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What’s an ‘essential’ service in the coronavirus crisis? A look at Canada’s resource industries

Across the country, mining, oil and construction companies are being given the green light to keep operating — even as workers express concerns about their safety

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Across Canada, residents have been ordered to self-isolate as much as possible to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But the same rules don’t apply to everyone.

It’s time to send your employees home, many “non-essential” businesses have been told. But what qualifies as essential in this pandemic? Across the country, mining, oil and construction companies are being given the green light to keep operating — even as workers express concerns about their safety.

Case in point: British Columbia’s Elk Valley, where Teck Resources is the region’s single largest employer. The company operates four mines in the area, employing more than 3,000 people. “There is no social distancing” on Teck’s sites, one contractor told Fernie, B.C.-based reporter Paul Fischer. After The Narwhal broke the news last Friday, Teck responded with measures it says will protect staff. Many beg to differ.

Teck is far from the only company: Coastal GasLink pipeline construction remains ongoing despite worries from Indigenous communities about the transient workforce, Stephanie Wood reports.

It’s not just about how these sectors respond to health concerns. A big question on the table right now is whether, and to what extent, the federal government might bail out the oil and gas industries. A $15-billion plan is said to be on the table.

But as economist after economist told The Narwhal’s Sharon J. Riley, relief measures must focus on supporting workers, not companies, and include incentives for a transition to clean energy.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has reportedly said he wants Ottawa to purchase shares in struggling oilsands companies. That’s the same strategy as the 2009 auto bailout, which one economist described as a “disaster.” Why? “Canadian taxpayers were left holding the bag,” another expert told us, with factories shuttered along the way.

If you’re looking for a sign of the headwinds facing the oilsands, look here: the benchmark used to measure Alberta’s crude dropped to just US$5 per barrel last week. Even coronavirus aid won’t reverse that trend if Saudia Arabia continues to flood the market with its oil.

There are plenty of ways Canada can prioritize both the economy and the climate. The Narwhal will hold industry and government to account on this as we navigate a health and financial crisis.

Thanks for reading — and be well.

Arik Ligeti
Audience Engagement Editor

P.S. Here’s a bit of good news: unable to travel for field work, ecologists are turning to community members themselves to help keep projects going.

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Canada’s efforts to support the oil and gas industry through a major stimulus package might overlook the real challenges plaguing the industry — and miss out on meaningful opportunities to support workers now and well into the future. Read more.


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In-person meetings on unprecedented title agreement postponed as communities prepare for COVID-19 pandemic and Coastal GasLink construction continues. Read more.


From The Narwhal vault

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Alberta’s oil and gas workers can be underrepresented — or even maligned — in conversations about an energy transition in Canada. The Narwhal met with three former oil and gas workers to learn more about their lives and personal reasons for transitioning to solar. Read more.


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Are you social distancing outdoors? Maybe even in Narwhal swag? Post a video on Instagram and tag @thenarwhalca to be featured alongside reporter Sarah Cox and her pal Niko.

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Arik Ligeti is The Narwhal’s audience engagement editor, with a focus on growing a dedicated community of members and readers.…

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