Alberta the land of opportunity for more and more Canadians
In the last six years, nearly half a million people have moved to this province from elsewhere in the country
Richard Foot, CanWest News Service
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Last January Louise LeBlanc and her husband Dave German packed their belongings, bid farewell to Nova Scotia and trekked 3,600 kilometres across the country to Calgary.
They left behind a good life in the small, coastal town of Meteghan, N.S., where Dave worked as a welder in a local shipyard, and Louise cooked meals for disabled adults. But, with its promise of sky-high wages, beckoned Alberta -- a place where the couple could sock away enough money for a comfortable retirement in 15 years.
Dave had six job offers in Alberta before he even arrived. Louise had three. Together they now earn twice what they once did on the East Coast.
What's more, their Calgary neighbourhood almost feels like home. Thirty other Nova Scotians have settled over the past year within two blocks of where Louise and Dave now rent a house, all lured by the cornucopia of fast jobs and fabulous money.
"I'm still shaking my head at what happens here," says Louise. "It's incredible. I think it's the best move we ever made."
Louise and her husband are part of a tidal wave of Canadians to move to Alberta in the last two years -- a pair of pilgrims on a great continental trek that has burgeoned into the largest mass migration in the nation's history.
Canada has seen larger movements of immigrants into the country before, particularly in the decades after the First and Second World Wars, when millions of foreigners flooded into Canada from Europe.
MIGRANTS FLOCKING IN
But never have so many people migrated internally from one part of Canada to another as they have done since 2001. In the last six years, 474,000 people -- 12 per cent of the province's existing population -- moved to Alberta from somewhere else in Canada.
The phenomenon took off in 2005, when more than 100,000 migrants arrived in a single year, according to the province's finance department.
In the first nine months of 2006, the most recent period for which figures are available, the great trek continued to gain pace, with 102,000 Canadians moving into the province. Between July and September, another 24,500 people from other provinces moved into Alberta, pushing its population up to 3,413,500 people.
Even when "net" figures are factored in -- the difference between incoming and outgoing migration -- 2005 and 2006 broke records. In 2005, net interprovincial migration to Alberta reached 51,000 people, the highest calendar-year number ever recorded for a single province until 2006, when, after only nine months, the number had reached 51,400.
Statistics Canada, which measures its figures across fiscal years, says between 2005-06, Alberta made a net gain of 57,000 interprovincial migrants. The closest any province has come to that was Ontario, with 46,000 net migrants in 1986-87, and Alberta with 45,900, during its last oil boom in 1980-81.
"We have not had interprovincial movement on this scale before," says Rod Beaujot, a demographer at the University of Western Ontario. "The number of internal migrants these last two years, the country has never seen anything like it."
The exodus is having a clear impact on many contributing provinces, with the exception of British Columbia. Although B.C. is one of the largest contributors of people to Alberta, B.C. still gains more interprovincial migrants than it loses.
The rest of the country doesn't fare so well. In the first nine months of 2006, every province except B.C. suffered large net losses of migrants to other parts of Canada, thanks to the flight of human labour to Alberta.
Ontario lost nearly 24,000 people during the first three quarters of 2006, while Atlantic Canada lost more than 10,000, Quebec lost more than 9,000, and Saskatchewan lost almost 5,000 people.
"The big reason of course is the oilsands expansion. That drives employment and demand for labour all over the province," says Harry Hiller, a sociologist at the University of Calgary, and director of the Alberta In-Migration Study.
Hiller says Alberta witnessed a similar wave of new arrivals during its last oil boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet that produced a more gentle migration wave, unlike 2005 "when all hell broke loose" and the number of net migrants jumped from 19,000 in 2004 to 51,000 the following year.
Another difference this time from 1980, says Hiller, is the arrival of migrants directly from Atlantic Canada, whose people have in the past settled mostly in Ontario before heading further west.
"Today they're bypassing Ontario and jumping right into Alberta," he says, "so that you now have huge communities in Alberta filled with people from the same regions of the east coast."
Hiller says the town of Brooks is filled with migrants from Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, while Fort McMurray is a magnet for folks from Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, and Calgary is now home to thousands of newcomers from St. John's.
"If somebody tells me where they come from in Newfoundland, I can tell you where they live in Alberta," Hiller says.
COST OF LIVING HIGHER HERE
What's harder to know is how long the current tide of migration will continue. Extraordinary housing prices in Alberta may temper the flow, especially from provinces where the cost of living is far more competitive.
Already there are signs that many migrants are forsaking a permanent move in favour of temporary work stints in the oilsands, sending their paycheques back east where their families still live.
This year a number of airlines launched special flights between cities on the East Coast and Fort McMurray. Air Canada also began marketing an "Oil Pass Express," a special fare for six one-way trips between Fort McMurray and the East Coast, designed for temporary oilsands migrants.
But, as the numbers make clear, tens of thousands more people are still moving into Alberta than are moving out. The Conference Board of Canada predicts that while the current deluge should slow somewhat, Alberta is likely to average a net gain of 30,000 migrants a year for the next quarter-century.
Those who have already made the move know they're part of something big.
Since coming to Calgary in January, Louise LeBlanc has welcomed dozens of fellow migrants from Nova Scotia's southwest shore, offering newcomers a place to stay before they can find their own home.
"It's weird being part of this movement," she says. "When my parents were young in Nova Scotia, they all went down to Boston after high school. That's where you went to make money. My mother keeps telling me it's the same thing now, only the destination is Alberta."
NO FUTURE IN SASKATCHEWAN
Tyler Smith, a 25-year-old engineer from Meadow Lake, Sask., traded his job in Saskatchewan's smaller oil industry for the better pay and bigger action of Fort McMurray, where he now works for OPTI Canada, an oilsands developer.
"All my friends have moved to Alberta as well as my entire family. There just didn't seem to be a future in Saskatchewan for me," he says.
Smith calls it "kind of neat" to be part of an historic mass movement of people, but says the deluge doesn't surprise him.
"I could stay in Saskatchewan and live on a small salary, drive a beat-up second-hand car and retire when I'm 65 on a small pension. Or I could live in Alberta, have a large salary, drive a brand-new car or truck and retire when I am 45 or 50 on a large savings or pension plan. It makes the decision pretty easy if you ask me."
Jordan and Julia Keller were more reluctant to leave Saskatchewan, where the young chemistry graduates worked hard to find decent-paying jobs in their fields. They eventually succeeded, but the arduous, frustrating job-hunt convinced them their careers would stand a much better chance in Alberta.
"If I looked for a job for six months in Regina," says Jordan, "I might find two to three chemistry-related jobs. But I'd have 40 other recent graduates, plus other more experienced people competing for them. On the other hand, if I went to the University of Calgary website right now I'd find 20 to 30 available jobs in the same field. That's the difference."
Both Jordan and his wife landed science jobs in the oil-and-gas sector after receiving multiple offers in Calgary. But what impresses Jordan most about Alberta is how much cash people can make without much education.
"You'll find high school dropouts on the oil rigs here making $20 to $30 an hour," he says. "It's really quite amazing how much money there is in this province."
As a schoolteacher, Jolene MacNeil never expected to make a lot of money, only enough to pay off her student debts and enjoy a decent income. But finding a job in the school system in her native Cape Breton, N.S., proved to be an impossible challenge for a young teacher looking for her first break.
Her life changed at an education job fair in Prince Edward Island, where she was hired on the spot by visiting recruiters from the Catholic school board in Fort McMurray. Her starting salary was almost twice what she would have earned in Nova Scotia, and she was offered a full-time job teaching any grade level she wanted.
In September, after a year in Alberta, MacNeil won a prestigious provincewide award for excellence in first-year teaching.
"It's interesting being part of this big westward migration," she says.
"I really miss Cape Breton. It was sad to leave. But what alternative do people like myself have? You have to go where you can make some money, pay off your loans, and have a career."
EVEN TEENS MAKE BIG BUCKS
Although she's thrilled to be working in Fort McMurray, MacNeil says she'll never get used to the fact that some teenagers in the city earn more money working summer jobs in the oilsands than their schoolteachers make all year.
But then every migrant has their own strange tales from the front lines of the Alberta boom.
Lousie LeBlanc says she was literally "begged" to take on a job with a Calgary catering company.
Jordan Keller says he has colleagues who migrated from Ontario, whose teenage children had their moving expenses paid by grocery store chains, desperate to fill jobs at their Calgary locations.
"Imagine a grocery store paying its staff to transfer to another province. It's mind-boggling," he says. "I think this is something that we'll look back on one day and be able to tell our kids: 'I moved to Alberta in this big cross-country migration. I was there during this crazy time.'"