EDITORS NOTE: This story is the first in a series The News is writing looking at the problem of outmigration. In a community that has seen both large corporations and small businesses fail, the examples abound of those who have been forced to leave their homes and families in search of a good paying job.
“Now where does the cord plug into the generator?” Jason Robinson quizzes his 11-year-old son Aidan.
It’s a cold day in January, and within 24 hours Jason will be on a plane bound for a small town in Saskatchewan miles away from Scotsburn and the people he loves. When he goes he wants to know his wife and three kids will be warm and safe.
Jason wishes he could stay with them and be there to start the generator himself when the power goes out, but like many other Nova Scotians he’s had to make the tough decision to go west or north in search of work.
“If I could make half of that here, if I could make a third of that here – I wouldn’t leave, but I can’t,” he says.
Jason was owner of Scotsburn Mechanical, a business that at one time employed more than 30 local people. But with the recession that hit in 2008, the company began to face difficulties that ultimately couldn’t be overcome and they had to close.
Despite boasting a list of electrical and plumbing licences on his resume, Jason couldn’t find a suitable job in Pictou County.
When he was younger he had worked out west and knew that if there was going to be hope for continuing to provide for his family, that’s where it’d be. He left in May.
As a subcontractor driving heavy equipment he makes between $16,000 and $18,000 a month and sends the majority back to his wife Stacy to take care of things back home.
His company is fairly flexible about when he can come home, but it is always at his own expense.
“The longer you’re home, the less money you’re making,” Jason says. “The point of being out there is to make money. The longer you can stay, the more money you make.”
The paycheques may be large, but they are also hard earned. Jason frequently works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. But since he’s away from family, work is what he wants to do. If he had it his way he says he’s gladly work 20 hours a day.
“I’m out there, I’m away from my wife and my children and everything else that I hold dear. To stop from going batty or insane and worrying about it all that’s back here that you can’t control you might as well work.”
The Robinsons know it isn’t ideal for family life to have Jason away, but don’t know how they’d survive otherwise.
“I think it’s harder for him, because he’s out there and he’s doing all the work and we’re reaping the benefits of the work,” says Stacy, Jason’s wife. “We certainly do miss him. It’s a lot calmer in the house when he’s around. He’s a little more authoritative than I am.”
It’s difficult at times to be the only one to drive kids around to different activities and often the list of things in need of repair grows long, she said, but thankfully they’ve had family close by to help.
They also try to make the most of the times they do have together when Jason is home.
“I like putting everything on paper and knocking it off,” Jason says. ”That way you try to prioritize the things that have to happen and you work them in around with your family time.”
But as hard as he tries, he admits he often finds himself sitting in front of the television with a kid at his side, both wishing for one more day together.
What surprises Jason most is how many people there are like him with families in the east and jobs in the west. Within a few miles of his place he can think of an excavator owner, a farmer and a body shop owner who have all left their local businesses for the hopes of a better life.
In a way he blames the culture of this region, which he believes is opposed to new ideas and change.
“There’s so many that will sit and drink coffee with their friends at a local restaurant and say, ‘Oh it’s a terrible thing. Did you hear so and so has left and this man’s businesses has closed.’”
But when it comes to welcoming new businesses or trying new ideas, people are reluctant, he said.
“They drive infrastructure out the door,” he said.
With his wife and daughter watching, Jason continues to instruct his son about the generator.
“Now pull the cord straight out,” he says.
After a couple of pulls nothing happens. Something must be wrong with the machine.
Try as you might, sometimes things just don’t work. This the Robinsons know well.
By the numbers
• 689 people left Pictou County between 2006 and 2011 for work in other provinces
• The number of people working in trades in Nova Scotia decreased by 5,400 between 2011 and 2012
• Unemployment in Nova Scotia is currently 8.8 per cent.
• Unemployment in Saskatchewan is currently 4.5 per cent
• Unemployment in Alberta is currently 4.2 per cent.
Source: Nova Scotia Department of Finance