Energy and education in Saskatchewan’s rural oil communities
March 1, 2017

Screenshot from the July/August 2009 issue of Upstream Dialogue, a newsletter from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The volatile politics of energy and the environment erupted in Saskatchewan earlier this year when students in a grade 8 “ecojustice” program of the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools division participated in the rally “Stand with Standing Rock: A Peaceful Demonstration.” Outrage was fuelled by local conservative talk-radio host John Gormley, who questioned the program’s commitment to balance, and accused the students of “beggaring and diminishing the lives of 10,000 families in this province” who depend on the oilfields.

Lost in the minor media tempest around this story of the potential undue influence of environmentalists over our children’s education was the question of how much power and influence the oil industry exerts over education in Saskatchewan, particularly in the communities of those very families who depend on the oilfields.

This summer, as part of the Corporate Mapping Project, we began research into one aspect of the energy industry’s power and influence, specifically how and to what extent the oil industry shapes the everyday institutions and culture of rural life in Saskatchewan’s oil-producing communities. We were particularly interested in the involvement of the industry in rural sports and recreation, cultural events, local governance and critical infrastructure.

We found that in many of these communities the oil industry is not perceived as an outsider or intruder to be tolerated or regulated, but as a valued and integral member of the community. Threats to the industry are thereby perceived as equally threatening to the community. Explaining how the oil industry has achieved this level of social licence in these localities is the driving question behind our research.

Part of the explanation must include how the oil industry influences schools and education. Indeed, the oil industry is perceived as vital for the survival of many schools in oil-producing rural communities as the industry regularly supplies much-needed money for buildings and equipment, as well as offering industry-sponsored curriculum, field trips, and scholarships and awards for students. In what follows, we identify how the oil industry both directly and indirectly influences education in these communities, and raise questions for further research.

Direct industry involvement in education

Perhaps the most direct way the oil industry impacts education in these areas is through the physical buildings themselves—the very ability of communities to build and maintain schools relies to a large degree on oil industry largesse. While the majority of funding for schools comes from the provincial government, communities are expected to fundraise substantial amounts for any upgrades or expansions. 

For example, Oxbow’s new Prairie Horizons School required a community fundraising effort of $1.2 million in order to expand the gymnasium and build a multi-purpose room. The vast majority of this fundraising was supplied by the oil industry, with Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) and Redhawk Well Servicing both committing over $100,000 to the school, while smaller oil service firms committed amounts between $5,000 and $50,000.

Oil industry charity quite literally allows rural people access to educational opportunities that they might not otherwise have. It is small wonder that people view the industry as an integral community partner. But the oil industry’s influence over education in these communities goes far beyond bricks and mortar (as important as that is). Many firms see schools as a site for earning social licence and reputation enhancement. 

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), in partnership with local oil firms, has brought their Energy in Action (EIA) program to schools across Saskatchewan (Elrose, Weyburn, Maple Creek, Carlyle, Carnduff and Oxbow) over the past decade. The EIA program is described as “an energy and environmental literacy program for students primarily in grades four to six in under-serviced schools in rural communities, where there are oil and natural gas operations.”

The program consists of in-classroom presentations that deliver “industry context” on key themes like examining renewable and nonrenewable resources; the use of natural resources to meet energy needs; values of natural resources (uses, products, careers); multiple perspectives related to energy use and development; natural resource and environmental stewardship; and awareness and appreciation for the local environment. The EIA program also contains a project component where students, community members and industry representatives plant trees and shrubs or build an outdoor classroom or bird boxes.

The motives behind EIA are made explicit in CAPP’s video for the program: 

Energy in Action brings industry and communities together. To teach, to learn, to grow and build something important that will last a long time. Energy in Action is community engagement in action. Building understanding, growing roots in the community, reinforcing reputations, ensuring our social licence to operate. Skilled educators and a curriculum linked to energy realities opens eyes and opens minds. Energy in Action works.

To date, CAPP estimates the EIA program has been delivered to over 10,000 students, teachers and community members across Western Canada. Regardless of the content of the curriculum delivered by EIA—there is no doubt it is meant to portray the industry in a sympathetic light—it must also be viewed as a powerful intervention in the daily lives of children, showcasing the relationship between community and industry. In many of these communities, the day of the program is viewed as a communitywide event, further solidifying the status of the industry.

Kia Pyrcz of Vermilion Energy explained the value of the program this way: “projects like Energy in Action are an especially great opportunity for smaller industry players like Vermilion to educate the community on our local operations and our commitment to responsible resource development. Regardless of company size, this type of collaboration helps build strong enduring relationships in the community. It’s important to put names and faces to an industry like ours.”

The industry is also a valuable source of awards and scholarships for students in oil-producing communities, with many firms providing bursaries and awards for students at regional colleges that offer education and training in oil-related fields. While this is no doubt self-serving—preparing the industry’s future workforce—oil-related programs also offer career paths for young people that may allow them to remain in their communities, an important (perceived and tangible) benefit that should not be underestimated.

The experience of rural outmigration, and depopulation of rural towns and villages due to the decline in agriculture, has left many families deeply fearful for the future viability of their towns. The oil industry (when it is flourishing) offers a respite from this narrative of decline, further connecting rural futures to the future of the industry.

Indirect industry involvement in education

Even where the oil industry is not directly funding and becoming involved in education its very existence in these communities influences how education is perceived and valued. 

For example, it is well-documented that oil communities regularly experience an exodus of young males from school to oilfield jobs during boom times. From 2003 to 2008, the number of young men enrolled in school dropped almost nine percentage points in Alberta and 2.6% in Saskatchewan, according to a 2014 Statistics Canada report. As one teacher we interviewed explained:

I have difficulties keeping the boys in the school until the end of grade 12, because they see the big money that people are making, or they perceive it’s big money, and keep them going towards their grade 12. That’s my biggest problem with the oil industry. I’ve had kids who would work summer jobs for an oil company—a drilling rig company or service rig company—come back to school in September and probably wouldn’t stay past Christmas. They get a little taste of money, and they’re gone.

Conversely, due to the highly gendered nature of oil work, women are more likely to view post-secondary education as necessary for their futures, since the majority of work available to them without a post-secondary degree is low-paid (in secretarial work or the service economy). The gendered pay gap begins in high school with students’ first jobs. Another teacher explained: 

I had one grade 12 graduate...she felt she had to go and get a post-secondary education because, in this area, a female is not going to get a good-paying job without one.... But I think the girls certainly see the difference as they are growing up in the high school because there aren’t as many jobs outside of school hours that suit the female in this area. Unless it’s those traditional female positions—you know, that might be the secretarial work for two hours after school with the minimum pay, compared to the [male] shop hand who might be making five dollars more and hour. 

Similarly, the lives of teachers are also indirectly impacted by the oil economy. Inflated rental prices coupled with other cost-of-living increases in oil-boom towns force teachers to supplement their salaries with other employment. Another school teacher elaborates: 

A lot of teachers have summer jobs or they’re working a couple of jobs to keep things…or tonnes of teachers have quit to go to the oil field sector when it was booming because the wages were higher, benefits were better. 

The boom-bust cycles of the oil industry also structure how education is valued and perceived in rural communities. With many regions currently experiencing economic downturn as a result of the collapse in oil prices starting in 2014, education, particularly at the post-secondary level, may see its value restored as other career options are foreclosed.

Paradoxically, renewed education enrolments come at a time when the private sector resources to fund education in oil-producing communities become increasingly scarce, and also during austere times for the provincial government, which has been all too ready to cut public education budgets. 

Work needed on rural alternatives

As we have illustrated, there is a high degree of dependence on the oil industry in many rural areas of Saskatchewan. It is therefore not difficult to grasp why the industry has achieved such a high degree of social licence: the oil industry provides many well-paying jobs and other economic benefits, and it is increasingly depended on to fund vital infrastructure, equipment, services and cultural activities. Education is just one important aspect of how the industry has made itself indispensable to these communities.

Given industry’s fundamental role in the institutions of rural communities, it is not surprising that many of the people we interviewed adopted the same worldview as the industry on key energy issues. While conducting our research it became apparent to us that the majority of our interviewees were skeptical about the human causes of climate change and believed the oil industry was already well regulated. This was the case not only for those working directly in the industry, but also for teachers, town councillors, people working in human services, and many others who trusted and adopted the perspectives of industry on key contentious issues such as climate change, pipelines and carbon pricing.

In one example, members of a rural conservation group expressed sympathy with oil companies, characterizing oil regulations as onerous, numerous and providing adequate protection for the environment. They held this view despite non-governmental and academic research demonstrating that Saskatchewan is uniquely underregulated in Canada. Indeed, on issues such as environmental regulation, climate change and carbon pricing, it was the industry that was deemed the preeminent authority, with many of our interviewees regularly citing industry arguments.

When we understand the degree to which oil-producing communities view their future as inextricably linked to that of the oil industry it becomes clear why outside threats to the industry, whether through stricter regulation or carbon pricing, are viewed as threats to the viability of communities and individual livelihoods. In fact, it would be more surprising if rural people didn’t adopt these views given that the survival of their communities is significantly tied to the survival of the oil industry.

There is thus a desperate need for a concrete vision of an alternative green economy for rural Saskatchewan. Without such a vision, rural communities will continue to side with industry when faced with the choice between grand plans from eastern politicians and urban environmentalists versus the everyday tangible benefits that the oil industry delivers.

Simon Enoch is the director of the CCPA–Saskatchewan. Emily Eaton is an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at University of Regina. This article is drawn from the Winter 2017 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, which is available for purchase from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives bookstore.

This article was published in the March/April 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.