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Long commute for Canadian oil worker

Blair Ghent on his worksite: the huge oil sands project in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

TEXT OF STORY

AMY SCOTT: Time now for another look at the global economy through the eyes of workers. Today on our monthly series Working we look back at the story of Canadian oil worker Blair Ghent. He lives in Newfoundland, in the Eastern part of Canada. But talk about a commute. Several times a year, he travels to the oilsands of Alberta out west for work. And he's not the only one. Chris Brookes brings us Blair's story.


Chris Brookes: Its 2:30 a.m. in the morning when 10-year-old Brody Ghent opens his eyes to see his father with his bag packed, ready to drive to the airport.

Blair Ghent: Come on baby, lets go...

Brody lives with his parents in Harbour Mille, Newfoundland. A tiny community of just 182 souls tucked into the Atlantic coast of Canada. But his dad is going to work on the other side of the continent.

Blair Ghent: I'm Blair Ghent. Industrial mechanic.

With chronic unemployment in Harbour Mille, this quiet 39-year old commutes all the way to Alberta, 3000 miles away.

[Sound of getting into car]

Blair Ghent: It's not so bad if you're young and got no family, but when you're tied down... got to pay the bills.

Blair's wife Pam and Brody slip in beside him for the 3-hour drive up the coast to the airport, keeping their eyes peeled for any moose that might suddenly dart out of the blackness and cross the highway. After tonight, the family won't be together again for nearly two months.

Blair Ghent: Anybody who works in the oil patch, its hard on the family. Lots of divorces. Three or four years ago we were working just outside Calgary and of maybe 50 guys, I think I was the only one left married.

Would you think of moving the family up to Fort McMurray?

Blair Ghent: Not a chance... No. It's the scenario of every boom town, its hard and fast, and there's a lot of hard elements. Family life is way better down here.

If you can call it family life. Last year, Blair was away for 6 months straight. Right now he's on a 6-and-2 rotation. Six weeks in Alberta, 2 home with Brody and Pam.

Pam Ghent: You know, Oprah had on that for optimum health you need to have sex 200 times a year. He's only home 40 days a year. Ha ha. So we're going to die early!

A quick curbside goodbye at the airport at 4 a.m., and Blair steps onto his flight to Fort McMurray. Eight hours from now and he'll start his day installing instrumentation controls on the oilsands site -- the maze of remote sensing transmitters that monitor things like pressure and flow rate for the oil extraction process. His nights will be a bunk in a company-owned work camp.

[Sound of seat belt]

Pam and Brody start their long drive back to Harbour Mille in the dark. Theirs is the flip side of Blair's long-distance job: Making the family function while he's away -- it's Pam Ghent's work, and it starts now.

[Conversation in car]

Brody: What? What's wrong?

Pam: Nothing's wrong.

Brody: Mom, I know something's wrong, what is it?

Pam: Well, you know, just dropping your Dad off. Its kind of sad, don't you think?

Brody: I guess.

Pam: You guess?

[Sound in grocery store]

Back in Harbour Mille, Pam runs this small grocery store. It's the only store in town, but a tiny community with only 77 mailboxes can't give them enough business to make ends meet.

Pam Ghent: There' a lot of hope that the store will do better, so there won't be as much need for him to work away. But I mean, right now, economically we do need that money.

There's kind of a sad irony running underneath this work situation that Pam and Blair find themselves in. Up until 3 years ago, they both had dream jobs in Toronto, working 9 to 5 and the family was together every night.

Pam Ghent: Financially, it couldn't have been better. We had the big house and the big mortgage and the two vehicles.

But then something happened. Pam's grandmother back in Mills Harbor died and left her a house. And then one day in Toronto...

Pam Ghent: I came home from work, picked my son up from day care, started supper, and on the news, this little girl was missing off the street, and this wasn't too far from where we lived. Even though I could see and hear my son outside playing from my kitchen, I just instinctively went and grabbed him and brought him in and locked the door. And that was the very first time I felt fear. And then the news just got worse. The next day they found her body parts, she'd been... it was horrible. So then we just made plans. We put the house on the market and we were coming home.

Home to this little fishing village with a beach and a perfect swimming hole, a great place to bring kids up in. But...

Pam Ghent: But Blair has to work away. We keep thinking that the work away is a temporary thing. But this has been going on since 2004 for us.

[Sound of speaker phone ringing]

The Alberta time zone is 3-and-a-half hours away, so the family stays in touch through voice messaging, and phone calls in the wee hours when Blair's back in his bunk.

[Sound of phone message system]

Pam Ghent: Hi Blair, I just got home. Give me a call when you get back, okay?

On father's day, it's 5:00 a.m. in Alberta.

[Sound of phone conversation]

Half-asleep phone conversations like this are what the father-son relationship consists of while Blair's away. Pam works hard to make up for it.

Pam Ghent: I'm not going to pretend that today's not Father's Day. If Blair was here we'd probably do a beach bonfire. We'd have scallops -- scallops is Blair's favorite meal. We're doing all those things -- I wanted to make sure it's a special day for Brody and that he doesn't feel lost because one of his little friends father came home on his 8-day rotation and happens to be here today for Father's Day. And that's Brody's best friend.

[Sound of conversation in the bathroom]

Pam Ghent: I've been with Blair since I was 16 years old. And the very first time we lived together was on a single bed, and that single bed had room enough for 2 more people on it -- we were that close. And that's how we slept for a lot of years. That close. When Blair started going away, you get used to sleeping on your own. And now when he comes home, he has the spare bed and he goes out there, and.. . actually it was kind of funny. This time home, one of the first things he said to me was "Oh, its so nice to have my bed back." His bed is the spare bed.

[Sound of speaker phone -- Hi, its me. Hope everything there is well. Give me a call later, okay? Bye baby.]

Pam Ghent: So I don't know. By the time we get content with having him back, he'll be gone. We'll be discontent with him gone, for the first little time. Just as we get content again, he comes home. And then I have to accept him, and he has to accept me. And then everything gets jumbled up and... and then the cycle starts all over again.

[Sound of airport arrival announcement]

It starts over again at airport arrivals. With Pam dolled up in a low-cut sweater, holding a cup of take-out coffee for Blair.

[Sound of meet and greet]

After an 8-hour flight, Blair appears in a fresh-pressed shirt, clean-shaven and smelling of aftershave.

[Sound of conversation in the airport]

The little things that show how much they welcome this part of the cycle. And Blair will be home long enough to paint the porch and fix the vacuum cleaner, and maybe go fishing with his son. And then Pam will drive him back to the airport and they'll do it all over, and over, and over again. Two separate worlds, home and work. Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that should fit together... but don't.

[Sound of airport]

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