Return to East Coast from oilpatch a mixture of struggles and fresh starts

TRURO, N.S. - As the days go by with no phone calls offering work in the Alberta oilpatch, Jared Park worries about how he'll pay for his son's leukemia medicine.

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"It's a struggle. You don't know when or if you're going to make it back to work. You just hope you get that call," said Park as five-year-old Mason wriggled and bounced on the sofa in his tidy Truro, N.S., bungalow.

"For Mason, it's important because part of our drug plan covers the medicine for his chemotherapy."

The 30-year-old father of three is among a wave of East Coast workers who have returned home from the Western oilfields after a downturn in the economy. Many are hoping for higher hydrocarbon prices and a return to the West in 2016, but others have begun trying to seek a living closer to home.

Kerry Morash, a former provincial cabinet minister, said rural parts of the Maritimes have been hard hit by the fall in the oil prices from about $95US to current levels of less than $40US.

Morash joined the migration west after the paper mill near Liverpool, N.S., where he worked as a health-and-safety consultant closed several years ago. He was hired on contract at the Kearl oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

"There wasn't a lot of work back home, and there certainly wasn't a lot around Liverpool ... I was very fortunate to be able to go out there," he said, recalling his two-week shifts of 12 hours per day.

He said some maintenance jobs continue to draw East Coast tradespeople, but since the completion of Kearl, the former Progressive Conservative politician said he couldn't find another oilpatch job despite a resume that included a stint as Nova Scotia's minister of labour and environment.

Gradually, he's starting to hear about opportunities in the rural area of Nova Scotia where he lives. And he said he may be staying on the East Coast.

Some industries in the Maritimes, meanwhile, are using the opportunity to recruit skilled tradespeople to work in their hometowns.

The Halifax shipyard has been recruiting workers from the West as it builds Arctic patrol ships for the federal government.

Spokeswoman Mary Keith said by early December the Halifax site had 33 employees who had been working in Alberta, British Columbia or Saskatchewan.

Some workers are retraining to begin fresh careers that will keep them on the coast.

Twenty-three-year-old Jacob Stepaniak, who grew up in Margaree Valley, N.S., came home from Alberta last year after working intermittently in the West since 2011.

He returned to care for his 85-year-old grandfather, who was ill with cancer, and decided to stay home despite the attraction of salaries of over $90,000 a year in the oilpatch.

"You miss all those little things, the small-town way of life ... You run into someone here, you're guaranteed to strike up a conversation," he said. "You really miss that."

Stepaniak is retraining in marine engineering technology at the Nova Scotia Community College and expecting to begin a life at sea, possibly in the offshore oil sector.

He and his girlfriend have been hunting for a home in the Margaree Valley, where they plan to settle.

But for Park and his partner Jenny Mosley, 30, the West remains the family's best hope for a secure future.

Each time Park departs, Mosley joins the boys every day in writing down on a blackboard how many "sleeps" until Dad returns, knowing his absence means the bank account will fill up.

Park recalls sitting in an airport two years ago feeling helpless as a distraught Mosley called him to say that Mason had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

He said he longed to be home to hold his boy, but also realized work in the oilfield derricks would bring in $80,000 a year, along with a benefits plan for medicine and treatments.

Park's company plan provides full coverage for between $600 and $1,000 in monthly drug costs, while the province's pharmacare program requires that families contribute a portion of costs depending on their income level.

Meanwhile, there are two other boys, Mason's twin brother Maddox and nine-year-old Grady, to provide for.

"When there's no work, there's no planning on getting ahead. It's just planning on getting by," said Mosley, as Mason wriggled into her lap.


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