I will show my age in this piece. In the end, I hope to make a point – maybe not one that is surprising but still worth telling.
Have you ever heard of a telex? Compared to today it is ancient. In 1971, it was a remarkable telecommunications device that I encountered when I joined the federal manpower department in Grand Falls as an employment counselor.
Upon encountering this wonderful piece of equipment, I found out that I could communicate to other offices by originating a message from our office and send it instantly to other manpower offices across the country.
At the time, central Newfoundland had many operating mines and some closures. There was quite a good mining culture in the region, and there were both skilled and often unskilled workers who were willing to move to new mines across the country.
With one interview and a brief telex outlining qualifications, in no time I could be sending somebody to a mine in Ontario or Manitoba. No big human resource departments were involved, just my recommendation that the worker was genuine.
The department had a program that paid the moving costs for the worker and family. You won’t find that anymore, but as a newly-minted councillor I took full advantage of it.
I don’t know how many we sent across the country, but in its heyday, and over several years, our office was pretty big in the moving business. Major local industrial projects benefited from this service too, i.e. Churchill Falls hydro construction, mines in Labrador and others.
Our countrymen have always been a mobile crowd.
Before confederation the number of locals headed for the “Boston states” (New York and Boston) was a pretty big deal for our mobile workforce. Newfoundlanders were known as great workers, building skyscrapers in New York. Then after confederation, Toronto and Ontario seemed to be the place to go. Our workers had a great reputation.
I met a guy here in rural Ontario who flew our provincial flag on his property. I passed by his place a few times and finally drove in his driveway. I said I was looking for a Newfoundlander. There had to be one here somewhere.
I was pointed down the driveway to a man who, in a few short minutes, told me his story. He was the product of a family who in the 1950’s moved to Ontario. He never lived in the province but his relationship was pretty strong through his parents and extended family. The flag prominently displayed in front of his house was his statement of allegiance.
Folks in the Southwest coast part of Newfoundland probably did not see this play out quite as I describe. The strong presence of the railway and ferry operations in this region were big employers at the time. Likewise, the almost year-round fishery that had deep sea operations and fish plants benefited the regional workforce greatly.
However, in later years, with employment diminishing in these sectors, the southwest coast workforce became more mobile. Along with the rest of the province, the Alberta oil and gas economy became a magnet. My seasonal visits back here were highlighted by much new housing, evident in the more rural communities especially. I was told much of that came from Alberta “oil money.”
There’s been lots written about how the Alberta’s booming economy benefited Newfoundland and Labrador. A CBC piece I came upon, written last year, is still relevant to the situation today.
It comes as no surprise that many workers in the “fly-in, fly out” category work largely in the oil and gas sector. Those workers have seen quite a change the past year or so as Alberta’s unemployment rate shot up to around 11% in 2020. The same year, the Alberta economy shrank by almost 6%. These are big numbers for this usually prosperous province and local workers and their communities in NL have no doubt felt it.
As another point of reference, my source points out that in 2014 Newfoundland and Labrador, workers made nearly $1.1 billion working outside the province and $700M of that was earned in Alberta. My information is that, at its peak in 2018, 14,000 people from the province commuted to work in Alberta alone.
There is always some lag in getting current information, but we know the situation has greatly worsened in recent years. As news stories tell us, for our mobile workforce the COVID pandemic has only made things worse.
Whatever recovery there is for the oil and gas sector, both in Newfoundland and Alberta, things will likely be slow and never reach the highs experienced in past years.
My personal experiences which I just recounted shows worker mobility has been ever thus in Newfoundland Believe it or not, the mining industry today shows real promise, but we need more to happen to take up the slack of a diminished oil and gas industry both within the province and in Alberta.
Where do we go from here? The precarious state of the provincial economy is for all to see and there is an urgency to address our future prospects.
Newfoundland is the victim of a vastly changed economic landscape, both locally and in Canada. The reliance on out-of-province employment has seen better days. God knows we don’t need more out migration. Better heads than mine will be seized with this, and we hope our politicians can cooperate in a unity of purpose to help make things better.
Oh me nerves!
Larry Peckford and his wife, Dianne (née LeRiche), have lived in Ottawa for the past 10 years, but keep a seasonal residence in the Codroy Valley. Larry has worked as a NL public servant and community volunteer. An occasional blogger, he also writes other pieces of personal interest. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.