Canadians go west in black-gold rush

An exodus of job-seekers heading to Alberta's 'oil patch' forces eastern Canada to import workers.

Near the foot of this hamlet's red-and-white lighthouse, fishing crews have unloaded their catches regularly ever since the first French settlers dropped anchor here three centuries ago.

Processing the catch has been central to life here from the days when families salted cod on the beaches to when they punched in for work at the large seafood-processing plant above the harbor.

But this year was different at the local seafood plant, one of the world's largest lobster-processing facilities. In a town and province renowned for fishing, the company – Ocean Choice – couldn't find enough workers, and was forced to fly in 39 guest workers from Russia to man the lines.

"We try to recruit locally, but without results," says Jon Osmann, the plant's Icelandic operations director. There are so few workers in Prince Edward Island these days that he expects to need twice as many Russians when processing resumes this spring.

From the forests of New Brunswick to the outports of Newfoundland, rural communities are emptying out as residents head west to find steadier work and higher pay in the oil fields of northern Alberta. Tens of thousands have left Atlantic Canada in recent years, leaving behind an increasingly dire labor shortage that threatens to further undermine the region's moribund economy.

"The movement to the west is significant, and there is every indication that it is going to continue for some time," says Greg Byrne, New Brunswick's minister for business, who estimates the four Atlantic provinces are losing a thousand people a month. "Oil patch companies are very aggressively recruiting our region's young people."

Canada oil reserves top 175 billion barrels

Northern Alberta's "oil patch" is booming. For decades, energy companies have known the region's forests cover one of the largest petroleum deposits in the world, with reserves in excess of 175 billion barrels, second only to those in Saudi Arabia. But most of the oil is bound up in black sand and was considered, until recently, too expensive to be worth extracting.

Since oil prices passed $35 a barrel in 2003, however, energy companies have been doing everything they can to increase production. The main limitation is getting enough people to dig, move, and process the oily sands in Alberta's frigid, sparsely settled north. Despite offering some of the highest salaries in North America, the region needs as many as 100,000 more people to man the sand mines and the frontier towns that support them.

With their own fishing, timber, and tourism industries in decline, Atlantic Canadians have been responding to the call in huge numbers. As a result, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland's populations are all shrinking, while Alberta's is growing at 3 percent a year, according to Statistics Canada.

Leaving Atlantic Canada behind?

About 11,000 Newfoundlanders now live in the main oil-patch town, Fort McMurray – the largest concentration outside of St. John's, their capital. In April, Air Canada began running direct flights between those two cities to meet the demands of workers, many of whom leave their families behind.

Oil companies have sent mass mailings urging Atlantic Canadians to "go west," while the Westfair supermarket chain has held job fairs across Atlantic Canada in an effort to hire the hundreds of cashiers and supervisors it needs to man its Alberta stores. Some Fort McMurray fast-food restaurants and convenience stores pay starting wages as high as $14.95 (US $12.93) an hour. Salaries for skilled workers are often more than 60 percent higher than in Atlantic Canada.

"They're paying wages that nobody outside that area can afford to pay," laments Vaughn Sturgeon, chairman of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association in Moncton, New Brunswick. "Almost every trucking company I know of in Atlantic Canada is looking for drivers and can't find them."

"You're already seeing early signs of projects being delayed or decided against because of this outflux of workers," says Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. "It's a critical situation that jeopardizes economic growth."

Atlantic Canada's population has been aging for many years, as young people move to more prosperous areas. That's created a dearth of young entry-level workers, particularly in rural areas. Many of those who remain are employed in seasonal industries like fishing and tourism, and in some cases can make more collecting unemployment in the off-season than by taking jobs offered by convenience stories or seafood processors.

"The welfare state is more attractive than many entry-level jobs," says Mr. Cirtwell. "Retailers and restaurants simply can't get the people."

The situation is compounded by a dearth of foreign immigrants, according to Richard Gauthier of the Moncton-based Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). "Even when we're able to attract immigrants, they don't stay here," he says. "They come for a few years and then migrate to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver."

A 2004 ACOA survey of immigrants to the region found that their primary source of dissatisfaction was a lack of economic opportunities.

Prince Edward Island has had modest success in retaining immigrants and attracting islanders home from other parts of Canada. It is the only province in Atlantic Canada that is not losing population, notes Michael Currie, the island's minister of development. He credits the island's small but prosperous aerospace industry, which now employs over 800 people – a significant economic driver in a province with only 138,000 residents.

"We've somehow managed to bring home more people than we've lost," Mr. Currie says, noting that many islanders would return if the economic opportunities were there. "Fort McMurray offers big money, but it's absolutely no place to take a family."

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