On the move
Atlantic Canada's most mobile work force offers its thoughts on current and future resource developments—and what it'll take for them to return home
By Steve Proctor

It's a bone-chillingly cold Saturday night but the giddy partygoers pouring through the front door of the Newfoundlander's Club don't seem to notice. After a long week of work, the all-ages crowd is anxious to dance, listen to familiar Irish folk music and scoff down a serving of the house specialty—corned beef and cabbage.

For all the thick accents and repeating sets of Great Big Sea, it could be a George Street club in St. John's, but it's not. It's Riedel Street in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the service centre for the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world.

The Newfoundlander's Club may be the city's most popular drinking hole, but it is just one of dozens of gathering places in Alberta oil country where Eastern Canadians gather to tip back a Keith's, bemoan the cold, and dream of the more laid-back lifestyle they might have had if they'd remained in Bathurst, Baddeck, or Bonavista.

In the corner, Scott Winters and his wife Valerie sit quietly. The Truro couple are newcomers to the oil sands scene, but in just three months their social circle has grown to include a lobster pot full of Atlantic Canadians.

"If you pulled all the Easterners out of here, the oil sands development would be in big trouble," laughs Winters, a senior project manager on the Syncrude tailings relocation project. "On my first day I met an electrician from Truro who I'd never met back home, and then a week or so later a buddy from high school in Liverpool showed up at my door pretending to be a courier with a package from home. He's been here for two years."

Friends in Nova Scotia cringe when he talks about housing prices—he's paying $3,150 a month for a two-bedroom condo— but he calculates he can still retire five years earlier than if he stayed East.

Like the first wave of Newfoundlanders who came to Northern Alberta 30 years ago following the collapse of the cod fishery, Scott's brother Brian came chasing work in the oil sands with the collapse of Bowater paper plant in Liverpool, Nova Scotia in June 2012. He reports that life in Northern Alberta had improved markedly since the initial boom in the 1980s, which helped convince Scott that life in the oil patch might be preferable to the series of uncertain engineering opportunities he'd dealt with for the last decade.

"I want to make more money than simply survive," he says. "Our son is in third-year university and won't be coming home, so why not?"

Winters' story is a familiar one as a new round of Easterners heads West. Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, estimates seven to 11 per cent of the working population—some 20,000 people— commute outside the province to work. Rick Clarke, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, doesn't have similar numbers for his province, but he's not worried about commuting workers. He's more concerned about the people who are leaving the province for good.

"We've got to give people reasons to stay in the first place, because once they leave and settle down, they aren't coming back," he says. "I've seen the billboard campaigns in Calgary pointing out that that you can buy two houses in the Maritimes for the price of a modest home in Alberta, and they have had little impact."

The latest statistics from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council lend weight to Clarke's concern. During the first nine months of 2012, more than 7,230 Atlantic Canadians left the region permanently. David Chaundy, senior economist with the council, says the number is below the peak exodus recorded in 2006, but the out-migration has been climbing for the past two years.

The loss of young people from rural areas struggling with the loss of manufacturing and resource jobs is especially notable in the numbers.

"People make decisions on economic prospects," he says, adding that until regional businesses can offer better opportunities, better wages, and sustained activity, there will continue to be more moving trucks heading West than East.

Wil van't Veld, a New Brunswick economist who moved to Edmonton in 2008 to work with ATB Financial, Alberta's largest bank, believes the Atlantic migration should be viewed more as a natural relocation progression than an exodus.

Over the past three decades, the people who once commuted back and forth have settled and raised families. He says they've developed communities and established a network of contacts that has made it comfortable for others to come west, secure in the knowledge they'll have some stability while establishing their own roots.

Van't Veld's own family story is a case in relocation progression. His uncle helped build the West Edmonton Mall in the '80s. His father drove oil well testing equipment in the '90s. He and his wife Sara lived with his aunt when they first moved to Alberta, and have since provided an entry point into the community for his father-inlaw, an aunt and uncle.

"Why do a lot of people from Hong Kong come to Vancouver? It's because they've got friends there. I'm guessing 20 per cent of my high school graduating class is here now. If I were living back in the Maritimes, I don't know who I'd know," says van't Veld.

Keith Singer's story isn't much different. He's the general manager of NAPA auto parts in Fort McMurray. He says his "family thought he was nuts" in 2006 when he moved there from East Hants, just outside of Halifax. Today all five of his children work in Alberta and he's opened his door, and his spare bedroom, to countless Easterners looking for a jumping off point into the oil sands.

"There is unbelievable opportunity here whether you are 20 years old or 50 years old. You hear people complaining about working 18- hour days for weeks on end, but that's generally their choice for the overtime. Some people are disgruntled wherever they go."

While many thousands of workers choose to live in camps at the mine sites and fly out once every two weeks to Edmonton or Calgary on the company tab, Community College administrator Candice Crossley sees an increasing number of workers seeking a more balanced life, choosing to live in Fort McMurray and board buses for a 30 to 90 minute daily commute to work.

And why not, asks the mother of two boys. Over the last decade the former Corner Brook, Newfoundland native says she's watched local governments and big employers—Suncor, Syncrude, Shell, and Canadian National Resources—transform the city's rough and tumble drug-filled frontier town image into a kinder, gentler, safer one so Easterners, and people from across the globe, won't want to leave the first time there's new jobs at home.

The Suncor Community Leisure Centre embodies that corporate and government commitment. Opened in 2009, it features two NHL-sized rinks, an eight-sheet curling rink, an indoor playground, two field houses, an indoor running track, a fitness centre, an Olympic-sized pool and splash park. It is Canada's largest recreational centre.

"It's like Disneyland," says Tony Miller, an Upper Brookside Nova Scotia native sporting a tartan scarf around his neck as he watches curlers scrub away on the brightly lit ice surface. "And they are building an addition as well."

Miller drives a truck as big as a two-storey home for Canadian National Resources. He says it's as satisfying as other heavy equipment work he's done in the Arctic and across northern Ontario, but he wishes it was closer to home.

"But I've moved home before. I worked in Gays River and the Moose River gold mines, projects that were supposed to be big. I'd just get my feet wet, and it's Heartbreak Hotel, they fall apart."

While critics suggest lower gas prices and Alberta's projected $4-billion deficit should zap some of the oils sands appeal, Miller, Winters and van't Veld are all doubtful. More than $23 billion was spent on oil sands projects in 2012, and more than that is slated to be spent in 2013. Dozens of new billiondollar projects are awaiting approval and with 180 babies a month being born in the Fort McMurray hospital, the region's population is projected to double and exceed 230,000 within 20 years. The province's most recent economic outlooks indicate more than 600,000 jobs will need to be filled by 2020.

Back at the curling rink, Eastern ex-pats chatter about the thousands of potential jobs being created by the Muskrat Falls hydro project, the Irving Shipbuilding contract and the $14-billion Hebron offshore initiative. It's all good news, but Miller is not sure many people who have been around more than a few years will be considering leaving. There have been too many disappointments in the past. Many have their families here. Alberta is home now.

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Driving Up Wages

Paul Pettipas, CEO of the Nova Scotia Homebuilders Association, (above) says the out-migration of workers West means more acute skill shortages, longer construction times for residential developments, and most troubling for him, increased labour costs.

"We've got young people coming out of schools with little or no skills and no experience, but they are demanding wages beyond what the industry can pay," he says. "They know they can get big money working out West just for showing up, and they think they deserve the same here."

If you offer people enough money, they will look past the brutal hours and lack of community for a while, but many will eventually get burned out and look back to something familiar, he says.

"I know several really skilled people who have come back recently because they couldn't stomach the lifestyle that was being offered," he says. "They're doing well here because they have the skills and a work ethic. If you've got those, you can succeed anywhere."