FREDERICTON (CP) - Politicians and labour experts in Atlantic Canada are increasingly worried about the exodus of economic refugees from the region who are drawn by the promise of big bucks and golden opportunities in Alberta.
Going down the road may not be a new phenomenon, but these days Alberta is like a giant labour sponge, sucking skilled workers from hard-luck provinces like New Brunswick where plant closures and pulp mill shutdowns have created a sense of economic gloom.
Ron Christie, 51, packed up his family and moved to Alberta after the pulp mill in Nackawic, N.B., went bankrupt last year, leaving 400 people without work or pensions.
Christie, a heavy-equipment mechanic, has started his own business servicing oil field companies. Now, relatives from New Brunswick are following him to Alberta.
"There are so many opportunities here," Christie says in an interview from his home in Grande Prairie, Alta.
"My son just moved out here and started work at a retread plant. Already they're giving him a big raise. Even at McDonald's, the full-time rate is $11.25 an hour."
Christie says he may go back to New Brunswick one of these days - to retire. He says he won't be going back to work in shaky industries propped up by political expediency and taxpayers' loans.
"It's a whole different attitude towards work out here," he says. "Businesses aren't waiting around, looking for government handouts."
Atlantic politicians are caught in a bind, trying to be both positive, and realistic, about the situation.
Joe McGuire, minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, notes ruefully that Fort McMurray - the centre of Alberta's oil boom - houses the largest population of Newfoundlanders outside St. John's.
"If we don't have people, we don't have an economy," says McGuire, who has launched a cross-country speaking tour to counter Atlantic Canada's image as a hapless region.
"With so many young people leaving and with our aging population, the challenge for the future is how do we keep our young people here, how do we bring them back and how do we integrate immigrants into our communities?"
Figures from Statistics Canada's most recent five-year census, released in 2002, show that Newfoundland's population declined by seven per cent - greater than any other province - between 1996 and 2001. The populations of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were also shrinking and aging.
While Prince Edward Island's population grew by 0.5 per cent, or about 250 people, the province's median age was rising faster than the national average.
Experts often suggest that Atlantic Canada should look to Ireland's economic revival as a model, but politicians like McGuire don't like the emphasis on the tax cuts that helped fuel the Celtic Tiger.
That's not how expatriate Maritimers like Christie feel about the tax break that comes with living in Alberta.
Among other things, there is no provincial sales tax in Alberta, a huge break when compared with the 15 per cent HST Atlantic Canadians pay on everything from their soaring power bills to candy.
"The cost of living is less here," says Christie. "Sure housing is a bit more expensive, but everything else is a lot cheaper, especially groceries and gas."
Brian Lee Crowley of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a right-leaning policy think-tank, says Atlantic Canada is being held back by outdated political strategies that depend on high taxes and Ottawa-centred regional development programs.
Crowley recently tried to hire a man from Ontario for a job with AIMS, but the prospective employee was shocked to learn he and his wife would have to pay an additional $5,000 a year in income tax in Nova Scotia.
"Our high taxes are counterproductive," Crowley says. "Taxes have become a major focus of competitiveness among different provinces and countries.
"Those places that have really focused on taxes - Alberta would be one, Ontario would be another and even British Columbia - are all examples of provinces that have used the tax system very successfully to signal that they are anxious to attract business and investment."
Tom Mann of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour says Atlantic Canada is caught in a vicious cycle. The region's colleges and universities educate skilled professionals, who are then lured to places like Alberta by higher salaries, lower taxes and better opportunities.
"We have to have jobs here, we have to have a job base," Mann says. "Until that happens, the exodus will continue.
"It's a question of where do you break the cycle? We can't attract jobs without having an educated workforce, but once we educate the workforce we run the risk of losing those skilled workers."
ŠThe Canadian Press, 2005