Dishing with DKG: Never mind Justin Trudeau, this oil patch woman's getting the job done

JANUARY 29 / Donna Kennedy-Glans

This is a new conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. This week: Luisa DaSilva of Iron+Earth.

Luisa DaSilva leads Iron+ Earth, founded in Fort McMurray by unemployed and underemployed oil workers who took it upon themselves to figure out how to upgrade and diversify their skills.

I’d never heard of Luisa DaSilva or the organization she leads, Iron+Earth, and I suspect you haven’t either.

It’s a community-based non-profit launched in 2016, a particularly dire time in the Canadian hydrocarbons sector. Tens of thousands were tossed out of work. Fort McMurray — ground zero for the oilsands — was particularly hard hit. Iron+ Earth, now with Canada-wide reach, was founded in Fort McMurray by unemployed and underemployed oil workers who took it upon themselves to figure out how to upgrade and diversify the skills in their toolkit.

These days, as federal and provincial politicians argue the meaning of Justin Trudeau’s “just transition,” DaSilva quietly goes about her business — helping fossil fuel workers learn new skills, figuring out ways to install solar panels on abandoned oil well sites, and always, listening intently to the voices of people who live in these communities in transition.

I connect with Luisa via Google Meet; she’s just landed in Calgary for meetings and is grateful to be welcomed with blue skies and balmy weather. She carries her laptop to the window of her downtown hotel room and points out the Calgary Tower, clearly visible in the skyline.

What’s less clear in Alberta is the true intention of Trudeau’s Just Transition Act. After listening to interpretations by Alberta politicians (it’s a Liberal plot to destroy 2.7 million jobs in the oil patch; it’s shorthand for keeping oil and gas in the ground) and from the feds (it’s simply a slogan that came out of the COP 21 meetings in Paris, later picked up by the OECD), I can’t wait to ask Luisa for her interpretation.

This isn’t the first time someone has asked her opinion on this controversial law: “I’ve been invited to Parliament in Ottawa twice now, and MPs come up to me afterwards and talk to me and the thing I keep hearing is, you have really practical solutions… We’re here in Parliament debating words and you are out there doing the work and getting stuff done.”

Listening to Luisa’s stories of on-the-ground experiences with communities in transition, it’s easy to see why MPs recognize her pragmatism. She’s been a fly-in, fly-out geologist living in the work camps of northern Alberta’s oilsands, and she’s worked on mine sites in Sweden, the Solomon Islands and Mexico. And, I note with gratitude, she doesn’t virtue-signal or speak in jargon.

What she seems to be aiming for is building confidence and trust in communities that the unemployed and under-employed — the people, not the industry — will be taken care of if a transition is inevitable. She’s not assuming that oil and gas is going away any time soon, but the industry is shedding jobs and that’s a reality.

This all sounds constructive, but how do you build that kind of confidence and trust, I ask Luisa. Memories of growing up in southwestern Ontario, in a community dependent on growing tobacco, still haunt me — friends and family who couldn’t make the transition to other crops or livelihoods were left behind. It didn’t feel just, but the cancer connection was real and the tobacco-growing community became a scapegoat.

“All you need to build confidence are people in the community seeing that change is possible,” Luisa replies. “People need to see that something is happening differently. Even a five percent change is enough to shift confidence.” What she says rings true. When my parents transitioned from growing tobacco, to cultivate ginseng instead, others in the neighbourhood were encouraged.

Back to Alberta, where lots of political actors are re-energizing the Ottawa vs. Alberta grievance game, throwing kerosene on the fire. “What are people saying on the ground in places like Fort McMurray and Taber and other communities in transition?” I ask Luisa.
“They are paying attention to the politicians,” she responds. “People are listening to what’s being said and it’s kind of like, hey, wait a second, what does that mean? Does it mean what you are saying that it means… because that’s not what I want it to mean.”

It’s all quite confusing, we agree, with governments acting at cross-purposes. “Who gets to decide the narrative?” I wonder aloud: “Top-down policy wonks like Gerald Butts in the prime minister’s inner sanctum; provincial politicians facing an election in a few months’ time; or the people in the communities in transition?”

Luisa’s response is pragmatic: “You can debate the words all you want, the semantics, but we’re on the ground and getting things done. We are empowering hundreds of workers through wage subsidies, through wrap-around supports, through providing opportunities with employers so they can use these hard-earned skills in real-world opportunities. That will speak very loudly when you see the results.”

While politicians do the politics, Luisa will continue to collaborate with foundations, industry and governments to advance the ability of people in communities to design and test-drive local initiatives.

Oil and gas isn’t going away, but it is in transition and the people on the ground are clear on that.

Link to original article: National Post