Mexicans with sweaters

Making the journey west with Newfoundland’s migrant workers.

By Greg Locke
Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Onboard Air Canada morning flight from St. John's, Newfoundland to Fort McMurray, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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  Contrary to what mainland North Americans may think of us, a plane-full of Newfoundlanders heading to well-paying jobs in Alberta’s oil sands was never going to be a “Party Plane” full of happy people heading to a new, bright future. They might have been surprised that most passengers on Air Canada’s new direct 7:00 AM flight from St. John’s to Fort McMurray were middle-aged men with grey hair, in a somber mood for having to leave behind wives, children, grandchildren, and homes, because there is no room in the new Newfoundland economy for them and their primitive resource and trades-based skills. No, this was not a party plane. It was a plane filled with people resigned to a new life they don’t want.

 Under the surface, Newfoundlanders heading to Western Canadian oil jobs are “on the truck,” modern-day fruit pickers, the latest migration of ‘foreign’ labour in the global economy, and just the latest wave of Newfoundlanders fleeing the collapse of their own local economy.

 
Sure, Newfoundland is currently leading in Canada’s Economic Growth, Gross Domestic Product, the geeky number stuff. But the reality is that all of its economy is revenue from oil, which mostly flows out of Newfoundland to Ottawa, Calgary and Houston, right alongside the people who have lost their jobs in the province’s paper mills and fish plants. With the exception of a few thousand jobs, very little of the oil wealth makes it to the streets of St. John’s, and certainly none of it to the rural coastal communities of Stephenville, Grand Falls or Bonavista.

 WEALTH IS IN THE AIR

 You can taste the money in the air on the main streets and new suburbs of Fort McMurray. In the parking lot of the Newfoundlander’s Bar & Restaurant, I figure there is some $2-million worth of pick-up trucks. What better place to start tracking the wandering Newfoundlander?

In the parking lot at the McMurray - Newfoundlanders bar and restaurant in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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 It’s big and dark inside, with band equipment by the dance floor and a trophy case in the corner. It’s just like any club or legion hall anywhere in Newfoundland, but cleaner, and the bar and furniture are new … and it’s filling up fast with faces that look familiar. At a table in the centre of the room 20 middle-aged women are laughing loudly and ordering supper from stern young waitresses … most men huddle at the bar. I order a hot turkey sandwich. The Irish Descendants provide the soundtrack. It is a little Newfoundland: an odd mix of an Irving truck stop restaurant, a George Street bar, and any of the “lounges” you find all across the island.

 This is not the first wave of Newfoundlanders Fort McMurray has seen. Newfoundlanders have been coming here for decades. Kathy White, a waitress who came here twenty years ago with her husband, refers to the “Newcomers” when asked about the recent influx of migrant workers from “home.”

 This dividing line is evident in other conversations. The ones who have been here for awhile have taken on the demeanor of other immigrant communities, with talk about the “old country.” Sometimes it’s nostalgia, sometimes it’s distain, but either way it’s based on a sense of having “done better” — and memories of a Newfoundland that may be twenty or thirty years old. One is inclined to think Newfoundland has changed since then, that we are better off, and these people are wrong. But the exodus today feels far greater and somehow more profound than that of the 60’s and seventies.

 I join a table of four men. The youngest is 35, the oldest 55. Two have just arrived and two have worked all over the North and Alberta for years. They have something else in common besides leaving home to find work: it’s obvious that “the economy” has taken a toll on their personal relationships and, by extension, the social fabric of Newfoundland.

 William Hillard, a quiet, graying 40-year-old, ran a saw mill in the Codroy Valley employing five men. He left his family and business and came to Fort Mac late last year, but plans to go back, at least for a short period. “I promised the guys I would make a few bucks and come back to start up the saw mill again for the summer …for them. But I’ll be back here after that,” he said.

 The conversation includes good-natured ribbing about “the toys:” pick-up trucks, motorcycles, ATV’s. And, melancholy aside, everyone agrees when Hillard says “we are all here just to make some money.” Dropping another round on the table, the lean, pretty, but hard-as-nails waitress adds, “This place is just about work …work, work, work.”

 She is right. Fort McMurray is a giant work camp.

 WENT TO A GARDEN PARTY

 Fort Mac gets all the media attention about Alberta’s oil sands because the city is so dynamic and there’s growing interest in the tarsands projects. But the small city of Grande Prairie, about 800 kilometers to the west, the hub of the Peace River region, is another, more stable refuge for Newfoundlanders. It is a more established city with a 100-year-old history and a more diverse economy that includes agriculture, ranching, and forestry, along with the oil and gas industry.

 In Grande Prairie you hear the tell-tale Newfoundland accents in the hospital, schools, on construction sites, in government offices and across the aisles in the big box stores out near the airport. There are so many that Newfoundlanders even hold their own festivals and community events.

Newfoundland tattoo at the East Coast Garden party in Grande Prairie Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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 On an August evening with a cool breeze and the threat of rain, unusual for Alberta but typical of Newfoundland, I headed off to the ex-pats garden party. I got there early and watched them come across the field like some lost tribe in exile wearing their tribal colours proudly. The Newfoundland & Labrador provincial flag and the old Pink-White and Green, side-by-side with no political distinctions. Like many immigrant communities in a foreign land, the Newfoundlanders in Grande Prairie wear, quite literally, their cultural identity on their sleeves … and their chests, heads, backs, pickup trucks, and even inked into their skin.

 Finding a Newfoundland good time does not always require trekking to the far east of Canada. These people today have come from Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The people in this tribe all look familiar too me. I know their faces, but not because I know them personally; in fact I have only met a couple of them before. No, they are familiar because we are all from the same gene pool. A gene pool “the size of a Dixie Cup” as once described by Newfoundland writer Ray Guy. They are my genetic family and it’s easy to feel “at home” amongst them for displaced Newfoundlanders. Which, of course, is what makes events like this so popular with a people with such a strong cultural identity. The gathering felt like going to the Regatta or the Folk Festival in St. John’s, offering a connection to something that is uniquely your own in a foreign land.

 The East Coast Garden Party organized by Justin Elliot, resident of this northern Alberta boom town along with generations of Newfoundlanders and formerly of Gander Bay. He billed it as a “family event,” and it certainly was. It was like those I remember as a child when my parents and their friends went camping, or at large parties … the kids went, too. Watching these young families brought back long forgotten memories of my own parents, their friends, and my youth in the big extended Newfoundland ex-pat communities in Ontario in North York, Brampton, Weston and Rexdale, and weekend camping trip to Pinery Provincial Park, in the late sixties.

 There are not many “Townies” from St. John’s here. Fogo, Witless Bay, St. Mary’s, Buchans, Gander, Grand Falls, Griquet, Codroy Valley, Marystown, Red Bay…. This Diaspora is decidedly of rural Newfoundland. The accents drifting through the air in the line ups at the concession stands are noticeably Southern Shore, Fogo and Northern Peninsula.

 Dwight Penney (originally from Smith’s Harbour near Burlington) saw an opportunity to start a business selling Newfoundland iconography and seafood to East Coasters in Alberta. With his pick-up and trailer he travels from Fort MacMurray to Red Deer from his home base in Fort Saskatchewan, near Edmonton, selling Newfoundlandia to Newfoundlanders. Penney says, “This is successful because Newfoundlanders are so patriotic they never leave their culture and heritage no matter where they are. It is their identity.”

 Surprisingly, with its huge population of Newfoundlanders, Grande Prairie does not have a Newfoundland bar, club or restaurant as does Fort MacMurray, so this one day “festival” has attracted over 5,000 people.

 Like all opinion in Newfoundland circles, the pros and cons of working in Alberta, in Grande Prairie or Fort MacMurray, are split down the middle. Some love it here, some hate it. Those who came more than five years ago, before the cost of living skyrocketed, are doing fine with good salaries and cheap mortgages.

At the East Coast Garden Party in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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This is the “promised land” for them. The “newcomers” are less than thrilled with it all, and would be more than happy to leave it all behind. Successive waves of immigrants have different experiences and different feelings about the place.

 The girls dance in front of the stage, the kids play in the inflatables while the dads wait and chat. A roar goes up from the beer tent in response to some chiding from the stage. The line-up for food is 20 deep, and Dwight Penney is selling Newfoundlanders caps, decals and jackets as fast as he can take their money. The din of fun, family, friends and the relaxed comfort of being with “your own kind” underscore the bands from St. John’s blasting out the folk-trad-celt-rock music.

 As D’Arcy Broderick breaks into Sonny’s Dream on the stage, the noisy crowd goes quiet. I’m sure there isn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

 

SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN

 After a long Saturday night drive I’m back in Fort Mac and my God! is that the Ennis Sisters squealing in my ears as I stumble into the all-night café? Yup, the radio station has a Sunday morning Newfoundland music show. The middle-aged waitress in pink hot pants says, “Coffee my love?” … she’s definitely from home. Sure enough, Diane is from Conception Bay, and came here 15 years ago. She married a local man but still hangs with the Newfoundland community. She says she’s heard that over half the people in Fort McMurray are Newfoundlanders. She meets a lot of the newcomers (there’s that word again) and says, “One of the problems is that many may not really be prepared for the expensive housing, when you can find it, and the cost of everything from day one. People shouldn’t come here without money in their pocket …or, at least, friends or family to help you get started.”

Newfoundlanders running the Salvation Army shelter in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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Across the parking lot and down an alley two women are having a smoke outside the Salvation Army shelter. They run the place. Both are from Newfoundland. The older woman, the manager, came here 12 years ago; the “newcomer” is Gwen Anne Wells. She and her husband came here five months ago when they lost their jobs at the fish plant in Comfort Cove. They will soon be joined by their daughter, son-in-law and two grand-daughters, when Gwen will return to Newfoundland to “close up the house.” Her entire family will then be in Fort McMurray … and they plan to stay. When I ask about raising a family here she says, “It’s not a great place for kids. The drugs and lifestyle are rough …” her voice trails off, but then she adds, “the schools seem really good and my daughter will be staying home with the kids.” She sighs, “What are you going do? You gotta live.”

 As evening settles in I watch the Sunday afternoon parade of expensive sports cars, SUV’s (did I mention the pink Hummer?) and motorcycles cruise the main drag. The Harleys and their leather-clad, potbellied pilots have gathered at the Tim Horton’s.

 TRYING TO MAKE A LIFE

Steve Russell gets off work at Syncrude in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Greg Locke Photo © 2013

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Steve Russell and Mark Roberts are also trying to make a life here with little talk of going back to Newfoundland. Roberts, who operates a “Heavy Hauler” at the Syncrude site, is single and enjoys the work, the pay and the lifestyle it brings. Originally from Rocky Harbour, he says, “I’ve been in Alberta at various jobs for nine years. If I was home I’d be unemployed. There is no work for what I do there.”

 Russell has been working for six years to make Fort McMurray home. His sister, Michelle, who works in a machine shop, says he struggled for years before he finally landed his present job at Syncrude. Now he is building a new house for his young family in a pleasant suburb on the hill overlooking Fort McMurray. “Sure it’s expensive, but we’re making the money, so why not. I couldn’t leave my wife and kids in Newfoundland and commute,” says Russell. “Sure it’s a bit of a rough place but there are jobs, the schools are great, there is getting to be more for kids and there are good services, so….”

He’s staying.

 NECESSARY LABOUR

On May 1st, International Labour Day, thousands of Mexican workers in the United States put down their tools to protest a new American bill to restrict migrant workers, both legal and illegal. A sign at one protest in Los Angeles read, “Who’s going make your burritos now?”

 Indeed, what would happen if all the Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray and other northern Alberta oil-rig and construction sites laid down their tools? Locals estimate that 50 to 60 per cent of the area population is from Newfoundland. Would the flow of oil from the tar sands slow to a trickle? Hardly: they would just ship in more foreigners from somewhere else workers to do the jobs … as they are talking about now on the dusty streets of Fort McMurray. Last month there was talk of bringing plane loads of Chinese workers to Alberta. Maybe Russians will be next. Africans drive the cabs, people from the Middle East run the fast food joints … I guess there are just not enough Newfoundlanders to go around.

© 2013 Greg Locke

…for more photos from Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie check out our slideshow.

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Photos originally appeared in Financial Post Business magazine in June 2006 as a series of portraits of Newfoundlanders who were leaving Newfoundland for work in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  A variation of this story appeared in CURRENT magazine in January 2007 and is the basis of a documentary film, currently in production, EXIT ZERO.