CALGARY — Mark Sutherland knows first-hand just how bad the downturn in Canada's oil and gas sector really is.
The 45-year-old chuckwagon driver was one of the first to lose his job in 2015 in community relations at a major oil and gas company after 15 years on the job.
He saw the impact again Thursday night at the annual chuckwagon canvas auction for the Calgary Stampede.
That's the event that gives businesses a chance to bid on one of 36 chuckwagon drivers. The winners pay to have their company logo advertised on the canvas covering the rig that is pulled around a track by a team of horses.
"When you buy a newspaper or radio ad it doesn't have a price tag on it for all your customers to see, but when you buy a chuckwagon advertisement it has a pricetag and so companies, I would assume, are afraid about the optics," Sutherland said.
"They know they need to be part of the biggest event but in this economy it's pretty difficult to lay people off and then spend money on advertising."
Thursday's auction raised just under $2.3 million, or about an average of $64,000 per driver.
That number is $480,000 lower than last year's total of $2,782,000 and the worst showing since the last oil and gas downturn in 2010 when it brought in only $1,966,000.
Kurt Bensmiller, the two-time defending GMC Rangeland Derby Champion, received the highest bid on the night at $120,000, down about $50,000 from last year.
"When the oil's down, everything's down since our economy is built on that but there's still a lot of great companies doing good out there and it showed tonight," he said.
"We budget our whole season on the Calgary Stampede. The other sales definitely help but this is the big one that you know is guaranteed money that you base your whole season on."
It's necessary but not easy. Sutherland said standing on the stage hoping that people will bid for your services is uncomfortable and gives him an idea of what it's like to be an Alberta cow.
His own bid was $85,000, which was up from last year. He predicted things are not going to turn around anytime soon, either for chuckwagons or the oilpatch.
"I have a bunch of great friends who work downtown and I'm still concerned for them," he said. "They're all on the chopping block too - we haven't seen the last of it. I think we're in trouble. I think we're going to be in trouble for a little while longer."
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By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press