Original Published on Jun 29, 2022 at 20:47

By Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After two years of disruption due to COVID-19, many Manitobans were finally able to make a full-time return to the workplace this spring. Unfortunately for these commuters, the skyrocketing cost of fuel has plunged them into a whole new kind of crisis—a crisis of the pocketbook.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the cost at the pump has nearly doubled. As of this writing, it averages an unprecedented 206.8 cents per litre across Manitoba. Times like these may get people to start rethinking their choice of a rural life so far from public transit.

According to an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, a recent Angus Reid survey indicates that 87 percent of Manitobans feel the Progressive Conservative government is doing a poor job of handling inflation.

In provinces where government rebates and subsidies have been introduced, residents are only nominally more impressed.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen says that the province is calling on the federal government to take action, since they are currently collecting three taxes on gasoline sales: an excise tax, the five percent GST, and a carbon levy.

“The federal government makes out like bandits when the price of gas goes up,” Friesen told the Free Press.1

Commuting Woes

Samantha Bisson is a Niverville mom who, when not on maternity leave, commutes 50 minutes to work near Route 90 and Inkster Boulevard. Bisson has worked mostly from home since the pandemic began, travelling to work only to relieve colleagues as they go on vacation.

With the rising cost of gas, she says a full tank for her van now comes to $140 as opposed to the $70 it was prior to the pandemic. When her maternity leave is up, returning to work full-time will mean two fills per week, or nearly $600 per month just for gas.

She’s thankful that her partner works locally.

“As much as I would love to carpool, unfortunately I can’t, as I have younger kids,” Bisson says. “If something happened at school or daycare and they got sick, I would need to be able to leave on a dime to get them.”

Bisson is hopeful that her employer will make allowances for her to continue working from home part-time after her maternity leave is over. In the meantime, she says she and her partner have been making conscientious changes to their shopping habits.

“We can’t afford driving to the city every other day for things,” Bisson says. “So we buy locally now and it pays off to support our town.”

One Winnipeg resident commutes to Niverville for work every day. He chooses to remain anonymous but says he and his partner are finding that inflation is making it a struggle to get by.

“The sudden doubling of our fuel cost has taken a bite out of our disposable income,” he says. “Gas used to be $400 a month. Now it’s $800 and we drive very reasonable vehicles with efficient engines. We have less money for birthday gifts, groceries, household repair money, clothing, etc.”

These same rising fuel costs have put a halt to their dream of travelling abroad to visit family anytime soon.

“All my wife’s family lives in Indonesia, so she never gets to see them in person,” he says. “It’s been four years since we’ve been there and my son is five years old. They only spent four weeks with him when he was nine months old. Then COVID hit. Now this.”

The price of one ticket to Indonesia, he says, has jumped from $1,400 to $2,400.

Another rural resident who requests anonymity agrees with Bisson that carpooling wouldn’t be a viable option for shift workers like herself.

“My shifts are random, so planning to drive with someone else would be near impossible,” she says. “The current gas prices have forced me to use what should be my extra spending money on buying gas. Spending $100+ every week on gas is not something I could have imagined needing to budget for. I drive a fuel-efficient car and I’m still having to pay this.”

In order to help take the edge off fuel costs, she says she’s traded in her paid parking spot at the hospital where she works for free parking, which adds an additional 30 minutes of walking to her daily routine.

She’s considered switching to a hybrid vehicle, but at this point she’s still uncertain as to what that could mean in terms of repair costs compared to a gas vehicle.

Amber Ward took the plunge and traded her vehicle in for a hybrid model this spring. It runs on gas during highway driving and switches to electric at lower speeds. So far, she’s pleased with the gas savings she’s experiencing and happy not to be paying the hydro costs that come with a fully electric vehicle. Hybrid models regenerate the battery through the braking system.

“I noticed how much gas I was using weekly, and with the rising gas prices I decided to look at trading it in for a smaller vehicle,” says Ward. “I found out that I could trade it in for more than I originally got it for and more than what I still owed on my loan. Thank you, crazy car market! My salesperson helped me find a hybrid Ford Escape which would help us with our gas costs.”

Even with a daily commute, she says she can go two weeks between fill-ups and her fuel savings come to around $300 per month. Her fiancé drives a hybrid Ford F150.

Fuel Costs and Local Business

Steve Kehler owns Peak Renovations in Niverville. His small business runs a fleet of four vehicles, providing services all over the southeast and into the lake regions. Current fuel prices mean that Kehler has had to pad his rates by an additional 15 to 20 percent.

“Our prices are all going up,” says Kehler. “We can soak up the inflation just by charging [the customer] more.”

Despite the jump in price, Kehler says he’s astounded by the continuing demand for trades services. His company has never been busier and he suggests that most trades would say the same.

“It’s not sustainable,” Kehler adds. “Everybody’s buying houses and everyone’s renovating houses. COVID had something to do with this, and the stimulus [packages]. It’s been going like this for two years now, but it’s going to come to a crashing halt, I think. Once interest rates go up a bit.”

Ryan Scheurer runs a small trucking company out of Ste. Agathe called Upper Deck Transport. He says rising gas costs have already added 30 percent to shipping rates, and this too gets passed on to the customer.

In the end, though, he says it affects everyone as the majority of Canadian goods travel in by transport.

“The fuel price means everything,” Scheurer says. “In one trip, that’s half your cost. To take a semitruck from Winnipeg to Edmonton, you’re spending $800 in fuel, one way.”

To add insult to injury, the entire industry is witnessing a shortage of experienced drivers to move those goods.

If things don’t change soon in terms of fuel costs and inflation, Scheurer feels that a recession is imminent, which means even tougher times are ahead.

“The trucking industry has seen its ups and downs, but this is kind of unprecedented in a way,” Scheurer says. “We haven’t seen something like this before.”

This item reprinted with permission from The Citizen, Niverville, Manitoba