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The 1,300 km commute (Part 2: The community)

There are about 5,000 Okanagan residents who currently work in the Fort McMurray area and spend their days off in our region. - Wade Paterson/Capital News - File
There are about 5,000 Okanagan residents who currently work in the Fort McMurray area and spend their days off in our region.
— image credit: Wade Paterson/Capital News - File

Approximately 5,000 people from the Okanagan currently commute to northern Alberta for work on a regular basis.

The motivation to work up north varies for each individual.

The first story in this series, Part 1: The people, introduced Neil Wells and Pamela Black, a young couple who went from renting an unfurnished Rutland apartment to owning a contemporary north Glenmore home in less than three years, thanks to Wells’s job with Syncrude.

Tony MacKenzie explained working in a camp north of Fort McMurray is a temporary solution for him and his family. He wants to be working closer to home.

Abra Playfair, a paramedic from Fraser Lake, said it hasnt always been easy being the only woman on her crews in the northern Alberta and B.C. oil fields, but the paycheque keeps her coming back.

Each of the 5,000 local commuting workers have different storiesall of which led to Fort McMurray.

But regardless of what lured them, their lifestyles have impacted our entire region.

Perhaps the most obvious effect is the economic impact the Okanagan experiences from having well-paid workers spending most of their days off here.

“Its not really any big secret in terms of the amount of income generated through a lot of those positions, says District of West Kelowna business development officer John Perrott.

Perrott will be one of several Okanagan representatives visiting Fort McMurray and Edmonton home shows this spring. The goal is to show potential future residents they can easily root themselves, and their families, in the Okanagan while they periodically fly out to work in northern Alberta.

WestJet Encores recent announcement of daily non-stop flights connecting Kelowna and Fort McMurray will likely help the home show sales pitch this spring.

“Certainly were targeting higher income individuals. So we hope the spin-off there, in very basic terms, is that theyre coming here to spend that money, says Perrott.

According to Robert Fine, executive director of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, the COEDC was represented at last years Fort McMurray home show, which he says brought out about 15,000 visitors in one weekend.

“It started as a conversation with a number of larger developers. If you look at the number of large scale proposed developments that are on the books in the region, its pretty significant, says Fine.

“(They) said, ‘Is there any way we could collectively look at selling our region to that part of the world?’

“We did a little foray into the Fort Mac marketplace (last year), just to see what it would be liketheres a lot of interest.

He adds that interest is likely to grow with WestJet Encores announcement of regular flights to and from the region, starting this May.

According to COEDC’s 2013 economic profile of the Okanagan Valley, Alberta buyers accounted for 17 per cent of local real estate sales.

Although its unknown what percentage of those purchases were made by commuting workers, there were more real estate sales involving two-parent families with children (29 per cent) than sales involving empty nesters or retired individuals (20 per cent).

Fine says he isnt surprised 5,000 Okanagan residents have already chosen to commute to northern

Alberta for work, noting the local business base is fairly diversified, but fairly small in terms of size of companies.

He notes 97 per cent of local companies have less than 20 employees.

“You always have the lure of large, mega corporations that are spending significant money in the natural resource setting. So I think thats a natural flow, where young people see an opportunity to make significant dollars and work very hard.

While attending the Fort McMurray and Edmonton home shows, the Okanagans economic development leaders will also be selling the valley as a vacation destination to help bring in tourism dollars.

For Nancy Cameron, president and CEO of Tourism Kelowna, thats good news.

“The tourism industry supports over 7,000 direct jobsits a critical industry for this area, says Cameron.

“Our marketing wheels have already begun to turn.

Perrott sees the tourism draw as a great way to turn visitors into future residents.

“The first time somebody has a touch of the Okanagan lifestyle, its going to probably be through tourism, he says.

“Hopefully its welcomingand people feel like: Hey, this is a place I’d want to live.

But aside from economic benefits, there are other ways a commuting workforce impacts our region.

Students of Dr. Mary Ann Murphys third- and fourth-year Sociology of the Family undergraduate course at UBC Okanagan often discuss and debate the changing Canadian family.

Topics the classes discuss include: Why are women having fewer children? Why are people delaying the age in which they marry? Should young people be allowed on Facebook?

But last week, Murphys class found themselves talking about commuter couples.

“Although this is a family form thats more common these days, we cant say that its brand new, says Murphy.

“Instead of one of the (partners) sailing off to sea like they used to do hundreds of years ago, these days, one of them just flies up to Fort McMurray.

And that relationship comes with positives and negatives

“Research shows that they have the benefit of, every time they get together, its like a honeymoon, really, she says.

“The problem comes when one of them finally comes home to roost. The problem seems to be in that re-adjustment phase, when they finally do live together.

The associate professor in the School of Social Work and Department of Sociology says there are clear economic upsides from having locals working in northern Alberta and spending their days off in the Okanagan.

But, she suggests, family relationships could be affected negatively.

“The impact at the family level could get interesting, because it would mean that the mother (or father) would be left all week with the kids. That wont be easy for the person who stays behind.

“And then youd have the person coming back after (their work shift) and imposing their own rules and discipline. That could lead to some conflict.

Avril Paice, director of community investment with United Way of the Central and South Okanagan/Similkameen, says she often hears from some of the charities they work with about how the commuter lifestyle impacts families.

“In general, I would say that it causes stress on a family, says Paice.

“Basically youre taking a member of the family away from the family for a significant portion of the year.

She says its difficult for the person who is working up north, because they typically work intense shifts for extended hours without seeing their families in person for weeks, or even months at a time.

“Theyre living a very split life and theyre having a lot of time that theyre away from their loved ones.

“For that personits most often dads who are awayits a significant amount of stress.

While that member of the family is away, those back home also experience difficulties, Paice adds.

“Most often we hear about it in terms of a spouse and children at home, trying to cope with dad being away for significant periods of timeoften two or three weeks.

“So theres a parent at home who is being a single parent, often juggling a job themselves and all of the things the kids need.

Paice notes even some seniors, who are parents of workers in Fort McMurray, have been impacted by their children working in another province. “If thats a support system being separated, then that can be a problem.

The United Way CSO has relationships with about 100 charities in the region.

Paice says a large percentage of people who rely on those charities have low income and are not able to meet their basic needs.

Those who are able to bring large paycheques home to their family are less likely to utilize the charities for that reason.

However, there are still many who are in need of services for non-income related reasons, according to the United Way director of community investment.

“What we hear from the charities who we work withis theyre providing supports to the families in terms of the ongoing transition and the effects of family life.

“Childcare, supports for seniors, families having to work on communication and those who can no longer do that workand need to retrain for other jobs. So the charities are serving all of those needs.

All of the individuals interviewed in the first article of this series agreed there are benefits and challenges associated with working in northern Alberta.

But they, as well as the 5,000 others who periodically travel to the Fort McMurray area for work, have decided, for the time being, the pros outweigh the cons.

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com

Twitter: @PatersonWade

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: The people

Part 3: Getting there

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