ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Dave Mercer spent the early 1990s roaming around Newfoundland and Labrador, trying to get enough hours to qualify for unemployment insurance in an economy levelled by the collapse of the cod fishery.
Like many other workers in the province, his fortunes turned with the growth of the oil industry. In 1995, he got a job with Hibernia, the province’s first offshore oil platform, and it became a decades-long career.
Mercer, now a union president, is once again witnessing the province shed thousands of jobs in a major industry — the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the global demand for oil and gas. But while the downturn is causing similar damage to what was suffered after the cod collapse, some are wondering if the dark days of the 1990s can provide a road map to get through the current crisis.
“The stress levels, the mental health, goes further than just somebody that’s working offshore,” Mercer said in a recent interview. “It goes to the wife, it goes to the children, because the parents are stressed out. There is separation, there is arguing, there’s desperation.”
The floundering oil economy and the cod moratorium are worthy of comparison, said Rob Greenwood, director of the Leslie Harris Centre, a think tank at Memorial University.
“I would not be shocked or surprised that a similar mental health, family crisis impact is happening today,” he said in a recent interview. “You can make your own moral judgments about the context then and the context now, but we are what we are.”
The 1992 cod moratorium put nearly 40,000 people out of work. Almost 30 years later, about 1,200 people working directly in offshore oil and gas have been laid off. Another 5,200 jobs have been lost in the industry’s service and supply sector.
One of Newfoundland and Labrador’s four oilfields has suspended operations, and plans to develop a fifth are on hold. The refinery in Come By Chance, N.L., which normally employs about 500 workers, is operating with a few dozen staff, according to the province’s oil and gas industry association.
Greenwood said the oil workers losing their jobs have a standard of living that was unimaginable for a fisher 28 years ago. Oil and gas workers, he said, paid for degrees and certifications that they were told would allow them to earn a good living in their home province. But the current crisis, he explained, will likely force many to question that promise.
Counsellor Susan McConnell saw the emotional toll of the cod moratorium firsthand. The Canadian Mental Health Association hired her in 1994 to travel the province to teach people how to offer emotional support to their neighbours.
The association discovered that many fish harvesters — mostly men — were listless and depressed but struggled to talk about it. Families fought and struggled when younger members moved away for better jobs. Community businesses closed and small towns emptied.
“Communities were basically so depressed,” McConnell, who is based in British Columbia, said in a recent interview. “I remember people just talking about how everyone had to move away and they just felt like, ‘well, what do we do now?’”
It was a horrible time, but it provided a blueprint, McConnell said, on how communities can get through major economic transitions. Fishers and their families, she explained, needed time and support to grieve and to work through their anger. And then they needed to see there was something else out there for them — another job, another future, she said.
Cheri Holloway doesn’t see either of those right now. Her husband, a power engineer, hasn’t worked in seven months.
Comments on social media about the need to transition off oil, or about rich oil workers who haven’t saved for a rainy day, have only added to her distress, she said.
“One of them said, ‘Let them starve,’ which was one that really cut,” Holloway said in a recent interview. She said she wishes people understood that workers in the industry are often employed contract-to-contract and don’t have job security.
Workers are away from their families for weeks at a time, sharing tiny rooms on oil rigs with other men — it’s hard on the workers’ emotional health and it’s hard on their families, she said. Even unstable jobs, Holloway explained, demand years of expensive training and constant recertification.
Her family, she lamented, is at the end of its rainy-day savings and looking to move away. “There’s nothing here. There’s literally nothing here,” she said, crying.
Mercer’s union, Unifor local 2121, represents workers in the Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields, where about 400 workers have been laid off since the spring. Demand for mental health support is high, he said.
But he’s not ready to give up on the oil industry.
Last week, the provincial government announced Mercer had a spot on the province’s oil and gas recovery task force, which would look at, among other things, how to best spend $320 million of federal money offered in late September to aid the industry.
“The biggest thing that we can do for mental health right now is — guess what? Let’s get back to work,” he said.