We can’t escape economic transitions so we may as well plan for them

As global decarbonization efforts gather momentum, much of Canada’s workforce braces for another economic transition that’s set to impact numerous industries, including oil and gas.

In 1992, John Crosbie, then Canada’s fisheries minister, made an unforgettable announcement. Its impacts, which many argue are still felt to this day, reverberated across the whole of Newfoundland and Labrador. The complete closure of the commercial northern cod fishery devastated the region, leading to layoffs for some 20,000 fishermen and plant workers.

While financial aid, retirement, and retraining programs were eventually created to support some of the province’s hardest-hit communities, the damage had already been done. The industry’s drastic and sudden decline resulted in “lasting social, food justice, and economic impacts.”

Three decades later, as global decarbonization efforts gather momentum, much of Canada’s workforce braces for another economic transition that’s set to impact numerous industries, including oil and gas. With scores of previous transitions exemplifying risks to workers and economies, it’s clear that deliberate planning will be key to ensuring long-term economic stability.

Yet the topic of just transition remains highly charged, emotionally and politically. In the weeds of nuance, we often debate the future in a way that disregards our country’s own history and the economic realities many Canadians have already had to contend with. Setting semantics aside, we can at least acknowledge that Canadians are no stranger to transitions and the economic repercussions that have previously accompanied them. From Newfoundland’s fishery to Ontario’s auto sector, workers have often paid the price. Yet our current system could lead transitioning workers today to face much the same fate as their predecessors.

I recently spoke with Jennifer Robson, an Associate Professor of Political Management at Carleton University, and an expert in social policy. While she confessed that issues related to economic transitions in Canada or globally have not been her primary focal point, her insights into Canada’s evolving policy landscape highlight some important considerations. First off, it’s worth noting that some of the most commonly suggested policy levers for a just transition (globally, not just in Canada) include income supports, pension payments and reskilling or upskilling measures for transitioning workers. Poland, for instance, supported coal workers with early retirements payments, wage subsidies, training programs and redundancy payments to workers exiting the industry. Germany and The Netherlands implemented similar measures.

Jennifer and I spoke at length around Canada’s existing income supports and where some of today’s built-in assumptions might clash with existing realities. The elephant in the room was Employment Insurance (EI).

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our conversation was that income supports like EI don’t kick-in until a worker has already found themselves jobless. Furthermore, depending on a person’s circumstances and local unemployment rates, the unemployed will only qualify for a certain number of weeks with an income replacement rate of 55%.

“It’s not a generous system,” explains Robson, who suggests, instead, that today’s incentives are geared towards getting people back to work as fast as possible. And because EI is meant for the unemployed, it’s not set up to support thousands of workers transitioning from one industry to another, often upskilling or reskilling along the way. 

So while a just transition remains a hot topic, and in many cases, a personal one, it’s perhaps worth acknowledging the existence of past transitions in an effort to reconsider today’s support systems. Regardless of the industry, we know that transitions occur that can impact thousands of workers and can have devastating impacts on the economy. Being prepared for these transitions by reimagining how we support workers facing potential unemployment is a worthwhile investment, regardless of industry.

post by freelance writer Emma Gammons

Editor's Note:  Visit our project page to see some of our initiatives to support a sustainable transition and of course our Climate Career Portal is there to help you with your own personal career transition. 



This blog is funded in part by the Government of Canada's Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program. 

Iron & Earth was founded and operates on Indigenous land within Treaty Six Territory and Métis Region 4 in amiskwaciy-wâskahikan (in Nehiyawewin/Cree), so-called Edmonton. The home of many Indigenous Peoples including the Nehiyawak/Cree, Tsuut’ina, Niitsitapi/Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, Dene Suliné, Anishinaabe/Ojibway/Saulteaux, and the Inuk/Inuit.

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