A Commute Worth Keeping: Working in Fort McMurray lets families stay at home in popular Newfoundland

By Andrew Robinson - Wednesday, June 1 2011

When Perry Budden was growing up, his family made a living off the fishery, like many others based in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

Born and raised in Salmon Cove, a community of 700 on the northeastern portion of the Avalon Peninsula and a little over an hour’s drive from the capital city of St. John’s, Budden was unsure where his future lay. But if his father Orville was going to have his way, Perry wouldn’t follow in the elder Budden’s footsteps.

“He didn’t want me at it,” says Perry, 39, of the fishery lifestyle.

Budden returned home in 2008 to live in the neighbouring community of Victoria with his wife Becky and their two children, Courtney and Calen, after 14 years living in Edmonton. He now takes advantage of a work arrangement that’s commonplace for many people in Newfoundland and Labrador and helps rural communities stay alive.

The collapse of the Northern Cod fishery that led to the 1992 moratorium was devastating for Canada’s most eastern province. A commodity that was the prime attraction for settlers who came to the island in the early 1600s, by the early ’90s the spawning biomass of Northern Cod had decreased by at least 75 per cent in all stocks. An estimated 35,000 fishers and plant workers in 400 communities became unemployed as a result of the moratorium.

The opportunities for employment in the skilled trades was enticing, and with business booming on Alberta’s oil sands, employment in Fort McMurray became the best option for thousands of young Newfoundlanders.

After coming home in 2008, Budden learned of an opportunity to work as a welder for SMS Equipment. Instead of relocating the family back to Alberta, Perry entered into an arrangement where he would work 12 days straight and then take a 12-day break.

“He spends more time with the children now than he did when he was working full-time,” says Becky Budden, a licensed practical nurse. When he lived in Edmonton, Perry was working six days a week, severely limiting his time with the kids.

In the summer, the Buddens go on camping trips, and they see relatives from both sides of the family on a regular basis. Perry says the children are particularly fond of living in Newfoundland for the latter reason.

The gaps between seeing dad is a reality the children are accustomed to now, though Becky says Calen sometimes finds it hard, as he loves accompanying his father on skidoo rides.

A half-hour drive from the Buddens lives Upper Island Cove’s Glen Adams. Born and raised in the town of 1,700, Adams is a construction worker employed by Canonbie Construction in Fort McMurray.

He started working insulation jobs for the company in 2005, and he found his situation hard at first due to spending six months straight in Fort McMurray while his wife Christine and their two children, Kristen and Ryan, remained home. However, he made the switch to a shift based schedule in 2006, and has stuck with it ever since.

Having a weeklong break between his 14-day shifts gives Glen plenty of time to handle household renovations, and he’s flexible when it comes to family vacations. This March, Glen and Christine went on a weeklong trip to Mexico.

“Me and my wife usually do it once a year, just to spend some time together alone,” he says.

Like Perry, Glen, 42, is married to a nurse, and their combined salary allows them to live comfortably in their home community. While working in Fort McMurray, Glen has also made plenty of friends.

“They’re not from Fort McMurray, but they’re from all-over the island. A lot of guys I work with are from Marystown, St. Lawrence, Clarenville, and from my own home area of Upper Island Cove and Bryant’s Cove.”

He also keeps in touch with his family back home every day he’s away, whether by phone or through online video chat.

Located between Upper Island Cove and Victoria is Carbonear, a community of 5,000 residents that’s commonly considered the hub of the Conception Bay North region. It’s a service centre for dozens of communities, almost all of whom have multiple families with a partner commuting to Fort McMurray.

“They spend their money in the area, so it’s great for the economy, and even though you’re working in Fort McMurray, you’re still adding to it here,” says Carbonear mayor Sam Slade. “All this money is going into the local economy, and it’s very important that happens.”

The community has experienced an upswing in business activity, and further investment in schools and healthcare facilities is leading to the construction of new buildings. Overall tax revenue for the municipality in 2010 grew by $325,000 over 2009 figures for a total of $4 million. Residential construction was also up, with 32 new homes built compared to 18 in 2009.

Carbonear is only an hour’s drive away from the capital city of St. John’s, but Mayor Slade says many communities consider his town to be their own St. John’s when it comes to fulfilling shopping needs. The community is home to a Walmart, multiple chain restaurants, three grocery stores, a mall, and two technical colleges. It’s also the site of Carbonear General Hospital, which has 80 acute care beds.

“Carbonear is a wonderful community, and we not only depend on the people in our town, but also the people outside of our town to come and spend their money here,” says Mayor Slade.

So long as work opportunities in Fort McMurray remain for folks like Perry Budden and Glen Adams, the odds are strong that Carbonear will remain “wonderful” for many years to come.

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