News / Edmonton

Oil patch workers leaving Fort Mac in droves, with Edmonton as the top destination

The area dominated population growth for more than 10 years, but the trend has recently reversed, according to numbers from Statistics Canada

For the second year in a row, the Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake economic region posted the largest decrease in population in the country, a reverse in recent trends.

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For the second year in a row, the Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake economic region posted the largest decrease in population in the country, a reverse in recent trends.

Alberta’s economic downturn has spurred thousands of workers to leave the oil patch, with Edmonton as the top destination for migrants.

For the second year in a row, the Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake economic region posted the largest decrease in population in the country, according to numbers released Tuesday by Statistics Canada.

From July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, 3,190 people left the region, out of a total population of 146,680.

That’s a population drain of about 2.2 per cent.

The most popular destination for migration within the province was the Edmonton census division, which includes municipalities like Sherwood Park and Leduc. Over that period, 2,324 migrants moved to Edmonton, while 896 individuals moved to Calgary.

The numbers are significant because the Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake economic region had consistently been one of the fastest growing populations from 2002 right up until 2015/2016, which coincides with the drop in the price of oil.

According to Statistics Canada analyst Claudine Provencher, it's always been common for people to move in and out of the Fort McMurray area—but recent trends show more people are now leaving for good.

"Recent interprovincial migration data show a shift in the trends,” she said in an email.

The numbers come as no surprise to Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Alexis Foster.

“We’ve definitely seen the hardships businesses have faced since the downturn in oil prices,” she said. “We’ve been seeing businesses leave town and leave the region.”

The loss of workers has had a ripple effect on the service and construction industries, but it’s also had a bit of a silver lining. For years, Fort McMurray saw skyrocketing home prices because the growth was unsustainable.

“We are seeing more houses moved in the market, more homes are selling,” Foster said. “But the sale prices are going down … it’s sort of a double-edged sword.”

The situation is similar in Cold Lake, which is also heavily dependent on the oil patch, said Mayor Craig Copeland.

“We noticed it was extremely quiet going into the new year here. There was a real quietness on the patch,” he said.

Housing starts have “flattened” since 2014, down 30 per cent for the third year in a row, he said. Hotels have been quiet, charities have been affected and housing prices are dropping rapidly.

“In some cases houses have dropped over $100,000 in their value,” Copeland said.

For interprovincial migration, the largest beneficiaries were British Columbia (a gain of 789 migrants) and Ontario (which gained 460), followed by Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.

“It speaks to the fact that the service sector for the oil patch wasn’t seeing a lot of growth,” Copeland said. “The hiring of those contract workers was going down and down and down and people have left our community to go back to Eastern Canada and to Vancouver Island.”

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