THE FORT MCMURRAY PORTRAITS
In 2006 the traffic between Newfoundland and Fort MacMurray, Alberta, was so great that Air Canada put on a direct flight to move workers across the country.
The majority were middle age men with grey hair. It was a quiet mood as they left their wives, children, grand children, and homes. They were people resigned to a new life they didn’t particularly want.
You can’t help make the analogy of being “on the truck” with modern day Mexican fruit pickers, the latest migration of foreign labour in the global economy, and the latest wave of Newfoundlanders fleeing their local economy.
My first stop was the MacMurray Newfoundlander’s Bar. At the table all agree they are all here just to make some money. The waitress adds, “This place is just about work …work, work, work.”
At Salvation Army Shelter two women are outside having a smoke. They run the place. Both are from Newfoundland. The older woman, the manager, came here 12 years ago. The other just arrived five months earlier. She and her husband came when they lost their jobs at the fish plant in Comfort Cove. Her daughter, and grand-daughters will be joining her soon and they plan to stay. She says, “It’s not a great place for kids but what are you going do? You gotta live.”
Steve Russell and Mark Roberts are also trying to make a life here with little talk of going back to Newfoundland.
Roberts is single and enjoys the work, the pay and the lifestyle it brings. Originally from Rocky Harbour, he’s been in Alberta at various jobs for nine years. If I was home I’d be unemployed he said.
Russell has been working for six years to build a life in Fort McMurray. Now he is building a new house for his young family. He says he couldn’t leave his 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 a good services, so….”
This is not the first wave of Newfoundlanders Fort McMurray has seen. Newfoundlanders have been coming here for more than twenty years. A waitress in an all night café tells me she 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 when they talk about the “old country”. Sometimes its nostalgia, sometimes its disdain, 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.