Cape Breton may be where the heart is, but the paycheque is six provinces away
Many men from the struggling island are enduring long separations from their families while working the oil sands of Alberta
DONKIN, N.S. -- When they were kids, they played on the Cape Breton cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The goal for the boys of Donkin was to never leave this picturesque corner of Canada, where every bend in the road brings an unparalleled view of the sea.
The men still live here and raise their families in this village of 500, but many work nearly 4,000 kilometres away, in the oil sands of northeastern Alberta. Each day at work, men like Robin Clarke, Wayne Pinhorn and Dwayne Howie tally the personal cost of travelling six provinces from home to earn a paycheque.
For Mr. Clarke, 32, the breaking point came last fall when his three-year-old son phoned from Donkin, asking for a magic wand "so I can wave it and make you come home."
The matter-of-fact plea nearly knocked Mr. Clarke off his scaffold at the Syncrude plant outside Fort McMurray. "I said, 'This is it. I'm not doing this any more. It's not worth it.' "
But Mr. Clarke stayed in Alberta another month. He came home for Christmas and would have returned to Fort McMurray after the holiday, but his wife, Cherie, was eight months pregnant.
Mr. Clarke wasn't the only homesick worker.
There are roughly 15,000 so-called commuters who work in the Alberta city of 75,000, but have permanent postal codes and families elsewhere. Many are from Canada's East Coast.
Last winter, the women of Donkin joked that theirs was a town with no men.
At the fire department, nine of the 23 volunteer firefighters were working in Alberta. Its chief, Bruce Howie, a lobster fisherman who is Dwayne Howie's brother, said he, too, might head to Alberta this fall.
Canada's airlines have noticed the trend. Air Canada recently added direct flights from Fort McMurray to St. John's and Charlottetown.
The contrasts between the struggling Cape Breton region and the super-charged Fort McMurray economy are striking. Fort McMurray has an unemployment rate of about 4 per cent. Cape Breton's jobless rate hovers near the 20-per-cent mark.
In Fort McMurray, a skilled tradesperson can clear up to $2,000 a week -- labourers only slightly less -- and bank nearly every penny of it because their room and board is paid for.
Dwayne Howie, 51, has worked every day since arriving in Alberta on Jan. 29, clocking more than 100 hours a week. In Cape Breton, the former coal miner and father of two sent out 400 applications after the last Cape Breton mine closed in 2001.
Observers say Cape Breton is losing a generation of skilled tradespeople, mostly men, at a faster rate than anywhere else in Canada, except Newfoundland.
Business, labour and civic leaders say the out-migration is not a new phenomenon; over the last four decades, as the steel and coal industries declined, the men of Cape Breton traditionally left the island to chase big construction projects.
What is new is the sheer number of men leaving every couple of months. And now, the new destination is almost exclusively Alberta, specifically Fort McMurray, 450 kilometres north of Edmonton.
Cliff Murphy, president of the Cape Breton Building Trade Council, said more than half the island's 3,600 tradespeople found work in Alberta last year.
The economic benefits to this eastern Cape Breton region are obvious. Cape Breton workers earn millions of dollars each week in Alberta, which they bring home to spend. They buy cars and boats and build dream homes. Mr. Clarke and his young family live in a three-year-old, 2,800-square-foot home, set on 10 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
But civic leaders are anxious. Out of every handful of men and women who leave Cape Breton with the goal of returning home, at least one of them leaves for good. The region's population has been steadily declining since the early 1960s. In Cape Breton Regional Municipality, which includes Sydney, Glace Bay and Donkin, the population dropped from 162,000 in 1996 to 109,000 last year. It's predicted that by 2021, the region will have fewer than 75,000 people.
John Whalley, the municipality's manager of economic development, can only watch helplessly as the shrivelling population forces schools and playgrounds to close. Rather than planning a future community, "we are managing a decline," Mr. Whalley said.
Despite the millions of dollars brought home to Cape Breton, the economic picture here remains bleak. If anything, the Alberta-bound commuters who stubbornly refuse to abandon Cape Breton are simply stemming the region's inevitable decline.
"I'll never live anywhere else," said Wayne Pinhorn, 27, who recently returned from Fort McMurray.
He's engaged to Allison Peach, a kindergarten teacher from Donkin. After the September wedding, Mr. Pinhorn will return to Alberta. He has never had full-time, steady employment in Cape Breton.
When Marlene Howie's husband Dwayne left Donkin in January, the couple's 18-year-old daughter, April, cried for two days. Their son, Sean, 20, retreated to his bedroom. The couple hadn't spent a night apart in 22 years of marriage.
Cherie Clarke was five months pregnant when her husband, Robin, left for Fort McMurray in September, along with five other Donkin men.
Ms. Clarke, 31, threw herself into her job as a physiotherapist in nearby Glace Bay, often bringing home work to keep her busy at night. Their three-year-old son Tye asked every day when his dad was coming home, so she made a calendar for the fridge. Tye put a sticker on each day that passed.
The dearth of job opportunities in Cape Breton and the family separations that result when men leave raises the inevitable question: Why don't families relocate to where the jobs are plentiful?
But it's a question that rankles. Many Cape Bretoners, like Newfoundlanders, prefer to be home. It's as if generations of coal mining has bred a stoicism in the Cape Breton character and they are willing to endure hardships to stay on the island of their forefathers.
Mr. Pinhorn's fiancée, Ms. Peach, 26, put it this way: "You can make a lot of money or you can live here. But you can't have both."
Ms. Clarke studied at Queen's University in Kingston, but never adapted to the hectic Central Canadian pace. "It felt really cold there," she said. "I couldn't get used to how you don't make eye contact with people on the street. I found it difficult to live like that."
Ms. Howie feels the same way about the town where she was born. "I don't know if it's the calmness or what it is," she said. "It's the people, too. You know your neighbours. Your family is all around you. You feel safe."
But permanent unemployment can be as devastating as the prospect of separation. By January, Mr. Howie was desperate. The severance he received in 2001 from the coal mine where he worked for 24 years had run out.
Last fall, Mr. Howie heard that labourers were needed to help lay a pipeline near Fort St. John, on the B.C.-Alberta border. He asked his childhood friend and former fellow coal miner, Blair Hunter, to go west with him. In late January, Mr. Howie made one phone call and, five days later, he and Mr. Hunter were on a plane to Grande Prairie, Alta.
Mr. Howie's departure was a dramatic shock to the close-knit family. At first, their days revolved around his rationed phone calls home. Ms. Howie did not want to leave the house for fear of missing a call.
"April will go to her boyfriend's, then call home six times, asking, 'Did Dad call? Did Dad call?' Ms. Howie said.
With no cellphone coverage at Mr. Howie's camp and just one pay phone, calls home are brief because there's a long queue of men waiting to call out. Ms. Howie prepares a list of questions to ask and tells herself to sound upbeat. She's never mentioned April's crying jag.
The first night Mr. Howie telephoned home, he was so homesick he could barely speak. Sean had friends over playing cards and Mr. Howie heard the laughter.
"I could tell he had a lump in his throat," Ms. Howie said.
In time, though, the gruelling, physical work was a tonic for Mr. Howie, who had been idle for years. He tells his wife he finds the winter Alberta landscape beautiful.
Her children, she said, stepped up while their father was away, with Sean clearing snow and running errands. Mr. Howie used to drive April to nearby University College of Cape Breton University in the mornings. She now has her driver's licence, another milestone Mr. Howie missed.
Coming home to a young, growing family after a long stint in a work camp can be a jarring experience, even for the homesick.
When Mr. Clarke stepped off the plane last December, he was stunned by the changes in Tye in just three months. "His hair was darker," Mr. Clarke said. "He looked older. It wasn't the picture I had in my mind."
His son, who had begged him on the phone to come home, was suddenly shy. The first days together as a family were an adjustment.
"When you're not at home, you develop your own pattern," Mr. Clarke said. Many of his co-workers in the camps have been divorced more than once. "It's not rocket science," he said. "If you're not at home, it's hard to keep your family together."
For Mr. Clarke, the call from Tye last fall was a wake-up call. He vowed to start his own business in Donkin so he wouldn't have to leave again.
But there is a dawning realization among many residents that these long separations are the new normal.
There is no work in Cape Breton for a man of Mr. Howie's age and skills, and few opportunities for young people.
In a couple of weeks, Mr. Howie will return home to his beloved Cape Breton and spend the summer pursuing his favourite pastimes of fishing and golfing.
But next fall he will be Alberta-bound again. And next time, the couple's son Sean plans to travel west to be with his dad.