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For Atlantic Canadians, the story of worker migration couldn't be more familiar. Leaving the region for the "boom town" of the day has practically been a rite of passage since the 1970s. The successive waves of worker migration from east to west have been many--the last Alberta energy boom in the seventies, the construction boom in Toronto in the '70s and '80s, the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland, followed by the collapse of coal mining in Cape Breton--and have always resulted in a particular pull for young workers away from the region. This regional story was immortalized by Donald Shebib's classic 1970 film "Goin' Down the Road," which follows two men who leave Cape Breton in search of a better life in Toronto, only to end up bouncing from one poorly paid job to another. The shock of rural life colliding with urban poverty was aptly captured in Bruce Cockburn's song of the same name, which he wrote for the film: "I came to the city with the sun in my eyes/ My mouth full of laughter and dreams/ But all that I found was concrete and dust/ And hard times sold in vending machines."
Today, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact that worker migration to the Alberta Tar Sands has had for Atlantic Canada. Although credible estimates for numbers of workers who have been moving west are difficult to gauge, few doubt that they are in the tens of thousands. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in the region who does not know someone working out west.
But the move by thousands of Atlantic Canadians to Fort McMurray in recent years differs from past worker migrations.
"The key difference," says Reg Anstey, president of the Newfoundland Federation of Labour, "is that in the other outmigrations of significance, like when the fisheries shut down, a lot of people took pretty lousy jobs."
According to Anstey, unlike during other times of economic collapse in Newfoundland, when workers took jobs in fish or meat-packing plants in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, Newfoundland labour is now a much sought-after commodity.
"This is the first time where almost everyone who's working out there, their way up is paid and their way back is paid by the company," says Anstey.
As of 2006, the shortage of workers across the province was estimated by the Alberta government to be around 100,000 workers. Canadian National Resources Limited has begun offering three flights a week from Alberta to Newfoundland, while Air Canada has added a 'Fort McMurray Express.' The National Post reported in May that almost a third of the residents of Fort McMurray were believed to be from Newfoundland alone.
Anstey sees many advantages for Newfoundland from the oil boom. The province, like other regions of Atlantic Canada, is in the relatively early stages of developing its own oil and gas sector. Until the Lower Churchill Valley hydroelectric project and the Hebron offshore oil project are able to deliver high-paying jobs for Newfoundland's workforce, Anstey sees the migration of workers, whose return flights are likely booked in advance by their employers, as a method of training a generation of workers for these projects.
However, the pull of workers from the region is still somewhat alarming. The populations of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia are shrinking, according to Statistics Canada, while New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island registered the lowest population growth rate of all provinces in Canada between 2006 and 2007. Newfoundland in particular, with an economy that has not yet recovered from the collapse of the commercial fishery in the early 1990s, is now in a state of population decline, with more people dying than are being born. Regional papers frequently carry stories about labour shortages for local trucking companies and fish plants. This shortage, in a startling parallel to Alberta's own industry "solution" to its own tar sands-fueled labour shortage, is prompting increasing calls from east coast business leaders to fill these positions by importing Temporary Foreign Workers.
However, for Atlantic Canadian workers travelling to Fort McMurray, the effects of this migration may not be fully known for years to come.
Steve Gaul, a resident of Halifax, worked various stints in the oil fields for a total of three years, most recently as a roughneck on a rigging crew. When asked about conditions on the job, Gaul says he discovered that exposure to harmful chemical agents was frequent.
"There's lots of Benzene and substances that you're gonna come in contact with fairly frequently. These kinds of things are very unhealthy, they even [result in] birth defects," said Gaul.
Material Safety Data Sheets detailing information about the various chemicals with which workers might come in contact were "diligently provided" to workers, but Gaul says that workers are not given time to read them.
Despite this, Gaul is quick to point out that his contractor instituted a "safety bonus" each hour for crews who maintained the safety of all members. Overall, however, he notes that rigging work is "a dangerous job by nature."
The effects of such chemicals may appear long after a worker has left a job site. As pointed out in an April 2006 column by Alberta Federation of Labour researcher Jason Foster, cancer caused by workplace exposure to chemicals like benzene are not recognized, nor even recorded by the Alberta Workers' Compensation Board (WCB)or the Alberta government.
According to WCB statistics, the WCB accepted 29 new claims for work-related cancer and recognized 38 fatalities due to occupational cancer in 2005. However, the Alberta Cancer Board estimates that eight per cent of all cancers in Alberta are work-related. This means over 1,000 new cases of work-related cancer are diagnosed and more than 400 workers die of occupational cancer each year.
Fewer than one in 10 occupational cancer fatalities are recognized by the WCB.
In addition, Alberta currently has one of the highest rates of workplace deaths in the country, and the number of workplace accidents reported in the province in 2006 was 181,159--an increase of 7.4 per cent from the previous year.
Stories of injuries and close-calls are not hard to come by. George Marshall, a 26-year-old PEI resident worked only a few days in 2006 as a labourer but "almost died twice" on the job. The first close call, according to Marshall, was on account of a fall, while the second was due to "a piece of the rig [that] disconnected and came hurtling toward me."
Jason Fraser, a 24-year-old iron worker from Chester, Nova Scotia, recently spent six weeks working in Fort Mackay. During his last week on the job, there were two serious injuries at his worksite: a structural steel worker injured both heels after a fall and a platefitter sustained facial cuts from a piece of steel. He believes that some contractors deliberately undercount the number of workplace injuries.
Fraser had difficulty adjusting to life within the work camps, which he says resembled university dorms, aside from the fact that they "basically look like a bomb dropped [on them]." After work, there was little to do within the camps.
"I've had problems with alcoholism and I just drank every night for five weeks."
Fraser also had a number of moral qualms with his work, which he believes may have contributed to his drinking.
"Nobody ever thought about the environmental impact," he says. "I had a lot of moral repression. I felt really bad for what I was taking part in."
Gaul also points out that few workers showed regard to the ethics and sustainability of the oil projects, and recalls that the subject of climate change was laughed at by instructors and workers alike during one of his training courses. He also believes that the long hours of work, coupled with the boredom of camp life, often leads to a general feeling of isolation.
"As far as the social atmosphere in the camps, it's not really the most healthy environment. There's a lot of negativity and built-up misery being shared and communicated. There are a lot of people that are in the situation where they're spending way too much time away from their family to have any kind of semblance of regular family life."
It is likely due to these "quality of life" issues that many workers from Atlantic Canada view their positions in Alberta as being largely temporary. Fort McMurray, with its overwhelming growth rate and its infrastructural inability to cope with this growth, is an unlikely candidate for long-term settlement for Atlantic Canadian workers. East Coast workers, though perhaps as naive to the hazards of the oil industry as their predecessors were to the reality of life in Toronto in the 1970s, are by now no strangers to moving to where the work is. Many recognize the higher cost of living in the West, as well as the sky-high rate of inflation in Alberta and realize that their money will stretch further on the East Coast than it will in Alberta. Some, like Anstey, see the abundance of Atlantic Canadians in the Alberta oil patch as an interim gig, as workers tide themselves over in advance of the opening of the Hibernia and Lower Churchill Valley projects. These mega-projects are likely to yield their own environmental and social impacts as well in the years to come, as the East Coast as a whole shifts its economy towards the production of oil and gas resources for export.
Still, many expect to one day see a similar job boom in the east, one that they believe might break their diet of "hard times sold in vending machines."
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.