For Holly Phillips, life in New Brunswick – a broken province, as she calls it – gets harder every day.
“My husband is an industrial electrician at a potash mine in Saskatoon. He’s been out West for one year. He works two weeks away, one week at home… It’s hard without him here.”
Nowhere in Canada has the plunging price of petroleum affected life more than in Alberta. But that word – the “A” word – is a noun that has had Alberta-employee wives stinging and struggling to cope for the last two decades.
“It’s been difficult juggling,” said Phillips, a mother, full-time paramedic and part-time cosmetic sales rep. “We have little other choice but to live this way.”
Despite this, it hasn’t changed the effect the constant juggling of here-and-there that many rural NB families have to deal with.
Cathy Stewart, one of the many wives of an employee of a big-time Alberta company, says having a family member who comes and goes never gets easier, only harder.
“The person leaving sacrifices much more than those left behind. We have all the comforts of home and loved ones nearby – they get a single cot in a small camp room,” she said. “They miss birthdays, anniversaries, Valentines days… holidays and even funerals. They are not gone because they want to be but because they have to go. The person at home becomes accustomed to juggling extra but you learn to cope.”
For wives like Stewart, the hardships only begin with the absence of the men in their life. While salaries of West Coast construction workers may seem glamorous, a vast majority of the women back home still opt to work for themselves and their children who have also been left in New Brunswick. This is especially true for Holly Phillips.
“I work fulltime shift work and sell Younique also, so I have little free time and I never stop. Thankfully, my daughter has a great daycare and my parents are my neighbours. Even with that, I rarely sleep.”
New-Brunswickers-turned-Albertans like Tara Arsenault and her husband Albert failed to catch a break in what many refer to as a broken economy.
“There is no work in New Brunswick and the money is not the greatest there,” Arsenault said. “I wanted to move out here for a new adventure in my life and to start over. There are so much more things to do and see here… there are jobs if you want to work… I don’t think I’d move back to New Brunswick. I love it here. There is nothing back there but family and friends.”
A number of families in New Brunswick who have been thrown into the middle of this lifestyle have grown tired of the constant juggling of leading two lives on each side of the country. For Ashley Bell’s family, living off the $18-an-hour wage common in New Brunswick was no longer an option. The only solution was to pack up everything they had left in NB and move it all out west – something that has never sat well with her.
“During one spring, we were really short on cash and [my parents] just had enough. Dad spent the whole summer applying anywhere out there,” she said. “Finally with the help of a neighbour, he got a job… I never had a problem with him being gone. I had no reason to. There was food on the table and bills were getting paid… We could have had a much better life in New Brunswick.”
However, Bell’s parents decided to relocate the summer before she entered Grade 12. Her whole world was turned upside down, but the good jobs with benefits, dependability, and opportunities quickly grew on her. Still, she finds herself longing for the familiarity of home.
“I miss the trees and how colorful it is [and] the hospitality you get back east. If I ever thought I could have the job and financial security I have here back east, I wouldn’t hesitate,” she said. “When I think about getting older and ‘growing up’, that’s where I want to do be.”
Bell says it’s heartbreaking that there isn’t enough financial security in New Brunswick. She does not want to put her future self and family through what she went through as a kid – the same situation that many other New Brunswick families are trying to avoid.
But now, after years of rapid growth in Alberta and struggling, tired families in New Brunswick, Alberta’s construction industry has already experienced and can expect more of an extended downturn. As a new report says, this will result in project delays, cancellations, and more job layoffs, forcing many of those from the East Coast to seek employment back home. This leaves many of those wives like Holly Oulton fearful.
“[The thought of] my husband having to come back to this province to work is terrifying. The economy [here] is terrible. The construction trades seem to slow more and more each year.”
When asked if they think there will ever be a chance for their husbands to come back home and have a successful, secure career in New Brunswick, most women have the same perspective as Holly:
“I hope everyday he will be able to,” she said. “We would figure something out for sure, but the future is pretty uncertain.”
Originally written for a class at St. Thomas University. Published here.