The one-word answer is: Jobs. Jobs of all kinds, but most of all we need to see the kind of high-paying, long-lasting jobs typically associated with investments in economic growth potential, writes Stewart Muir.
Thinking big in the quest for change
Well remunerated, permanent jobs are associated with high skill levels and often have a connection to the money-spinning machine known as international trade.
In Canada’s case, a huge amount of trade is based on natural resource products, i.e., things that we grow, extract, process and manufacture here before sending abroad.
It’s certainly possible to postulate that stable, high-paying jobs are not needed in an economic recovery, so that one could wish their way to a future where stuffy old economic rules don't apply. That's not reality, however: without exports in the mix, Canada really doesn't have a way to balance its books. This does not mean we should stop thinking big in the quest for change and improvement.
Natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan spoke about the need for an energy transition "moon shot" in a June 22 interview with Calgary energy guru Peter Tertzakian. Yet when it comes to the here and now, O'Regan was candid about the current reality that Canada depends heavily on the oil and gas sector: “This is the biggest industry in the country. It’s our biggest export, so there is a lot on the line for everybody. The bottom line is the country is not going to recover unless the oil and gas sector recovers.” (More)
A self-impoverished nation will hardly be in a position to invest in an energy moon shot. The way to pay for such a dream is already within reach. At $1.36 million in value added per job, per year, it is estimated that oil & gas jobs are 15 times more economically productive than the national average. This is the kind of productivity that unlocks innovation, and it's why preserving a healthy natural resource sector must be a core objective of any effective strategy to boost private-sector investment in science, technology, and innovation toward the goal of decarbonization.
Infrastructure minister Catherine McKenna, whose previous role in the environment portfolio was marked by long-running confrontation with the oil and gas industry and some provinces, seems to be developing a new perspective on the value of jobs in natural resource fields, even as many lobbyists are pressuring Ottawa to discriminate against the sector. In a June 16 interview with the National Observer, McKenna acknowledged in the context of energy transition that “a lot of people are worried about jobs” and it didn’t stop there: "whole communities are built around the [fossil fuel] industry...If we forget that, I don't know that we'll be able to make the transition.” This is an important acknowledgement of the complexity of the transition ecosystem, coming at a time when there are signs that a renewed effort is underway by pressure groups to try to trivialize the economic contributions made by the natural resource industries.
It would be deeply ironic if the skills, institutions and investments needed to propel an energy transition forward are impeded by those who are the most vocal about demanding that transition. While energy development continues in earnest in most other major oil-producing countries, Canada’s ability to compete is declining due to project opposition, regulatory requirements perceived to be stringent and complex, narrow and self-serving definitions of what constitutes an appropriate solution, and ongoing dramas stemming from politically-mediated approval processes. Now layered on top of this is the need to recover from the pandemic by placing a premium on investments that will strengthen economic growth potential.
Can we succeed in satisfying high societal expectations of both economic recovery and environmental success? Quite possibly, but it will depend on the existence of a broad movement led by those who understand the issues, are unified by common goals, and are ready to make themselves heard. I'm pleased to say that Resource Works has taken on the challenge of helping with this, as convenor of the Real Jobs, Real Recovery Task Force that unifies more than 3 million Canadian workers and over a quarter of a million businesses. In the coming weeks, we will be working with experts from coast to coast to coast to prepare a report and recommendations that will be brought forward in response to the federal government's call for ideas. We can get this right, but only if there is a unified effort.
Stewart Muir is executive director of Resource Works. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org