Tough economy separates local families
When economic markets around the world collapsed in 2008 spiralling a large percentage of the working class into financial chaos—more and more family men felt drawn to move from small towns to large construction camps tucked away in the boonies of Alberta.
Lured by the promise of a great starting wage, they accepted temporary contracts hoping to secure full time work that would pay enough to support their growing families back home.
Travis Dezall is one of these men. He joined an Alberta-based company offering a competitive salary and excellent benefits in May 2011. Dezall has been able to pay his monthly mortgage payments and make ends meet by accepting eight-month construction contracts. His temporary new home is a 2,500-person camp hidden in the bush 65 kms north of Fort McMurray. The temperature can drop to – 30 but luckily Travis is renovating a kitchen indoors. He is on nightshift, working 12-hours at a time, two weeks on, one week off.
In the camps one day melts into the next and most men start a count down upon arrival. Their first day consists of being herded single file into a 2,500 person-size locker room to retrieve their meagre possessions that will provide them minimal comforts for the next two weeks. Meals consist of bland cafeteria food, cooked to serve hundreds, where quantity weighs more than quality.
Dezall spends his days reframing walls and putting down drywall; monotonous and time-consuming work. When he has put down their tools after a 12-hour day, he and two B.C. friends, often watch a hockey game and drink a few beers but things aren’t always peaceful. On Christmas day, six alcohol-fuelled fights broke out, which led to a series of four suspensions or site bans, which meant the workers in question were instructed to leave the camp and forbidden to return.
“I would guess the camps are very similar to living in prison,” said Dezall who chooses to mingle only with those he works with. The camps have a zero tolerance drug policy and they have unannounced drug raids with sniffer dogs.
The majority of the workers come from small B.C. towns — they make up an interesting mix of carpenters, electricians and plumbers.
“Most guys here worked for large B.C. construction companies. Around May 2011 they got laid off and came up here,” said Dezall.
Women exist in the camps but they act as housekeepers and human resources making up the remaining five per cent of the camp population. The money holds them all captive.
“You can’t get paid near what you can here anywhere else in B.C.,” said Dezall. The starting wage for a carpenter is between $31 and $36/ hour with electricians receiving $48.
Dezall regularly flies home to Sooke to be with his wife, Petrina Dezall and their two boys. One week, however, is often not long enough.
“It’s tough to go home and be with my boys and then have to leave,” he said.
To come home every night to his family, Dezall would need a working relationship with a busy local contractor in order to earn more as a self-employed carpenter.
“You work a lot harder when you work for yourself but you get to go home at the end of the day,” he said. Unfortunately the way the economy is going he can’t see it improving any time soon.
“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse, there’s no good work on the Island,” said Travis.
Dezall’s wife, Petrina, is a mom, surfer and businesswoman raising two boys, Madae and Venice, aged one and-a-half and and three-and-a-half. She juggles motherhood, her own make up studio and contracts in Victoria.
“I don’t get overwhelmed easily but when you’re running your own business and have two children it gets tough,” she said.
In the summer of 2010 she began working for a television production and short film company. She loves working from contract to contract because, “It allows me to be with my kids.”
Unfortunately, those contracts often start very early and run on weekends, which create a conflict.
“No government child care program that we’ve found supports weekend schedules. The hardest thing is finding a 5:15 a.m. sitter for me to get to Victoria by six a.m.,” said Petrina.
She feels Sooke needs to have more family-oriented restaurants as well as more child care amenities. Although raising children in Sooke has its advantages.
“Sooke is great because we live close to the beach and can go out on our boat. My kids are more in tune with the cycles of nature having grown up here,” said Petrina. Her baby Madae’s first word was ‘Tree.’ Unfortunately, nature is not always enough.
“We were naïve in thinking it’d be easy to find full-time work here in Sooke,” Petrina said.
She believes, “all job postings should go through the communities first,” which would allow family men first bid at carpentry jobs rather than having outside contractors commuting daily and scooping up all the work.
Even with Travis living part-time in Alberta, Petrina is not forced to raise her kids completely alone.
“We have a strong community of friends, which really helps. They come to me for the most part,” said Petrina. Living as a single person, “You’re used to predictability but with children you can’t ever predict what’s going to happen next. You’ve got to learn how to dance in the rain.”
Camp life allows little time for families and relationships can suffer. Travis regularly schedules a time to speak to the family but says, “It’s hard to parent over the phone.”
“The kids text and call dad all the time, thank god for iPhones,” said Petrina. Her husband agrees. “When they come home from the beach and tell me all about it, it makes me smile,” he said.
When Travis set off on his first contract Petrina had no doubt it was the right thing to do.
Most family men at the camps experience relationship stress due to a combination of distance, money issues and living in two increasingly different worlds from their partner.
“It can become difficult to relate to one another,” he said.
At the end of two weeks it’s time to go home and then Travis begins to relax.
“I feel free when I’m leaving the camp,” he said.
The first thing he notices about home in Sooke? The colours. “It’s real green and that first surf feels refreshing,” Travis said.
Is he going to continue working construction in Alberta? Probably he said, as long as the money is this good, and the bills are being paid. Petrina agrees, “We’re growing together and we’re going to make the best of what we have,” she said.
Would the Dezalls recommend this to other young families?
Definitely. “I wouldn’t want to do this forever but so far it’s worth it,” said Travis.