FORT MAC TO HALIFAX:
One of the most important employment issues of our time, what exactly is the impact—social, economical and environmental—of the mass exodus to Fort McMurray?
by Veronica Simmonds
photos by Melissa Dubé & Meghan Tansey Whitton
“I left at 10 to nine this morning, your time, and now I’m just waiting the next four hours for my next flight.”
Jason Fraser is calling from the Calgary airport on the way to his latest welding job in Fort McMurray. His home is in Tantallon, with his girlfriend Daniela Gansemer and their pets, Butch the loyal shepherd and River the little munchkin cat. Like so many Nova Scotians, Fraser lives a sort of half-life—working in Alberta, but living here.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m constantly in transition and my life is on hold. When I think about it, it is pretty disheartening, depressing at times, but that’s why I try not to think about it I guess,” Fraser says. “That’s the best way to do it.”
Fraser is originally from Chester. He studied philosophy, English and international development studies at Dal. While in university, he got involved with the anti-poverty movement and identified as an anarchist. He still believes in some anarchist ideologies but he experienced a bit of a mental shift after graduating.
“Part of the change came about when I realized that most of the people I was associating myself with came from incredibly comfortable middle-class backgrounds and that’s not something that I identified with at all,” he says. “I came from a really impoverished background and I just started realizing that, hey, guys are able to fight these fights and say things and feel these ways because they’ve got a pretty good safety net under them.”
He had been working his way through school tying rebar and was pretty active in his union—in fact his thesis was on the importance of union movements. Around the time he was growing disillusioned with the activist scene, a friend lured him out to Fort Mac. “I only lasted a month, I think it was 24 days straight and I drank pretty much every one of them,” he says. “Me and my friend drank quite a lot, so I had to leave and I did.”
But he went back and has been going back ever since. He’s now got the drinking under control and even though the time away from Gansemer is hard, he feels like it’s worth it.
“It’s the only actual way to get ahead basically,” Fraser says. “In Nova Scotia I was working at the shipyards for probably two years but the work was so off and on and I was getting laid off. At the end of the year you would only work eight months of the year and that’s not something I can financially afford right now. Nova Scotia is a very tough place to live. You’re not really making any money plus the cost is huge to live there as well. So, you pretty much have to leave to live there.”
T his is not a new story. Nova Scotians have been leaving home for work since the late 1800s. Lynda Harling Stalker is a professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University, and she studies out-migration in Nova Scotia. She explains that early migrant workers headed to the Boston states or out west on the “harvest train.” In the ’60s and ’70s there was another wave heading to Ontario to take part in a booming manufacturing sector (think Goin’ Down the Road). Harling Stalker explains that this latest trend of Alberta-bound Nova Scotians really got started in the ’90s.
“The 1990s got hit with the cod moratorium,” she says. “That was a big turning point, and that coincided with the oil boom industry building up again in Alberta. So we had a surplus of labour here, they needed labour there, so you saw the out-migration heading to Alberta—skipping over Ontario and Toronto and heading right for Fort Mac.”
This is the story we’re all too familiar with. There were approximately 133,000 interprovincial employees working in Alberta as of 2008 and 26 percent of them were from Atlantic Canada. Hartling Stalker says the major difference between the current out-migration to Alberta and those of the past is that—unlike in previous migrations—workers like Jason Fraser are still technically living here.
“When people left, they left—it’s just since the ’90s and 2000s are we seeing this coming back and forth,” she says. “Which is a whole new dynamic that we hadn’t seen in the history of migration out of the Atlantic region.”
This means there’s no real precedent to understand what life is like for someone like Fraser, or what the lasting effects of long distance work might have on a person or a place. “The older baby boomer generation tends to volunteer more, and people are seeing it die out,” she says. “So that’s one big area that’s feeling the hit. Education is another, you get the double-whammy: those who are working age aren’t having families or are having smaller families—we’re no longer seeing the large four-to-six-children families that we once saw just a generation ago.
“I think it still has to play out,” Hartling Stalker continues. “I don’t think we know what the long-term effects of this will be. It will be interesting when we see the one generation who’s lived with it—the children now, when they become adults, what will be.”
As for Fraser, he talks about feeling frozen. He can’t live a full life in his dorm room in Fort Mac away from Gansemer, but he also can’t really live a full life at home.
“It’s really tough that’s for sure. There’s stuff that I wanted to start for sure,” he says, mentioning that playing punk music in bands has been a lifelong interest. “But I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to abandon it later. But now where I have two weeks off I feel like it’s a lot more time and a lot less pressure.”
But it turns out the two-weeks-off gig didn’t work out. He’s now working 24 days with four days off, and those workdays are 12 hours long. We spoke when he was in his third day of that cycle, exhausted and counting down the days.
B ack home, Daniela Gansemer feels frozen too. “Personally, the hardest thing about this kind of work is that it almost seems like your life as a couple is put on hold though your other life,” she says. “The one he is not present in everyday keeps moving forward.”
Gansemer is studying to be a veterinary assistant and the money Fraser brings back is helping to pay for that education, so she feels conflicted. She appreciates that this is how he has to make money right now, but the long separations take a toll. “The sacrifice is that we don’t get to spend a normal life together,” she says, “we can only count the days until this temporary-turned-long-term arrangement is over.”
Dennis Orthner is a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has studied the effects of work-related separation on relationships. He’s looked at how long-term separations affect military families and other people in distance-working situations. Not surprisingly, he’s found the constant disengagement and re-engagement that happens in these relationships can be a strain.
“There are lots of jobs now that require people to go away for long periods of time,” Orthner says. “That puts a lot of stress on families and relationships. What happens is when you’re thinking about going back to work, you have to make sure that your flights are arranged, you have to make sure your laundry is prepared, you have to make sure you have all the things that make it possible for you to disengage—the same thing is true when you come back. You have all these things you have to do and process with your spouse and your children about things that have happened.”
His research has shown this leads to the feeling of constant transition that Fraser describes. When you’re home you think of returning and when you’re away you think of going home. This can be a cause of stress for both the worker leaving and the family they’re leaving behind.
“Life seems to brighten a little bit when Jason comes home,” Gansemer says. “There’s something to look forward to at the end of each day. Dinner for one—with sometimes more leftovers than I can stomach—becomes dinner for two.
“As for preparing for him to leave, it’s always that feeling in the pit of your stomach like it’s a Sunday night and Monday is coming—whether you like it or not. I think I tell him every time that we’re staying up all night to spend time together but always fall asleep earlier than he does. There really isn’t anything you can do to prepare yourself,” she says. “In the past few years, I’ve never gotten used to it.”
While Fraser is gone, Gansemer goes about her life, she goes to school and takes care of their animals, but they live a fair distance away from friends and family. The house gets lonely and sometimes a little messy.
Orthner explains that often this work is doubly hard for those left behind—they end up experiencing a phenomenon called “ambiguous loss.”
“They’re still essentially part of your relationship but they’re not in a sense,” he says. “It’s being married but not, having a father but not, you know? That can be collectively traumatic.”
This could be a concern for the population of Nova Scotians who are living in this out-
-migrant half-world. This kind of stress on a family can have lasting effects. Orthner lists depression, divorce, suicide, social isolation, feelings of abandonment and children struggling at school as some of the negative outcomes of work separation. “The military recognizes this,” he says, “and so they institutionalize community support centres.”
Certain private companies Orthner has worked with have recognized that when things are hard on the homefront, efficiency can suffer. Some companies provide workers with free long-distance calling—though in some cases, little more is offered than a communal telephone in a common space, and even that seems increasingly useless in the age of FaceTime.
Gansemer and Fraser embrace their situation as a sort of necessary evil. They can’t really see any other way for them to get ahead in Nova Scotia but they also can’t imagine living anywhere else. “This is where we choose to live,” Gansemer says. “Nova Scotia is our lives; it’s where we grew up. It’s where our families live. It’s what we love.”
C ould it look another way?” Catherine Abreu is the energy coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre and she questions the common narrative about how Nova Scotians need to go west for work.
“There’s this mindset of inevitability,” Abreu says. “Often when we look into the rhetoric of the oil sands from provincial and federal governments, it gives us the impression that it just happens to be a coincidence that Alberta has this resource and it’s necessary—for not only Alberta but the rest of the country—to be devoted to extracting it.”
Abreu believes this situation is not inevitable, but is instead the result of decisions made by the federal government to invest in the oil sands, directing development money to Alberta which could be going elsewhere in the country.
“Could it look another way? The answer is yes, of course it could look another way,” she says. “We could be in a situation where federal funds were being used to specifically target investment in communities that were in need of some sort of economic development and where we were encouraging local resiliency.”
Abreu points to the growing Nova Scotian wind-for-energy sector as a hopeful sign that this kind of local job creation is possible, but also acknowledges that there needs to be an attitude adjustment at every level in order to shift Canadians towards different ideas of what prosperity can look like.
As for Jason Fraser, he’s still on the phone from Alberta. He wishes things could be different, that he could work and live at home, but for now he’s just putting his head down and doing the job.
“I think some people are incredibly lucky to enjoy what they do,” he says. “I think that most of us are just lucky to tolerate our jobs that we can go there day in and day out, so for me—and I think most people—it’s about money. For me to stop doing this I would have to be making really good money at home and that’s not going to be happening for awhile.”
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Sounds like home
For those living away and missing some of those iconic Halifax sounds,
here are a few audio postcards to ease (or worsen) your homesickness. Wish you were here!
by Erica Butler with additional audio by Veronica Simmonds