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Allan MacDonald didnít think the good times would ever end.
The Cape Bretoner and his young wife were living in a $320,000 home, driving two brand new cars and pulling in an income that would make his friends back in New Waterford blush.
But five years after moving to Alberta in search of riches and a regular paycheque, MacDonald and many of his neighbours are back on the island with uncertain job prospects and doubts about the faltering economic miracle that has funnelled millions into their communities.
"I didnít think it would actually happen," he said of the drop in oil prices and resulting work slowdowns that have cost many of his friends their jobs.
"For my first three years there, everything was climbing, like the prices of homes, everything. But, in the last two years, everything seems to be like itís dying. Nobodyís spending money. Everybodyís trying to keep above water."
MacDonald, who recently moved his wife and five-week-old baby in with his mother in New Waterford while they try to sell their home back in Alberta, is one of a growing number of people from the East who are either out of work or waiting for things in the oil patch to pick up again.
The 29-year-old was working as a motor hand on a drill rig in Grande Prairie, hauling in more than $125,000 annually and riding on assurances that there would be steady work for years to come.
But as oil prices fell and global markets tanked, MacDonald said he was spending more time at home with no pay as projects stalled or were cancelled outright. In the end, he decided to transfer to New Brunswick where his company is involved in gas exploration.
Still, he hasnít worked since late last year.
"Itís pretty crappy right now," he said, adding that three of his wifeís uncles are either waiting for calls to go back or will soon be heading home. "There are quite a few people home now. A lot of guys are returning."
The trend is worrisome for many of the small, economically depressed towns throughout Atlantic Canada that saw men and women head west in droves for the promise of quick cash.
New Waterford became an epicentre for the phenomenon as half the population drained away to Alberta, leaving wives and children at home to receive paycheques and visits from the largely male workforce every few weeks.
But the streets are beginning to fill again with the men who have gone through this migratory rite of passage, and are now stuck home awaiting calls back to work that arenít coming.
"Weíve seen a major influx of people," said Carrie Ernst, manager of the Employment Resource Centre in New Waterford, a former mining town thatís seen its population shrink to about 7,000 from about 12,000 a few decades ago.
"Usually this time of year the guys have come home for Christmas and theyíre on their way back out, but the opportunities that we see on a regular basis just simply arenít there."
Calgary-based Flint Energy Services Ltd, which provides construction, transportation and other services to major energy producers, announced last week that it will lay off workers immediately.
Flint expects up to $150 million less in revenues this year because of oilsands giant Suncor Energy Inc.ís (TSX:SU) decision to put major expansion projects on hold.
Signs of the downturn started appearing months ago in New Waterford. Ads in the local paper seeking workers for the West disappeared and an airline that used to shuttle oil patch workers between Fort McMurray, Alta., and Sydney, recently cancelled its weekly flight.
Ernst said sheís no longer getting calls from companies in Alberta in search of tradespeople and labourers.
Data shows that chronic outmigration has slowed in recent months in all Atlantic provinces, dealing a tough blow to people used to $29 an hour wages but who are now having trouble finding any work in Cape Breton communities saddled with unemployment rates of 13 per cent.
"Our biggest concern was population loss, so in a sense youíre very glad that that hopefully is slowing somewhat," said John Whalley, economic development manager for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, which includes New Waterford.
"But for the families whoíve benefited from the work away, your real concern is that they lose that income, and thatís more people that are going to be on the EI rolls."
Told ya so.