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Day 20: North Battleford, Sask. Job seekers follow river of waste to beckoning land of plenty


Monday, August 28, 2000

In Saskatchewan, compact U-haul trailers and 12-wheel moving vans follow the same direction along the Trans-Canada Highway, the same direction Marcel Meersman is heading in his wobbly '83 Toyota wagon. West, to Alberta.

A few hours after a union official called him from Edmonton, Mr. Meersman has his dunnage bag and tool kit packed and is on his way to Fort McMurray, the Klondike of northern Alberta that has men and women coming in droves from every part of Saskatchewan, and as far away as Newfoundland.

"You know what?" Mr. Meersman says. "I forgot to ask how much they're paying."

About $25 an hour, he figures, which is why the unemployed journeyman quickly threw his things in the car, dropped by his ex-wife's house to say goodbye to his two sons, and left Saskatoon for a job that will last only until the first snowfall.

No one yet knows how many people like Mr. Meersman, 49, have moved to Alberta's booming oil patch this summer, but it could number in the tens of thousands, from corporate planners in Calgary to roughnecks in the tar sands. You can meet them in almost any hotel along the Trans-Canada Highway, their children playing on water slides during a break in the journey, or see them hitchhiking along the side of the road, their life possessions in a hockey bag.

For Mr. Meersman, the call to Fort McMurray could not come too soon, with his sons wanting guitar lessons that his unemployment benefits could not cover. He had not worked in a month, not since he was laid off from a job cleaning portable toilets and doing other odd jobs for a pipeline crew in Saskatchewan.

Now heading to Alberta -- following the North Saskatchewan River (which flows the other way, he points out, carrying Edmonton's waste) -- Mr. Meersman knows his trip is about more than work. It represents the growing gap between traditionally socialist Saskatchewan and its fervently capitalist neighbour, a gap that rankles a socialist in need of work.

In North Battleford, a farming centre where he spent some of his childhood, there is little but signs of decay. By sunfall, the town looks deserted, except for a group of Indian youths outside a bingo hall. The local grocery store used to be there. A block away, the old Woolworths still has a "For Rent" sign in the window, as do several other shops on Main Street.

Apart from an office for the Community Futures Development Corp., the only visible investment in town is a liquor store, right across the street from a thriving pawn shop. If North Battleford is struggling, Mr. Meersman says his hometown of Unity, down the road, is not. Its population is holding steady at a couple of thousand, thanks to many of his high-school classmates moving home for early retirement.

Mr. Meersman doesn't stop, though. Tonight he's heading west across the river -- across Edmonton's waste, he laughs -- toward a setting sun that somehow refuses to vanish.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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