Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

For Many Women, Alberta's Boom a Bust

For Many Women, Alberta's Boom a Bust
Rising housing costs, lack of alternatives lead to precarious situations

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The Dominion - http://www.dominionpaper.ca

Driven by the tar sands, Alberta's white-hot economy continues to make headlines. But the gendered repercussions of the province's boom are often neglected, understated, or altogether denied.

Alberta's tar sands operations have made the province an attractive point of relocation for many in the last couple of decades. A large number of jobs have been created, many paying six-figure salaries. Other industries, most notably the service sectors, have had to compete with these salaries in a struggle to retain workers. As wages have been pushed higher in order to lure employees, rent has increased as landlords capitalize on the increases in income. Those without the resources or skills to tap into Alberta's renowned boom and profit from it are the most likely to have to deal with its negative consequences.

In the case of the tar sands, women have often been discouraged from pursuing the very resources and skills necessary to capitalize on the booming industry.

This is due in part to many female workers' experiences with sexual harassment, gender discrimination and unequal wages. Sixteen years ago, Mobil Oil's first female landman, Delorie Walsh, submitted a claim of gender discrimination, a poisoned work environment and unequal pay. She was finally compensated in October 2007.

Those benefiting most from the oil and gas workforce are male. For example, current male/female ratios are 79 to 21 per cent for geoscientists and 96 to 4 per cent for trades.

The significant gendered imbalance of access to jobs means unequal access to housing. Observers say this has led to a steady decline in quality of life for women. "The boom is great if you're a CEO in downtown Calgary," says Edmonton NDP MLA Ray Martin. "Saskatoon is now experiencing a mini-boom too. But this means that more and more people are falling behind." The "successful" economy has created an urgent lack of affordable housing, transitional housing, and shelter spaces, particularly for women.

Women tend to be more susceptible to losing their homes due to abuse or conflict with a spouse or caretaker upon whom they are financially dependent. Because women are more likely to have children to look after, and are less likely to feel safe on the street or in shelters where men are also present, many return to abusive relationships when there is no alternative shelter available.

This is one of the reasons why men make up the more visible segment of homeless populations, says author Susan Scott. Earlier this year, Scott interviewed over 60 homeless women across Canada about their lives. She is critical of the limited definition of the term "homeless."

"If a woman is sleeping with her landlord to maintain a roof over her head, then she is homeless," says Scott. "Other women will do it for money for drugs, to medicate a trauma that they've suffered which has gone untreated--they are also homeless. Others will hang out in a bar, hoping for a bed and a safe place--they are also homeless."

The Women's Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC) in Edmonton is the most well known of less than a handful of women's shelters in the city. It can accommodate just 75 women per night, and there are generally 25 to 30 women staying there for a longer term, which means fewer beds available for those seeking emergency shelter.

Amy Gillis, an inner-city physician in Edmonton, says there are few other options for women seeking shelter. "There's the George Spadie Centre, but you usually have to be intoxicated to go there. There's the Hope Centre, but they have far fewer spaces available for women than men. There are not enough absolute spaces for women, and there is little stability in these places."

The shelter situation in Fort McMurray is grimmer still. Currently, none of the shelters there accept minors. A report released this month by the region's Homelessness Initiatives Steering Committee found that some teenagers are resorting to prostitution in exchange for a bed or couch for the night.

Jan Reimer, Provincial Co-ordinator of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters and a former mayor of Edmonton, says the need for spaces far outstrips supply. "Last year, we served 13,000 women and children. On top of that, 25,000 could not be accommodated and 15,000 simply could not find a place to stay. Only four shelters in Alberta have all of their beds funded by the province. The capacity really needs to be increased."

Part of the reason there are so many more women and children in need of shelter than there is shelter space is that Alberta has no transitional housing program. As a result, there is often nowhere for them to go from the shelter, except back to the street. Establishing a good transitional housing program would help women dealing with trauma, or legal issues, but more importantly, it would buy time, which is what many need most. "A lot of women can't find a place to live, due to a lack of references, or a bad history with landlords. What they need is physical support in the community," says Gillis.

Affordable, quality child care is one indication of a community's support of women. A lack of child care can result in women's inability to access social services necessary to get out of shelters. Alberta is the only Canadian province that has not added child care spaces over the last 15 years. In fact, it is the only province that has seen a decrease; between 1992 and 2004, the number of spaces dropped by 7.2 per cent.

Despite a serious lack of child care spaces, Alberta's population is growing at five times the national rate, and faster than anywhere in the Western world. The strong economy has encouraged migration to the province, which has contributed to a 10.4 per cent increase in total population since 2001, and a rental vacancy rate of 0.9 per cent--the lowest in a generation, and a third of the national average.

If current economic growth continues apace to 2025, the province could face an estimated shortfall of 332,000 workers, many of whom are expected to come from other countries, and will also need places to live. Already, housing formerly considered affordable has been purchased for "worker housing." There now exists a new group of workers that cannot afford to pay rent. In Fort McMurray, for example, it is common to pay over $1,000 for one room.

"Not enough money is being spent on infrastructure to keep up with the speed of tar sands development," says Ray Martin. "I think that there are just too many tar sands projects going on right now. There should be fewer projects."

Federal Liberal cuts to social infrastructure in the 1990s and decades of provincial Conservative inaction on social housing have together set the stage for Alberta's current housing crisis. Alberta's Affordable Housing Task Force, which toured in the spring of this year, found that Calgary's 2006 homeless count indicated a 32 per cent increase over the past two years. Edmonton showed an increase of 19 per cent, while Fort McMurray's homeless population rose by 24 per cent. Housing prices in Calgary have soared by 50 to 60 per cent in the last year alone, and by an average of 14 per cent in all of Alberta.

Alberta has yet to adopt rent-increase guidelines similar to those employed in Ontario or BC. Of all the recommendations made by Alberta's Affordable Housing Task Force, the most controversial item by far was the proposal to introduce rent control. According to Martin, who supports the recommendations, the Task Force, for the purpose of proposing effective measures, presented a package deal which would have to have been accepted in totality or not at all.

For example, a law stipulating the amount of legal increases, and a law limiting rent increases to only once a year, are complementary, whereas picking and choosing from the recommendations creates loopholes. "There is resistance to approving the whole package," says Martin.

"One of the main arguments is that accepting rent controls would provide even less incentive for the government to create much needed affordable housing. But the fact remains that there are no limits on rent and I still haven't seen more affordable housing being created."

A tenancy law passed in May that promises tenants a full year's eviction notice (when landlords plan to convert their apartments to condos) is being avoided in practice through a number of loopholes. The full year's notice only applies to periodic tenants, whose leases are renewed without notice. For everyone else, the majority of whom are fixed-term tenants, the lease ends on the date indicated, and no notice has to be given by the landlord to end the tenancy.

Dania Kochan, an Edmonton resident whose lease had expired, had made an agreement with her landlord to rent on a month-to-month basis. In June, she was given one month's eviction notice, and told by Service Alberta, the government branch that oversees and enforces tenancy laws, to "get a lawyer" when she complained.

Jim Gurnett of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (ECOHH) finds the situation tiring. "Poor tenants are not a high priority," says Gurnett.

"Just as long as the government can point to a law that's there to protect them," they feel that's enough. There were 4,100 condo conversions in Calgary between January and May of this year, and the number keeps rising.

Alberta's housing crisis is massive and affects people across demographic boundaries. "Employees at Calgary women's shelters are as in need of affordable housing as the women they serve," says Reimer. "What's worse, the salaries being paid in the oil industry are so high, they can't find people to work in donut shops, let alone shelters."

The province has resorted to hiring government employees from the service sector and has successfully recruited employees from women's shelters. Women's shelter workers see this as adding insult to injury. Reimer cites occurrences of workers from women's shelters being lured from their jobs for positions at Dunkin' Donuts, a company known to offer 'signing bonuses' of $1,500 to increase their chances of acquiring staff.

"What needs to happen immediately," says Reimer, "is a government investment that will allow the [human services] sector to provide competitive wages and benefits that will attract and retain a workforce. Frontline shelter workers need to be respected by the government."

Susan Scott says that there is no substitute for a real strategy for dealing with homelessness. The responsibility, she says, lies with the government and with the people of Alberta.

"Alberta is really good at band-aid solutions," says Scott. "People will give at Christmas, and Thanksgiving, so you can see it's really not a thorough process; we give, and we turn right around and blame the victims. No housing means that people will be homeless. Shelter is a right. Society has set it up so access is limited to those who can afford it."

The Edmonton Small Press Association contributed information and contacts to this article.

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