There are stories behind the numbers from COVID-19 and the oil price crash

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There are so many numbers. Every day. Huge, depressing numbers.

The number of infections, the number of hospitalized, the number of deaths. The number of jobs lost, hours lost, businesses closed.

The numbers are overwhelming, but so are the stories behind them. Numbers are people and people in this country are hurting in myriad ways.

I get that message loud and clear every day right now. Behind the scenes, people are sending emails and DMs, afraid they won’t be able to access government help or confused about how to do it. On camera too, so many Canadians have been willing to tell their stories, hopeful it shines a light on a shared experience and leads to changes in government policy (and many times it does).

Take Dennis Day. For decades his family has owned and operated an oil service company out of the small town of Carnduff, in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan. They’ve weathered other economic ups and downs — but this one has been different. Day had to lay off 250 employees.

“I work with my guys,” Day said in the interview, his voice cracking with emotion.

“We’re really more than a family-run business… I have guys that I went to school with from Grade 1, that have worked here from the time they were 14 and we had to tell them — to lay them off. These guys are good friends of mine.”

Day’s business has been shut down not just because of COVID-19 but also because of a second hit: a collapse in oil prices. The price of oil took an initial hit earlier this year because of decreased demand due to the spread of the virus. But it took a second hit when Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a price war and flooded the markets. 

WATCH: Dennis Day discuss laying off 250 employees amid trouble in the oil sector

Dennis Day of Fast Trucking Service Ltd. describes how difficult it was to lay off 250 of his employees 6:01

A tentative “deal” to cut output was struck late last week, but much damage has already been done. The plunge in prices was massive — the price of a barrel of Canadian oil, Western Canada Select, was at one point below $5 a barrel. Even the U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, slipped below $20 a barrel.

To put that into perspective, look at budgets tabled in provinces that rely on the sector. In Alberta, the government forecast the price of WTI to be $58 a barrel. Newfoundland and Labrador projected a price of $63 a barrel. We’re talking billions of dollars of lost revenue and about $7 billion of cuts to capital spending in the sector. 

The feds have promised to help. Putting aside the genuine discussion and debate over the future of the sector that preceded the onslaught of this pandemic, there is a recognition in the upper echelons of the government that the hurt inflicted by the economic double-whammy will be acute for certain provinces.

An announcement on that help is expected this week.

So what might that aid look like? When asked that very question, the prime minister has said it will be directed to workers. He has yet to talk about helping the companies in the industry directly, despite Alberta Premier Jason Kenney repeatedly asking for money that would act as a backstop to give producers more liquidity.

The prime minister’s natural resources minister appears more open to the idea.

Watch: Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan discuss federal aid for the oil industry

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan says Ottawa is looking to support and protect all facets of the oil industry. 3:34

“We’ve heard companies loud and clear, and you know what they are looking at right now is liquidity,” Seamus O’Regan told me Friday. 

“What we are focusing on are workers and the companies they work for.”

The finance minister, Bill Morneau, has also signalled help would come in the form of funds to help clean up orphan wells. No details yet on how much money the feds will earmark for that or any other measure — just a promise help is on the way.

Those details will be important for people like Day, who is anxiously waiting to find out what the future looks like and if it includes his family’s business. He’s one of thousands of Canadians in the same boat — but he’s more than a number, and so are the people who worked for him. 

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