The Fort Mac phenomena

Alan Holman
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Unemployment and the lack of jobs were featured in the Legislature this week.

Innovation Minister Allan Roach was accused by the Opposition of being anything but innovative when it comes to job creation. Steven Myers, who is presently the Opposition leader, quoted Statistic Canada figures that show for every job opening on the Island there are 20 people looking for work.

Proving that it is possible to find statistics for any situation, Mr. Roach also used Statistics Canada numbers that he claims show the Island is third in the country when it comes to job creation, only trailing Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“Last year we had the highest number of people working full time ever in the history of the province,” said Mr. Roach.

When he made that statement one wonders, was the minister including those people who work full time for the province’s largest employer, Fort McMurray?

Fort McMurray has become a catch-all name for anyone working in the oil-fields, the mines and the service industries of the western provinces and the northern territories.

Many of those who work in Fort Mac, are domiciled and pay their taxes on the Island. If the job creation numbers used by Stats Can are gleaned only from tax data, then that would call into question the actual number of jobs created within the province.

While there is much anecdotal evidence to indicate there are a lot, no one seems to know just how many Islanders work in Fort Mac.

 A year ago ago the premier of New Brunswick said that there were 15,000 people from his province working in Fort Mac, that’s about two per cent of the population. If two per cent of Islanders are working in Fort Mac, that’s about 2800 people working there. And there could be more.

What does this mean for the province?

First, it means a lot of money flowing into the province. Wages are higher in the West, and there are many opportunities to work overtime, at time and a half, or double, the regular wage rate.  Many Islanders make two or three times what they can at home. Stories abound of people making large six figure incomes.

For the sake of argument, let us assume an average annual income of $50,000 for people working in Fort Mac. That means there’s $140,000,000 pouring into the province. And it might be more.

Most of the people working in Fort Mac live in rural P.E.I.. The money they bring home is considerably more than the $114 million that comes from the lobster industry. An industry that many view as the economic mainstay of the rural P.E.I..

Fort Mac money is a major benefit to the province. While it is important, money isn’t everything. At least some of that  money is made at a huge cost. Men, and women, are absent from their homes for long periods of time, and often they are only with their families for short intervals. What are the implications of this on the families, and on the communities?

With regards to the Fort Mac phenomena there are three Island institutions that could be more helpful.

First, the provincial government. If it is aware of the number and the societal implications it would be nice if they told Islanders. The fact the government says nothing is an indication that it likely doesn’t know much.

Where is the Island media?  Fort Mac has to be the biggest peacetime economic and social story since the out migration of Islanders in the late 1800s. The media has told us almost nothing about it. What it is like to leave your family behind? What it is like to work in a camp or community primarily made up of transient labour? How do families, wives and children cope? How is the money being spent? In much of the Island there aren’t enough young men around to run the recreational hockey leagues. Are there other, more important negatives to the Fort Mac phenomena on Island communities? How many families have moved? Are planning to move? It’s a story that no one is documenting.

Fort Mac seems tailor made for academic study. UPEI could make a major contribution to Island society by doing research into some or all of the implications of this unique period. Surely there must be some aspect of the Fort Mac phenomena that the department of sociology, or the school of business could find to be of academic interest.

Or is Fort Mac just about money and nothing else.


- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at:

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Island society

Geographic location: Fort Mac, Iceland, Fort McMurray Saskatchewan Alberta P.E.I. New Brunswick Charlottetown

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Recent comments

  • Transplated Islander
    April 19, 2014 - 12:57

    Alan, your right on the money, I left the island 33 years ago on the advise of my father, while I never have worked in Fort Mac, been involved in the energy sector all my life and like many have property on the island. Could never figure why stay and work for minimum wage and never get ahead. There many projects outside Fort Mac in AB and Sask, islanders are involved in, going to and from the island putting tax dollars into the island economy. Would be interesting to see the total numbers of islanders working outside of the province and calling the island home .

  • Garth Staples
    April 15, 2014 - 13:25

    An article that tells it as it is. Thank heavens some Islanders have the courage to break new ground and at the same time provide a better life for their families.

  • Shane
    April 14, 2014 - 18:29

    Well said. I'm one of those who make the monthly trek to the oil patch. I participated in an on going stats can survey as well. I believe the Ghiz government knows the economic numbers and just aren't releasing them. All that money coming in here looks better for Wes, Rob, Allen and the gang if it appears it's made here. The job creation this government is taking credit for is taking place in Alberta and not P.E.I.

  • Brian Lecky
    April 14, 2014 - 11:50

    your comment on loosing young men to run rec hockey is correct..Volunteer Fire Depts. are also severely affected by Fort MacMoney, These men and women are getting texts from their respective depts but are 1000s of miles away..

  • Angus
    April 14, 2014 - 08:41

    C'mon Al, God forbid there should be any positives about Islanders being gainfully employed and looking after their families. Much better to have them sitting on their arses, drawing pogey, playing 45's and a once a week oldtimer's game. It's the Island way!