PEI

Flexible Canadian workforce not necessarily a good thing, P.E.I. researcher says

Why do so many workers have to go so far to make a living? It's a question doctoral candidate Katie Mazer has been researching for the past few years and will discuss at a symposium at UPEI Thursday night.

How did commuting to Alberta become 'normal' for so many Maritimers?

Katie Mazer says she talked to many workers who'd like to fish and farm on P.E.I. but have found opportunities limited. (CBC)

Why do so many workers have to go so far to make a living? It's a question doctoral candidate Katie Mazer has been researching for the past few years and will discuss at a symposium at UPEI Thursday night. 

The idea of travelling for work isn't a new concept on P.E.I.

Islanders have been setting off to look for work for more than a century, while others — especially migrant workers employed in the Island's farming and fishing industries — make their way here.

When Mazer moved to Toronto in 2007 and started flying back and forth from P.E.I., she started thinking about the pattern and what it means for those involved.  

"And I just saw the dramatic increase in the number of people — it was really obvious — who were going between the Maritimes and Alberta," the University of Toronto student told MainstreetP.E.I. host Karen Mair.

I think we need to think long and hard about whether this is the kind of solution we want to propose to some of the problems that we're facing.— Katie Mazer

"I would often end up, you know, like I did yesterday when I flew home, sitting beside a worker going out West to work or coming back home."

Most of her fellow travellers, she said, felt forced to leave P.E.I. to make a living.

Is this 'normal'?

"Then I'd come back home and there'd be kind of a contrast between the intensity of some of those stories and the way people were talking about it here as something very normal." 

Mazer decided to take on the subject as a doctoral thesis, and for the past two years has interviewed workers and employers in Alberta, people involved in Canada's labour movement and documenting media coverage of the migration West and government policy around it. 

She wrote about what she called the "well-planned crisis" in the independent magazine The Briarpatch

Katie Mazer has been studying the Maritime madness of the long-distance commute to work in Alberta. (University of Toronto )

Mazer also talked to P.E.I.'s Cooper Institute about the influx of migrant workers to the Island in recent years.

"That's part of what I'm interested in, looking at that shared dynamic of temporary workers coming in and temporary workers going out, and how those two dynamics are working together to, I think, make work more stressful and more insecure for everyone involved."

Many people have asked Mazer if her thesis has been derailed since the crash in Canada's oilpatch has reversed fortunes for many in Eastern Canada, forcing them to return home to the Maritimes. 

Temporary work 'isn't a solution'

"In some ways I think it just reinforces the fact that this form of temporary work isn't a solution to long-standing problems of employment insecurity in P.E.I., " she said. 

Although many employers say they're seeking a flexible Canadian workforce, Mazer's not sure that should be institutionalized. 

"There's a long history in Canada of appealing to this idea that Canadian workers, because it's such a resource-dependent economy historically ... that Canadian workers have to be flexible and can't expect permanent employment," she said. "And I think that's a common understanding that we should think about more critically."

Mazer stresses this is an academic project intended to lay out historical and economic context for how this level of mobility for the Maritimes and the oil industry became so widespread and normal. Her goal is not to come up with specific recommendations but to provide a reasoned explanation.

"But also why I think we need to think long and hard about whether this is the kind of solution we want to propose to some of the problems that we're facing," she concludes. 

Mazer's Island Mobility, Migration and Population talk runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the MacKinnon lecture theatre in Don and Marion McDougall Hall at UPEI. Admission is free. 

Listen to Mainstreet on CBC Radio weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m.

With files from Karen Mair

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