The “Just Transition” Soviet Style Plans for Canada’s Oilpatch

The “Just Transition” legislation currently before the House of Commons Natural Resources Committee mentions unions a fair bit. It also mentions what are effectively five-year plans, which was a common […]
Published on November 19, 2023

The “Just Transition” legislation currently before the House of Commons Natural Resources Committee mentions unions a fair bit. It also mentions what are effectively five-year plans, which was a common practice for moulding the economies of the Soviet Union and China, during their darkest years.

However, outside of big-inch pipeline construction, refining and the oil sands, there’s simply aren’t that many unionized companies in the oilpatch, at least in Saskatchewan. As in, next to none in the Land of Living Skies.

The legislation is question is Bill C-50, the Canadian Sustainable Jobs Act. The act is meant to assist workers in what the federal government had previously referred to as a “just transition,” away from fossil fuels-related jobs towards more “sustainable jobs.” It will create a “Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council” to draft five-year plans to do just that.

The Act’s full name is “An Act respecting accountability, transparency and engagement to support the creation of sustainable jobs for workers and economic growth in a net-zero economy.”

Specifically, Sec. 7 (a.) of the legislation focuses on unions. It says the Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council’s responsibilities include “advising the Minister and specified Ministers on strategies and measures to encourage growth in good-paying, high-quality jobs — including jobs in which workers are represented by a trade union — in a net-zero economy.”

That council also is supposed to have a balance of members who represent labour, Indigenous organizations and industry.

The thing is, there are no unions on drilling rigs. Or service rigs, for that matter.

I asked Mark Scholz, president of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAOEC) about this on Nov. 10. He said, “We do not have any unionized drilling or service rigs operating in Western Canada. Most of the oil and gas industry unionization is in the Alberta oilsands or LNG construction in British Columbia. As well, there are some drilling rig platforms operating off the coast of Newfoundland.”

He explained in Alberta and Saskatchewan, on service rigs, drilling rigs and directional drilling, there are no unions representing workers. And the CAOEC represents the companies operating almost every rig working in the oilpatch.

“In the drilling and service rig industry in Western Canada, there are no unions. That is just a simple fact,” he said.

Indeed, in 15 years of covering the Saskatchewan oil industry, and five years building pipelines prior to that, I’ve only encountered unionized workforces at the Regina Co-op Refinery Complex, and in big-inch pipeline construction contractors working for TC Energy, Enbridge, TransGas and Alliance Pipelines. I was one of those union pipeline workers.

But I’ve found them nowhere else, although there may be one unionized electrical firm operating in the Saskatchewan oilpatch.

Unionized labour is prevalent in the oil sands, however.

The legislation says this Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council must present an action plan by Dec. 31, 2025, and every five years after that. The government would also for a “Sustainable Jobs Secretariat”

Its role would be “enabling policy and program coherence in the development and implementation of each Sustainable Jobs Action Plan, including by coordinating the implementation of measures set out in those plans across federal entities, including those focused — at the national and regional level — on matters such as skills development, the labour market, rights at work, economic development and emissions reduction.”

It would also support the preparation and track the progress of the five-year plans, coordinate specific federal-provincial initiatives related to the plan, and provide administrative and policy support to the council.

For those who might not know their history, five year plans were a primary feature of economy of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the People’s Republic of China under Mao Tse-tung. They were the primary instrument for central planning of the economy in each of those nations, often resulting in massive transformations of industries and workforces, something the “Just Transition” legislation is designed to do – transform the oilpatch workforce into “sustainable jobs.”

The first Soviet five-year plan concentrated on developing heavy industry and collectivizing agriculture – directly leading into the Holodomor and the starvation of millions. My family was fortunate enough to get out of the Polish portion of Ukraine in 1930, just before the Holodomor began across the border in Soviet Ukraine in 1931.

This “Just Transition,” and its fitting upcoming five-year plan to totally revolutionize one of our key primary industries and workforce borrows just a little too much from history. We saw how that worked out.


Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online, and occasional contributor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He can be reached at

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