You think your commute is bad?

KAI RYSSDAL: Think about this one a second before you answer: What country would you say exports the most crude oil to the United States? Saudi Arabia's not the right answer. It's number three on the list — hundreds of thousands of barrels a day behind Canada.

Most of that Canadian crude comes from the Alberta Oil Sands out west. Many of the workers, though, come from back East, 3,000 miles away.

Phonse Jessome has the story of an old Nova Scotia mining town fueled by Western Canadian oil.


PHONSE JESSOME: New Waterford has a population of 10,000. Its Main Street leads to a bluff overlooking the Cabot Strait and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

It's a town built on coal mining. For generations the men here went down under the ocean and came out with tons of coal and fat paychecks. That ended in May of 2001 when the final colliery, the Prince Mine, closed and the high-paying jobs disappeared. Then came predictions of doom and economic collapse. A walk down that Main Street today shows that didn't happen.

The embroidery machines at Something Creatif are busy filling orders. The shop puts sport crests on jackets, T-shirts and other clothing. It's the kind of business that suffers when disposable income dries up. Owner Brian Desveaux says his business has grown since the mines closed, in part because coal miners are now working in the remote work camps that dot the oil fields.
BRIAN DESVEAUX: I would say probably 1 in every 10 are probably traveling back and forth. They work six on, then they fly them home for two weeks. So they find that a little easier now, compared to being out there all year round.

Brian and Debbie Morrison share a moment over dishes. He is one of the former miners making the Cape Breton to Alberta commute. Debbie Morrison says adjusting to a husband who works three time zones away is a challenge.

DEBBIE MORRISON: It was very emotional and I couldn't picture being home without him. And of course, as time goes on I still get emotional when he leaves, but I'm better. While he's gone I get into a routine. I have family that help me. And I have to learn how to do everything myself at home and not depend on him — because he can do most anything around.

She says life became easier for her as the Alberta commute became more common among the former miners.

MORRISON: Many people at work have their husband out West. But, I'm not hearing too much of that. They're just learning to have a way of life and it's almost like you have our own little club of people we can share our own feelings and talk among each other and have a conversation now about "What camp is your husband in, and what's going on out West?"

The local building-trades council estimates its members now bring $3 million a week from the Alberta oil fields to the shops and businesses in Cape Breton. New Democrat Frank Corbett represents New Waterford in the Nova Scotia legislature. He says the migrant workforce of former miners is only a short-term fix.

FRANK CORBETT: The problem is, does it really help the growth? That's where the catch is. But, certainly, when people come back here and do upgrades on their home, buy cars and stuff like that, that's good. But, overall, it doesn't grow the economy.

Corbett says that growth could come if the oil companies manufactured some of the specialized equipment needed for the Oil Sands project in Cape Breton and then shipped it to Alberta. He believes that would build a stable economy here.

Back at Something Creatif Brian Desveaux says stability has already come at his shop where business has never been better.

In New Waterford, Nova Scotia, I'm Phonse Jessome for Marketplace.

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