A long drive on Albertan roads, a flight from Fort McMurray, layover in Toronto and a final plane ride to Halifax.
After 22 days straight of working 12-hour days including Christmas and New Years, that’s what separates Dan Vachon from family and home. These days he’s half the time on one end of the country. Half he’s where he wants to be.
He wishes it didn’t have to be that way, but after the church he was working at full-time closed in 2011, he knew the part-time work he was doing as a paramedic wouldn’t be enough to support his family with six children still at home.
“As I looked locally there was nothing available for me to meet the needs of our large family,” he said. “Alberta has a great need for workers from labourers to skilled workers, so I applied with one company and was hired immediately. As soon as I arrived here another company offered me a 50 per cent raise from what I was making, plus they pay all my flights, benefits and pension.”
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
He knows he is not alone in his situation and only has to look at the camp with 1,500 faces of people searching for the same thing he is. Of the people working at the site he estimates more than 50 per cent are from Ontario and eastward, 20 percent are from Europe and Africa and the rest are local Albertans. They range from teens hoping to climb the ladder to seasoned workers with 30 years experience. The majority are miles away from their wife or girlfriend and kids.
Besides seeing patients who need assessment for everyday medical illnesses, Dan said he is also responsible for doing drug and alcohol testing and responding to site emergencies.
The food is great, he said. The rest is mediocre, with spare time spent sleeping, eating and working out.
“It gets to where everyday is the same,” he said. “You seldom know what day of the week it is, just like in the movie Groundhog Day.”
The highlight of each day is getting to talk to his wife and kids, but that’s not enough.
“It is really hard on morale to miss the little things at home as the children grow up so fast,” he said. “It is often very difficult for the spouse who remains at home too with all the added responsibility as they often become single parents.”
When he gets home, he tries to schedule as much of what needs to be done.
“My wife and I compile a list, then we do the immediately needed stuff, get a few outings in with the children, then as the departure date approaches it seems we start moving things from the list of things to do this time to ‘next time.’”
It’s not an ideal situation and one he wishes he could change.
“My goal is to find work near home as soon as possible so I can be with my family,” he said.
If he finds a full-time job in Pictou County, he estimates it will mean about a $50,000 pay cut per year, so the family would need to find a way to cut expenses. But that’s a hard task to do.
“We have cut as many expenses as we can, but the bills we have are just what we have and unless we move into a tent, it is what it is,” he said.
He said he doesn’t want to move his family out west, because the quality of life isn’t the same there as it is in the Maritimes.
“I wish there were more jobs in Nova Scotia - you cannot beat the pace of life and quality of people,” he said. “Hopefully within a few months I can have my wish, start a business in Pictou County, and enjoy my family and grandkids everyday.”