The great elastic travelling band

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They go out. They come back. They go out again. They come back again.

In fact, about the only Atlantic Canadian I know who hasn’t, at one time or another, been lured to the sweet, black oil pitches of northern Alberta is Yours Truly (and that’s only because I have absolutely no skills).

Still, in our bones, we who possess a familial connection to the East Coast of this great and wise country understand something about tides – about how they ebb and flow; about how they pull everything not fixed down with steel wire and granite boulders into their backwash; about how they cast it all up again above the high water mark, where it’s treacherously tough to make a living, at least for long.

Or, perhaps we need a new metaphor for this ancient phenomenon.

Call it the “Great Elastic Travelling Band”, in which Maritimers and their confreres in Newfoundland and Labrador are stretched to the limit of their finances, and patience, by the constant pull and snap of the national petro-economy that, in entirely unintuitive ways, wrecks homes, communities, relationships, futures.

Have you seen Fort Mac recently? It’s not a pretty sight – and not for its lack of municipal infrastructure. There and in Calgary and Edmonton, house prices have plummeted by 10, 20, 40 per cent since the beginning of the year. The “for sale” signs have been blooming as fast as oil prices have been bottoming.

Naturally, the market value of this commodity, essential to the elastic traveling band, has been nudging upwards in recent days – from $46 a barrel to $52 on February 5, before settling back to $50 by the close of trading.

But this is a pittance, bought and paid for by those who have left this coast behind. The band snaps back, as much as it can.

“In all likelihood, there will be less employment in Alberta, therefore less people moving out to Alberta, less migrant workers going back and forth,” the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council’s senior policy analyst Fred Bergman announced last week. “Within two years of the previous oil price dip in mid-2008, annual out-migration to Alberta from Atlantic Canada had decreased by about 6,000 persons.”

Now, given the volatile state of oil and gas development out west, the out-migration rate from this region to theirs could be a third of recent years. That’s nothing to say of those who will inevitably choose to flood ‘down home’, where the deficits are as high as a zoo animal’s eye.

All of which is marvelous; just about as much as it is dreadful.

After all, what shall we do with all these returning ex-pats?

New Brunswick has a structural unemployment rate of between 10 and 15 per cent – not because the province’s private sector can’t fill the jobs it produces, but because, in the absence of skilled workers, it’s no longer generating employment opportunities even incrementally, let alone en masse.

As a result, profitable companies here (if they want to remain profitable) retrench, reorganize, and reinvent. Life becomes smaller, less adventurous, more studiously attached to the thinning margins of the bottom line.

Meanwhile, as Atlantic provincial governments attempt to deal with the fiscal consequences of their regional, economic doldrums, their motivation to stimulate commercial opportunities become necessarily muted.

At some point, once the elastic is stretched too far, and for too long, it simply refuses to be pulled or snapped.

We’re not quite at that point, yet, here on the East Coast. But we are heading perilously close to that place of economic perdition where nothing we try, or endure, improves our long-term lot.

This is the first of many columns to come in which I will attempt to articulate a cogent vision of the alternative: a prosperous and socially equitable province; a fair and democratically responsive politic; a vibrant and sustainable economy.

Before, that is, we all go out, and never come back again.

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