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THE 4,000 KILOMETRE COMMUTE
How the struggle for a living wage gave rise to Canada's own temporary migrant workers

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Like most towns and cities in Atlantic Canada, nearly everyone in Miramichi, N.B., knows someone who works "out West." (Photo: Sunny Freeman/HuffPost Canada)

Mark English draws out every sip of coffee, savouring the last few hours at home before a six-hour commute to work. His life straddles two provinces, three time zones apart. But his heart remains steadfastly in one.

One foot is in the pockmarked frontier of Alberta’s oilsands. The other is planted in the rolling hills that frame the mighty Miramichi river in northern New Brunswick, where he was born and wants to be buried.

He sets his brain to “autopilot” to grind out 70-hour work weeks at an oil refinery in Fort McMurray, Alta., and dreams up home renovations to relieve the boredom of nights in the work camp.

It will be two weeks until he boards a charter flight to make the 4,000-kilometre haul — equivalent to the distance from Germany to Siberia — back home for a week of respite.

English became one of New Brunswick’s thousands of long-distance commuters in August, when he jumped ship from his sinking Miramichi employer rather than risk being next in another round of layoffs.

He braves the distance, the tedium and the detachment to earn more than triple what he did at home, enough finally to save for his daughter’s university tuition and his own retirement. But the decision to join the growing class of commuter dads has taken a toll on his relationships.

Broken families, broken communities. Here, what is broken about Canada’s labour system comes into sharp focus and sheds light on the sacrifices some endure to earn a living wage in the shifting 21st century labour market.

Miramichi reflects the reality of communities in decline across Canada — from once-thriving mining outposts in British Columbia to the rust belt of Ontario to the shuttered mill towns of New Brunswick — all of which have seen good jobs disappear. The fortunes of families here are determined by the ups and downs of the global oil market, not the local economy.

With few prospects at home, workers are forced to leave their families in search of quality jobs at work camps across the country to give their loved ones a more stable life.

They are Canada’s own temporary migrant workers.

When English worked in New Brunswick, his family lived paycheque-to-paycheque. He worried about how he could afford to pay for things like his daughter’s out-of-town basketball tournaments.

“Before it was like: ‘OK, we got to go to Moncton, so we got to get a hotel, and that’s $150, so, all right, we’ll only pay half the power bill this month’.”

It was his 13-year-old daughter who suggested he try the commute. He tells himself he’s only in “Fort McMoney” until debts are paid down, then the family will be able to live off a Miramichi income. But everyone he knows who’s worked in the oilpatch told themselves the same at first.

There are so many others like him there that his work camp is like “a little home.”

“I could throw a rock and hit five Miramichiers in the hallway because there’s that many of us out there. And if you’re not from New Brunswick, you’re from Newfoundland.

“If it wasn’t for East Coasters, the West wouldn’t be built.”

The relationship is symbiotic: Communities in Eastern Canada supply labourers for the resource-rich West, while western paycheques build new homes and buy new trucks in the Maritimes. But it is also a tenuous connection — if plunging global oil prices result in stoppages in Alberta, demand for workers will collapse, resulting in mass layoffs. There would be little to keep Miramichi from becoming the next Canadian ghost town.

Oilsands money breathes life into an economy desperately in need of resuscitation. Half of downtown Miramichi’s shops and restaurants are closed and church signs that once posted Sunday services are now “for sale” signs. There is a shortage of volunteer firefighters and a decline in the number of parents who coach little league sports.

The unemployment rate is twice the national average; homelessness and addiction are on the rise, and scraping by on minimum wage is a reality for many. New Brunswick has the country’s lowest median family income at $59,300. It’s also home to seven of the 10 poorest postal codes and the highest consumer debt levels in Canada.

"You know what they say about New Brunswick’s best export right? Manpower,” Miramichi Airport manager Dale Mattinson quips as he watches eight men with duffle bags trudge toward the propeller plane waiting to transport them to work.

The Miramichi airport, little more than a trailer with 1970s wood panelling and a few plastic seats, is a temporary structure squatting on the runway of an abandoned Canadian Forces fighter training base. Miramichi never needed a commercial airport before when its economy was built on wood products, cargo too massive to be shipped by air.

But now the whole region is paying attention to how the one-room operation is growing into the hub for its new export: labour.

Few of Miramichi’s 18,000 residents are untouched by the fly in/fly out life. Everyone knows someone working away — brothers, fathers, sons, best friends. They have all faced the decision: to stay and eke out a living or to leave and make life easier, financially, for their family. But the choice wasn’t always this stark.

Northern New Brunswick was once home to its own natural resources boom. Miramichi, a densely forested natural port, was the regional centre for fishing, shipping lumber and shipbuilding. Now only scraps of those industries remain.

Just a decade ago, there were a half dozen lumber mills operating around Miramichi, providing stable, well-paying jobs where workers made as much as $70,000 a year. But a languishing U.S. housing market, the decline of the paper-based economy and a global recession closed the mills. All but one remain shuttered.

By the end of the Great Recession in 2009, the number of employers in Miramichi had dropped by one-third in five years. The number of Miramichiers with jobs fell 40 per cent to 10,000.


Miramichi’s Centennial Bridge

A single billow of smoke clouds the early morning sky above the Arbec Forest Products mill. The smell of burning wood from the city’s lone working lumber mill lingers in the air like the spectre of a better time.

Dwayne Hancock removes his hard hat and safety goggles after an overnight shift in the control room, processing some 20,000 logs before they are flaked into wooden boards used in construction.He is grateful to be back in the control seat.

After he lost his old mill job in 2007, Hancock worked at a call centre and earned $12 an hour. He completed a government training program but couldn’t find any jobs once he was done.

“I was very happy to get my job back, but it was a little disheartening to start back up at a wage less than I was making six years ago.”

A majority of the workforce have settled for pay that is half of what it used to be. Hancock has been in his current job for two years and makes $21.70 an hour, a decent amount, he says, though he’s living paycheque to paycheque, unable to set aside savings for retirement.

Many unemployed mill workers were among the first to opt for work out West, but Hancock and his buddies who still work at the mill would rather stay at home for less pay. They say those oilsands earnings come with too high a cost to their families.

“Going West shouldn’t be the only answer,” Hancock says.

As the local president of his union, he’s been told that wages are lower at the Miramichi mill because the cost of living is lower.

He’s entered talks with mill management armed with Statistics Canada data showing the costs of education, gas and groceries are on par with the rest of the country, while taxes are comparatively high. The one expense that is substantially lower in Miramichi is house prices, which hover around $125,000, one-sixth of the price in Fort McMurray.

Management’s response? “If you want to live in Miramichi, you will accept Miramichi wages. If you want a western wage, go West and you will get that wage,” Hancock recalls.

Many of the Miramichiers left behind — those with dependents, seniors, the unskilled, or those with mental health or addiction issues — don’t have the option to move.


The Sykes call centre pays minimum wage. It is one of the city’s biggest employers.

Minimum wage jobs, which pay $10 an hour — the lowest of any province — and unreliable seasonal work are what’s left to choose from.

“Minimum wage at one time was the domain of high school kids looking for a little extra money,” Hancock laments.

“And now people are expected to raise a family on that.”

There are several “now hiring” signs displayed around Miramichi. But they’re for minimum wage jobs — at McDonalds, Burger King or the nearly windowless call centre, which hopes to double its staff to 450 by Christmas.

Call centres were a staple of former premier Frank McKenna’s job renaissance of the 1990s, a period still referred to as the “McKenna Miracle,” although the jobs it created have failed to lift the province from economic decline. Instead, they have proved to be another form of low-paying, volatile work.

Many call centres have unplugged the phones and left the province in recent years, leaving New Brunswick once again scrambling to diversify from the seasonal or resource-based jobs — forestry, mining, agriculture, fishing and tourism — that have left workers heavily dependent on employment insurance.

At 61, Shirley Smith can’t fathom retirement. It is a choice she has not been afforded. She is seasonally unemployed. She needs to work more, not less.

Smith breaks open lobster claws and rips out the meat at a seafood processing plant. Sometimes she works six or seven days a week; other times it may be only two or three days, depending on the lobster harvest.

The hardest part is standing in the same spot for 12, or sometimes 15, hours a day — it aggravates the arthritis in her back. Sometimes she has to leave early and forgo the pay.

“They have stools,” she says optimistically. “But you have to pay for them, and they’re over $200 for a stool! And I’m not going to pay over 200 bucks for a stool.”

Smith makes $12 an hour and works for two months in the spring and two months in the fall. She makes about $10,000 per year. Earning an income for one-third of the year is difficult, but she manages, most recently with EI in the off-season.

Smith rents a small apartment in Miramichi for $250 a month and stretches her limited income by budgeting $50 a week for groceries and personal items.

Many of the people she worked with last year at the fish plant did not return. Some have been replaced with workers from the Philippines. But she’ll be back in the spring.

In the meantime, Smith has put up ads to clean houses for extra income; anything to keep working.

“I’ll work until I drop if I have to. I just love to work, I don’t like sitting around doing nothing.”

She doesn’t own a car, so her work options are limited — at least the seafood processor sends a van to Miramichi to transport workers like her to the plant.

Her brother works in Fort McMurray but she’s never considered leaving. She is bound by her circumstances: family challenges and her lack of education.

She is one of the left behind.


A man sells Christmas wreaths on the side of the King George Highway

Parked pickup trucks adorned with Christmas wreaths dot the highways around Miramichi. They are small businesses operating in a vibrant underground economy that, for many locals, helps to supplement low wages and offset seasonal unemployment. During downtime, they go “tipping," harvesting the tips of fir trees and forming them into wreaths to be sold for $20 or more.

Some employers contend that this culture of seasonal and supplementary work, compounded with the exodus out West, makes it harder for remaining companies to attract and retain workers. It’s part of their argument for bringing in temporary foreign workers.

“If the good people have already left for Western Canada over the past few years, then those who are left are those who didn’t have the ambition to even go out West,” says Jerry Amirault, president of the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

He doesn’t want the leftovers.

About 17,000 New Brunswickers work outside the province, while nearly 3,000 temporary foreign workers migrate into it. The unemployment rate was at 9.6 per cent in November.


Source: Oct. 2014 data from StatsCan

The nearly 1,500 temporary foreign workers in Maritimes seafood plants are more amenable and productive workers, he says.

“The foreign workers do not have families, they can work beyond 30 hours or 50 hours or whatever it is. They’re more than willing, they’re there to work, so they’re worth, to me, in full-time equivalent, about two to one.”

It’s labour economics 101: when demand for workers is high, employers raise wages to attract them. But temporary foreign workers provide a loophole for employers wanting to avoid raising wages, suggests Serge Landry, New Brunswick’s representative on the Canadian Labour Congress.

“We’re losing workers, we’re losing jobs and people are moving out. We know some employers are complaining there’s no workers but if they want workers they should be raising their wage,” he says.

“People are willing to work for a living wage.”

Lisa Williams founded Unicare Home Health Care in Miramichi six years ago and has never been able to find enough employees. Her staff help in-home patients with everything from preparing meals to washing to cleaning bedpans.

She acknowledges the culture of seasonal EI and out-migration, but she blames the lack of interested workers on an even bigger deterrent: the $12.50 an hour her employees are paid. That’s the amount the province agrees to pay to agencies like hers to cover wages. She can’t afford to top it up due to very tight margins.

But $12.50 is not a living wage, she says; her employees are members of the working poor.

Williams has looked into bringing in temporary foreign workers, but the option is too expensive for a local entrepreneur. She needs at least 10 people and each application for a worker costs her $1,000 on top of the travel costs to bring them to New Brunswick.

The government needs to realize that paying a living wage, say $14 an hour, would actually save money, she says, and change the lives of workers.

”That would be acceptable because then these women could start to earn a living and have a little bit of money left over and not feel like they’re living hand-to-mouth all the time.”

The work Williams offers isn’t glamorous, but it’s important. She points out in-home care costs the province about one-third as much as it does to keep someone in the hospital and the need for such workers is only going to rise as the population ages.

 

Miramichi is positioned at the centre of a demographic crisis that could be a serious threat to future economic growth. The population is shrinking, by 2.3 per cent from 2006 to 2011, and the average age in the community is 46, nearly six years older than Canada as a whole.

The abandoned air force base on the outskirts of town, wedged in between the airport and an industrial park, has become Miramichi’s biggest centre of development activity. The barracks have been converted into a retirement community.

Miramichi, with its safe, friendly and scenic atmosphere, is attracting retirees from around the province and the country. But retired people are not much of an economic base. They are living on fixed incomes, while their health care costs are a drain on resources. The hospital is now the city’s biggest employer.

The clientele for local businesses has shifted from workers coming in between and after shifts to seniors with limited spending money.


Miramichi, New Brunswick

Ben’s Lunch Room is an old-fashioned diner with antique red stools and lunch counter and a scant menu that hasn’t changed since it first opened in 1937. It’s one of Miramichi’s oldest businesses, owned by Mike O’Reilley, 64, who took over the restaurant when his father Ben retired.

He remembers when, in the ’50s and ‘60s, Miramichiers could do all of their Christmas shopping locally, in the downtown’s jewelry, clothing and furniture stores. Now most people visit the big-box development where Walmart and other low-cost chains have set up shop across the river.

Ben’s has weathered the city’s economic storms — from the closing of CFB Chatham to the mass mill shutdowns in the 2000s. But O’Reilley hasn’t seen a slowdown in business quite like what’s happened with the migration of workers out West.

“We didn’t see the effect of mill closures like a furniture store or a car dealership because we’re pocket change and they still have pocket change. But when people move away, you don’t see that pocket change anymore.”

O’Reilley wants to hand the business down to his own sons, but they too have joined the exodus out West, where they earn $45 an hour, much more than their father could ever afford to pay.


Mike O’Reilley, owner of Ben’s Lunch Room

As O’Reilley prepares to handle the supper-hour rush on his own, another shift of mill workers hangs up their hard hats. Across the river, Miramichi’s business community serves themselves lasagna and rolls at a buffet dinner with newly elected Premier Brian Gallant.

Just like Miramichi’s long-distance commuters, his hopes for a better future rest on Western money. Gallant’s first trip as premier was to Calgary to talk oil opportunities for New Brunswickers.

The highest elected official in this province has the same concerns as Miramichiers: Alberta represents job opportunities, but New Brunswick cannot rely on the export of people. There has to be something for them at home, otherwise more young, bright and able workers will be lost to the West.

Gallant calls attention to local success stories in his stump speech for the Miramichi Chamber of Commerce. The province needs more Sunny Corner Enterprises, he says, referencing a Miramichi company that employs locally and sells to the oilpatch.

Miramichi’s local politicians have lobbied hard for it to become the site of a new federal payroll centre. With it, the city will gain hundreds of government-paid workers who could help stimulate the economy. City Council is also working to attract more small and medium-sized businesses and a startup incubator to attract a new generation of techies.

But many Miramichiers wonder whether such small-scale developments will be enough to bring people back after decades of out-migration.


There’s no shortage of property — commercial, residential and undeveloped — for sale in Miramichi

The Miramichi River, as they say, runs through the blood of people who grew up here. It draws them back, like the river’s famed Atlantic salmon. Miramichiers who come back home to raise their families or retire say they can’t find this lifestyle in Fort McMurray or Calgary or Toronto. It’s the kind of place where people organize fundraisers for neighbours who have fallen ill.

A whole generation has grown up with their dads working away, and now they’re starting to follow their fathers out West. With fewer memories of a thriving community and no children of their own, the fear is the younger generation will make the trip with one-way tickets.

It’s getting harder to find handymen for odd jobs like painting or plumbing, because most skilled workers have left. Trade unions worry they have invested in training apprentices, only to see them go work elsewhere. If work ever returns to the region with the Energy East Pipeline, fracking or other large projects, they fear there might not be enough skilled workers to meet the call. Economists are worried about a brain drain of the brightest and most ambitious minds because there are especially few jobs for university graduates.

Brent McFarlane, 38, has two university degrees and a college diploma, but the job he was working in Miramichi paid just $20 an hour. It was scarcely enough to pay for student loans, the mortgage and daily expenses. He slogged through long hours, living paycheque-to-paycheque and falling behind every month, only to see his less-educated buddies returning from the West “living large.” So he joined the exodus.

“If it wasn't for the oilsands and people working out West, there would be a lot of people who wouldn't be living here now, there’d be a lot of people who would have to move because there’s just nothing. There’s no work here.”

It’s his last day in Miramichi with his wife, Kelly, and daughter, Lalla, in the dream home they built on six acres of land, bought with the money he earns at his $60-an-hour job at a potash mine outside Saskatoon.

On these days before he returns to work, he finds himself in a sombre, sentimental mood.

“I’d rather be home every night,” he says with a sigh.

“When I’m home, I try to make every day count, so I make breakfast with my daughter and I’m home to tuck her in at night.”

When Brent is away, the McFarlane girls slip into their familiar routine as a team of two, all three counting down the days in their heads.

When he’s home, it feels like vacation.

“It’s so routine when he’s away, that there’s no routine when he’s home,” Kelly says with a laugh.


Kelly McFarlane and her daughter Lalla, holding a picture of her father Brent, who works in Saskatchewan for 21 days of every month.

She grew up with her own father working out West. He tried to move the family out to Calgary one year, where they lasted only a few months before they craved the small-town, coastal life. Other kids in Lalla’s class are in a similar situation, though some have it worse with their dads gone months at a time.

In Lalla’s words: It sucks. But she handles it with aplomb. She knows her dad’s working away is why they took that vacation to Mexico last year, why they can afford her singing, ballet, piano and gymnastics lessons.

It’s not, however, a sustainable life. And the McFarlanes know it.

The challenges “oilsands marriages” face are above and beyond those in most relationships. There are those stories locals tell one another of the guy who left his family back home for the second family he had out West. Or the husbands who, so depressed they are away, emotionally or physically abuse their wives when they’re home. Some of the oilpatch wives end up at the Miramichi Women’s Shelter, staying just long enough to avoid their husbands.

But Brent and Kelly are determined to make this work for a few more years, before they can save enough to open their own business in Miramichi.

“If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn't do it I suppose,” Brent says.

“But I don’t want to go back to living paycheque to paycheque, so it’s a sacrifice I got to make for the time being until something better comes along.”

The McFarlanes talk about opening a lighting store in downtown Miramichi all the time, with the dim hope that someday running a local business will be a viable option.

Their plans for that day have helped Brent endure the three years he’s toiled out West, as they will help him persevere over the next 21 days.

But for now, there’s little he can do but kiss his wife and daughter goodbye and reset the countdown until he’s home again.

Sunny Freeman is the business reporter for HuffPost Canada.

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Photos: Sunny Freeman • Video: Dan Lytwyn and Sunny Freeman