Morgan Perry was one of about 150 people who attended a job fair in Fort McMurray in the summer that came with an unlikely sales pitch: Pack up and head to Halifax.
Hosted by Irving Shipbuilding, recruiters travelled to Fort McMurray because of the large number of Maritimers in Canada’s oil-sands capital. The 43-year-old Mr. Perry, however, isn’t one of them. His family has deep roots in Alberta. One of his grandfathers was born in a covered wagon outside the town of Olds.
A journeyman welder and pipefitter, Mr. Perry has done well in Fort McMurray, his home for the past 15 years. “It was booming. They were crying for people with my skill set,” Mr. Perry recalls over a bottle of Pepsi at Fort McMurray’s downtown Tim Hortons.
The crash in oil prices over the past year, from around $95 (U.S.) to about $47 per barrel, has hit him particularly hard. The drop occurred just as he was getting his one-man mobile rig-welding business off the ground. His income has dropped drastically and contracts remain spotty. Meanwhile, his rent is unchanged at $2,000 per month plus utilities for a two-bedroom trailer he shares with his girlfriend and her daughter.
The Maritimes have long been portrayed as an area of economic stagnation, with a stream of job-seekers headed to all points west. However, it may be time to re-evaluate that depiction. Opportunities are appearing across the Atlantic region for the first time in a generation and the latest slump in Alberta has some considering a move east.
Mr. Perry, a born-and-bred Albertan, is among those now contemplating building a new life in Atlantic Canada. The shipbuilder needs at least 250 skilled workers for its Halifax shipyard. Mr. Perry would be moving to a region that has experienced the good and bad of Alberta’s economic roller coaster.
Doug MacLeod has tracked the strength of the oil patch through his order book in the small Cape Breton town of New Waterford for decades. In this downturn, the first storm clouds have already rolled in from the west. Thousands have been laid off in the energy sector and demand for his plumbing work has levelled off.
“The oil sands are what’s been keeping this island alive,” Mr. MacLeod said from his storefront on New Waterford’s main drag. “The guys that fly home from the west are running the economy with their new trucks and the renovations to their homes.”
Despite the slowdown and the number of tradesmen now between jobs, the signs of oil money are still everywhere in Cape Breton. Homes have freshly painted siding and neat yards. Large pickup trucks, nicknamed “out-west trucks” by locals, sit in many driveways. Nearly everyone in the Maritimes has a friend or family member who has taken a job in Alberta.
With Alberta’s economy sliding into recession and likely to stagnate for the next two years, Mr. MacLeod and many others are worried about what comes next. Some former oil-sands workers are home now and waiting for a call to head back west, but others have seen this as the right time to chart a new course and find an alternative to the hard lifestyle of fly-in, fly-out contracts and sleeping in work camps.
“There was an opportunity for me to come home earlier this year and I took it. I could sleep in my own bed, be home every day,” said Rob Stevens, 33, from the Whitney Pier neighbourhood of Sydney. Now a car salesman in his hometown, he had been flying between Fort McMurray and Nova Scotia monthly for two years.
While no one is suggesting a sea change is afoot regarding Alberta and the Maritimes, some of the hardest-hit communities out east are showing promising signs after years of decline.
One of the brightest spots has appeared in Halifax, where a series of white buildings has risen along the harbour. The $350-million structure is North America’s largest covered shipbuilding facility, the length of four football fields and 46 metres high. Using steel from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., construction of Canada’s new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships began in the facility on Sept. 1. Work will continue for about 30 years as up to 2,500 people will build the next generation of Canadian warships in Halifax.
One of the newly employed shipbuilders will be Ross Higgins. After two years of working in the oil sands, the Halifax native says he’s ecstatic to finally be employed at home and “live the Maritime dream.” In late August, he got the word from Irving that he had been hired to work in the shipyard. The welding he learned in Alberta’s oil patch will now be put to use in Nova Scotia.
“The timing is perfect. In the back of my mind, I always knew about the shipbuilding and thought that maybe I’d try it. Now I can,” he said. “It’s a pay cut, but I get to sleep in my bed and work seven hours a day. Sixty-five thousand dollars isn’t a bad wage for a guy to live on.”
While he enjoyed the hefty salary in Fort McMurray, he’s happy to leave behind the uncertainty of life in the energy sector.
“I was getting onto a plane in Halifax last January to go back to Alberta. While I was waiting for the plane, one of the guys sitting across from me was also going back to work and he got a phone call. They literally laid him off at the airport as he was headed back,” said Mr. Higgins. He got a similar call weeks later. Months of uncertainty followed before he was hired by Irving.
According to Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia’s Premier, the good news for workers like Mr. Higgins was years in the making. After decades of interprovincial barriers hampering the easy movement of workers, a labour-mobility pact was signed by Alberta and Nova Scotia last August. The agreement made the apprenticeship training Mr. Higgins took transferable between the provinces.
“To be perfectly frank, we’re seeing some encouraging signs. Irving is cutting steel now. We’re seeing resource projects across rural Nova Scotia,” said Mr. McNeil from his Halifax office. “Irving could have never had a job fair in Alberta without a reciprocal agreement. You couldn’t go back and forth. With these megaprojects that are happening, that was part of the rationale, so that we could repatriate sons and daughters who wanted to come home.”
There will be spinoffs from the shipbuilding that should boost the wider economy. Irving says 8,600 jobs are currently being supported by shipbuilding. The enthusiasm has spread across the region. While the economy remains sluggish in New Waterford and dozens of small towns like it, even Cape Breton is seeing positive signs.
Near Mr. MacLeod’s shop, a new colliery is about to begin operations in the town of Donkin, restarting an industry that had appeared extinct when the last coal mine closed in 2001. The new mine is a largely automated operation, but even the first 120 positions that have become available are crucial to the local economy. Once production starts, the mine is expected to provide thermal coal for the next 30 years.
“Cape Bretoners by their very nature are a working culture. We don’t have a management culture, we don’t have an entrepreneurial culture, we have a working culture,” said Cecil Clarke, mayor for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. “I can probably suggest that there is nowhere else in Canada right now where the public is calling for a coal mine to open.”
The activity comes at a time when local mines and factories have been shuttered for a generation. While traditional industries like fishing and forestry remain strong, they can’t sustain a modern economy. The unemployment rate in Cape Breton’s former industrial heartland stands at 14 per cent and the population has fallen by one-fifth over the past two decades. Of those that remain, a third of their children live in poverty.
The statistics are startling. But for the first time in years, Mr. Clarke and other local leaders say there is reason for hope. He’s now eyeing a proposed liquefied-natural-gas facility recently approved by the National Energy Board, as well as long-term plans to open a shipping terminal.
“The glass is half empty and we’re in the throes of getting it to half full,” said Mr. Clarke. “If I’m not optimistic and not pushing for change, what’s the alternative, the last person shuts off the light? That isn’t acceptable.”
NEW WATERFORD, N.S. — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 8:38PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Oct. 12, 2015 8:42PM EDT