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Oil Town Tears

Churches and families struggle to make ends meet in Canada’s oil country. Are we listening?

As I write, Greta Thunberg is touching down in Edmonton. There is another group planning a truck convoy in counter-protest. I shake my head at both of them. This is what we’ve come to? Shrieking at our elders and driving our big rigs up and down the streets? I get it. We don’t live in a perfect world. Jesus hasn’t come back yet so we have to fight and struggle through the muck and the mire. But when it comes to oil and gas, we don’t just disagree. We dehumanize. I sometimes get the impression that working in almost any other field would be a more socially acceptable way of feeding my kids.

I live in Drayton Valley, a well-known oil town an hour and a half away from Edmonton. I’m going to avoid the temptation to exaggerate and say that it’s been gutted, but it has definitely been hollowed. The cumulative effect of poor economics over years is starting to show, and of course the memories of the boom times are still recent enough to paint a stark contrast. One small business closes here, another shop for rent over there and pretty soon the townscape starts to feel empty.

Life in a hollow town
You visit your neighbours over the fence line, or you run into a friend at Walmart and you hear the hard luck stories that are common in any community going through an economic transition. Your friend’s wife has lost her job and he hasn’t been able to get full-time hours at his. They’re worried about losing their house. Another friend moved out of the community to a job elsewhere but lost 25 percent of the value of the house in the move. Sometimes you don’t even get the rest of the story; you just don’t see certain people around town anymore, as if they were phantoms to start with.

A neighbour’s son who is unemployed has become involved in drugs and now you worry about him breaking into your house and stealing your stuff, or, worse, assaulting someone. You know that he’s already been caught stealing copper wire off oil company leases. Your neighbour is sorry for the situation but he doesn’t know what to do about it and you wonder to yourself what you’d do if it was your kid. Another friend of yours and his wife just broke up because the financial pressures pushed their marriage past the breaking point.

As you run into 7-11 to grab a coffee, you see guys you went to high school with picking up bottles and you wonder how they survive the winter here. You cover your hands with your sleeves because you don’t want to accidentally touch any residual fentanyl. When you stop off at Walmart to grab something on the way home from work, you realize that it’s full of guys who never used to be in there during the day. They’d normally be working. Some of them still are; they’re now employed at Walmart. 

Churches hit hard
When you go to a church board meeting, everyone is wondering what to do with finances because the church has bills but many congregants are struggling to get by themselves. You talk to a congregant at another church and he says that the food bank has been handing out two to four times more food hampers than usual. It feels pretty grim here these days. The ebullient feeling of hard work done with your own hands, being invigorated by the challenge of it, has been slowly strangled. The worst part is the loss of hope that you see in their faces. Becoming resigned to one’s fate. Becoming poor in spirit.

Post-election pain
The election is over. Canadians have made the typical Canadian choice. Where I work, business decisions that had been awaiting the election were implemented the morning after. It’s not just local businesses, though; Husky announced some more layoffs in Calgary. They may have already planned to make those layoffs and used the election to send a message. That doesn’t mean the message should go unheeded. It’s a message that my neighbours and I have been trying to get across to the rest of Canada – some by screaming; some by rallies; fewer by calm, rational discussion.

All Canadians will have to pay the cost of the collapsing oil and gas industry; indeed, we already have started to, without knowing it. The capital flight from Canada is shocking. Those not in the industry will begin to realize once those financial effects start to trickle in, but it will be too late at that point. We’ve already proven to those who invest their money with us what we’re going to do with it.

Hope for a new creation
It’s not all doom and gloom, at least not for people of faith. I mentioned earlier that Jesus is coming back. And he is! He is the hope for our world! He will renew Creation! This is the only reason I can smile around town these days. He is the reason I am not resigned to whatever my earthly fate happens to be. Our struggles – political, economic, spiritual – should push us not to despair but to living out the gospel. We need to reach out to each other and to our Creator. Maybe, instead of arguments that escalate, we can practice both giving and receiving mercy. That may not solve our sparse collection plate at church right now, but maybe that’s something Christ will work out for us eventually.

I pray a little more fervently for his provision for our church these days. We need to come together to build the Kingdom of God, even if the town (or province, or country, or the world) is falling down around us, because – until the Lord comes back – it always will be.

  • Dustin is a rural gent who went to college, married a Dutch girl and got four kids out of the deal. He loves his small church and he works in the patch to pay his bills.

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