Oil rig wives: Concerns for when the men are away

Alberta’s oil boom is drawing East Coast men to the west in droves, leaving their wives behind to fend for themselves. They’re managing fine, thank you very much, but here’s why these towns are going to need their guys back

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Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Pamela Ghent will never forget the terrifying boom as lightning hit her house last summer, or the car horn that screamed into the night several seconds later. Jumping out of bed, she yelled for her 10-year-old son, Brody, and tore outside. A car was driving up and down the main road in Harbour Mille, Nfld., its horn blaring. Lights flicked on and doors slamm­ed as other residents of the tiny Burin Peninsula outport rushed out in their pyjamas to see what was wrong. “There’s a fire up the way! Get help!” someone shouted. Ghent and her son jumped in her car and drove to the outskirts of town, where another lightning bolt had set fire to a garden shed. It wasn’t a catastrophe yet, but Ghent felt sick with the knowledge that a blaze could easily spread across the tightly packed community, where nearly 100 buildings jostle for elbow room between two rocky outcroppings.

“We knocked on every door, Brody going up one side of the road and me on the other, trying to get help,” Ghent, 38, remembers. “None of the men were home.” Ghent’s husband, Blair, was in Alberta, working in the oil sands, as were most of the volunteer fire brigade members. They had unwittingly taken the keys to the fire hall with them. Someone enlisted the assistance of a surprised tourist, who helped the group put out the fire with buckets of water drawn from a nearby well. “It was a bad situation,” Ghent remembers. “And the scary thing is that it wouldn’t be much different if it happened again today.”

Ghent felt alone that night, with a fire threatening to burn out of control and her husband thousands of miles away in Alberta. In truth, she is part of a tightly knit group of Atlantic Canadian oil-patch widows. “It’s a new social phenomenon,” says David Wilson, MLA for the riding of Glace Bay, N.S.

According to Statistics Canada, more than 33,000 Atlantic Canadians moved to Alberta between 2001 and 2006. Not included in that number are the region’s thousands of invisible oil-patch commuters, men who live in Alberta work camps but have permanent homes in Atlantic Canada. An Alberta report estimates that more than half of the Fort McMurray area’s 25,000 migrant workers are from Atlantic Canada. But even without doing the math, you’d be hard pressed to find a family in Sydney or St. John’s or Glace Bay that doesn’t have a male relative working in the oil sands.

And there’s more evidence this trend is on the rise: Between 2005 and 2007, passenger traffic between the Halifax and Edmonton airports increased by 250 percent. In the past two years, Air Canada and WestJet have added four new weekly flights from St. John’s to Fort McMurray, estimating the grand total of those travelling to Alberta each year at 51,000. Airport shuttles with service to rural Nova Scotia and Cape Breton also report a boom in service from “commuter dads,” identifiable by their giant hockey bags, their morose demeanour on the way to the airport and their exhilarated chatter on the ride back home.

And while thousands of East Coast families have packed up and moved west for good, it’s Alberta’s exploding real-estate prices, and the ties to family and a distinct East Coast lifestyle, that make commuting a viable choice – even if it means splitting up families for months at a time. Keith Storey, a geography professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, estimates that a minimum of 5,500 Newfoundlanders travel back and forth to work in Alberta. This June, he launched a landmark population research project that will study, among other things, how commuting workers are affecting Newfoundland. “We know it’s happening, but we don’t really know what happens to these communities when a majority of the men are away.”

The biggest concern might be what doesn’t happen when the men are away. Little-league teams, community groups and fire departments have all been hit by the loss of male volunteers, while the women left behind are so overloaded with the demands of running a home solo that many can no longer spare the time to take their place. While women have stepped up as much as possible, it’s hard to make up for the number of men who have left.

“We’re seeing a huge decline in volunteerism,” says Ishbel Munro, executive director of New Glasgow, N.S.-based Coastal Communities Network, a rural development association. And while that might not sound so threatening, Munro points out that a lack of access to health and social services means rural communities are often much more dependent on the volunteer sector than urban areas are. Senior care, firefighting and after-school activities are all driven by the volunteer sector in Atlantic Canada. “I don’t know how long these communities can be sustainable without volunteers,” says Munro.

Then again, they might not be sustainable without the oil patch. After the Newfoundland cod industry collapsed in the early 1990s, outports like Harbour Mille seemed at risk of going the way of the fishery. But today, thanks to around-the-clock oil-patch jobs that bring home more than double local earnings – an industrial mechanic, Ghent points out, might earn $130,000 in Alberta compared with $50,000 in Newfoundland, the village sparkles with shiny trucks, glittering quad runners and newly sided saltbox houses.

Throughout Atlantic Canada, politicians and economists are struggling to come to terms with the impact of the oil-patch exodus. Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald has seen it first-hand: He estimates 20 percent of the kids on his son’s Mabou, N.S.-based hockey team have fathers who commute to Alberta. And while the families may do better economically, MacDonald admits that the extra money comes at a cost. “Whenever a loved one has to travel for work, it puts added pressures on family life,” he says. “A large chunk of responsibilities move onto the spouse.”

Of course, there are some good jobs in Nova Scotia. Rodney MacDonald points out that Halifax has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any city east of the Prairies. Much of that work, however, is in the financial services and information technology sectors, and would require an investment in retraining that some families can’t afford to make.

Susan Christie, a nursing student, full-time personal care worker and mother of three, can attest to the added burdens she shouldered when her husband of 20 years, Robert, took a high-paying job in Alberta to support the family. As she reflects on her gruelling year of single motherhood, including graveyard shifts at the nursing home where she works, late-night cram sessions, bleary-eyed commutes to class and neglected housework, tears begin to fill her intense blue eyes.

It’s a grey day in March, and Christie, 41, is looking out her kitchen window over Whitney Pier, the working-class Sydney, N.S., neighbourhood where she grew up. From her yellow bungalow at the top of the hill, you can just about see the remains of the giant steel plant that, for 101 years, employed hundreds of men from the Sydney area even as its by-products polluted the community’s waterways, seeped into its cellars and coated its homes in a fine orange dust. When the plant closed in 2002, “the Pier” fell into economic decline and joblessness. For a while, it seemed there was no hope at all. And then Alberta’s oil boom started. From where Christie stands, she can throw a stone at the houses of dozens of women just like her, who raise their families alone while their men commute to work in Alberta.

But if Christie had it hard when Robert was away, she’s quick to point out it was harder for him. “When he came back, he had lost so much weight.” Her voice trails off, and the tears come again. “It’s no place to be, those camps.” Today, Robert is home from Alberta and, having made enough money to pay off their mortgage and buy the family a new car, he’s decided not to go back until the fall. With more time on her hands, Christie says she’s now able to focus her attention on helping the women who spent the past year supporting her: her two grown daughters and her mother- and sisters-in-law, who cooked meals and did housework so she could sleep or study. “I look back and feel this huge appreciation,” she says. “All these amazing women were always there. I just didn’t know it.”

Pauline Baker, a gentle-natured personal care worker, shares Christie’s appreciation for the support she’s received since her husband began commuting to Alberta in 2006 – especially from her close friend Pamela Ghent. Like most of the municipalities where oil-patch widows abound, there are no formal supports or services for the women in Little Harbour East, a coastal hamlet in Newfoundland’s Fortune Bay with only five school-aged children. But in place of community-run after-school care and March break programs, Baker has a network of friends and family whose ongoing generosity makes her otherwise solitary lifestyle both feasible and fun. On nights when she’s too tired to cook, Baker and her son, Nathan, go up the street to her parents’ house, where warm plates of dinner are kept ready, just in case. Other days, the mother of one of Nathan’s friends might phone on her way to the local takeout, asking if Baker wants an order of poutine and chicken fingers. In return, Baker asks her brother, who works with the coast guard and lives nearby, to take the boys ice fishing on the village pond.

With her demanding work schedule and discomfort behind the steering wheel, Baker doesn’t often take her son for outings on weekends or holidays. “I’m just not one to travel without my husband,” she says. She mentioned this to Ghent once over a cup of tea. Soon Ghent was organizing trips into the city for the boys and sometimes Baker, too, taking them to hockey games and on shopping trips or to special events, such as Cirque du Soleil, which came to St. John’s last fall. “There are so many of us around that doing favours feels automatic,” says Baker, who can’t imagine what her life would be like without the help of her extended family, friends and neighbours. “It’s how we get by.”

Neighbourliness is as steady a fixture in Atlantic Canadian life as the sea is. Women on the East Coast have always had to rely on one another for support while their spouses have been working away – whether on a fishing boat or on farms in western Canada in the early 1900s, or, as is the case more recently, in Alberta. But increasingly experts are wondering whether neighbourliness is still enough to keep these communities afloat. There aren’t any programs specifically aimed at supporting the region’s oil-patch wives, which is a big mistake, says Brenda Grzetic, a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax who studies labour migration patterns within Atlantic Canada. “The women in this situation are under tremendous pressure,” she says. In cases where they don’t have extra support from other family members, she notes, their kids are in danger of having difficulties at school. Marriages are also at risk: Soon after Pamela Ghent’s husband started working in Alberta, he found himself on a crew with close to 30 other men from Newfoundland. All but two have since divorced.

But there may be a beacon of light on the horizon. Over the past year, Newfoundland’s job market has warmed, thanks to the promise of billions of dollars in investments in the offshore oil and mining sectors. Wade Locke, an economics professor at Memorial, says as many as 15,000 skilled workers may be required by 2010. However, with so many Atlantic tradespeople in the oil sands, he wonders how the province will fill the jobs. “On one hand, we have people who are keeping up their skills and qualifications thanks to work in Alberta,” he says. “On the other hand, their absence puts constraints on what we can do at home. It will all depend on whether they decide to come back.” Baker, Christie and Ghent are optimistic about the prospect of their husbands working closer to home, provided the jobs pay as well as those out west. “If there were enough jobs here that paid a living wage, no one would leave,” Christie says. “It wouldn’t be worth it.”