces, ignored by the federal government, strangled by legislation such as bills C-69 and C-48 and now disparaged in the classroom – of course these parents were going to blow their tops.
Yet if there’s one cohort in Alberta whose anxiety should be foremost on the minds of the province and the feds, it’s not the parents. Last month, the unemployment rate among young men in the province reached 19.4 per cent, which doesn’t even take into account the men who have given up looking for work altogether.
Although the seasonally adjusted rate is subject to monthly fluctuations, the November figure is not really an anomaly: The unemployment rate for men aged 15 to 25 peaked at 19.9 per cent in September and had been climbing for most of the year. The unemployment rate among women of the same age group, meanwhile, has been much more consistent – and roughly nine points lower – which is likely the result of female-dominated fields being less vulnerable to the swings of a boom-and-bust economy.
What this tells us is that young men in Alberta are doing worse than their peers in other provinces, worse than their female peers and significantly worse than their parents. They’re old enough to remember when dropping out of school for oil meant a six-figure salary – but too young to actually reap the benefits. They likely don’t have the experience nor the education to fall back on now that a lucrative job in oil is anything but a guarantee.
What Alberta has, then, are legions of young, unemployed, frustrated men who feel ostracized and attacked, yet also happen to have a network of like-minded young men at their fingertips. What could go wrong?
To be sure, young adults are struggling to find work all over Canada, but they are not struggling as severely (the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate among this age group for both sexes in November was 12.5 per cent in Ontario, 13.3 in Nova Scotia, 8.8 in Quebec) or with such a significant gender disparity. More importantly, young people in other provinces can point to myriad factors to explain their challenges: competition and the devaluation of a bachelor’s degree, the cost of education, the precariousness of work in certain fields and so forth. And while some of these factors may play some role in Alberta, the blame is nevertheless centralized on one target: those who oppose the oil industry.
Historically speaking, disenfranchised hordes of young men who can’t find work and can pin their misfortune on a particular target do not make for the happiest of endings. This is not a warning that the Nazis are coming, but a suggestion that we ought to take this anxiety seriously. Telling young Alberta men to move or find work in other fields will only fuel their feelings of ostracism, not quell them. It doesn’t help when the federal government can’t even muster the word “oil” in its Throne Speech.
Premier Jason Kenney has been pushing Ottawa for tangible solutions, including a firm deadline for the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and changes to the Fiscal Stabilization Program. But his $30-million war room, designed to counter oil sands criticism, will likely just entrench resentment outside Alberta while stoking it within. That tension, particularly among young men, is a crisis just waiting to explode – and not on poor school administrators.
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