Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Alberta Attraction - Saskatoon Star Pheonix

The following news story features the family we have told some of you about, that we met while on our second visit to check out Calgary. Gabriel is the little boy whose therapy session we were invited to watch in his home...

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The Alberta attraction
Saskatoon StarPheonix

Jul 4, 2006
Byline: James Wood


REGINA -- Keeping up with the Joneses is always problem.

For Saskatchewan, the problem is magnifi ed when province's people simply decide to move next door become Joneses themselves.

Alberta's strong economy has long been a magnet Saskatchewan residents, serving as a major factor in Saskatchewan's historically stagnant population.

In recent years, situation has intensifi as the Alberta economy has flared red-hot.

While Saskatchewan's coffers are full and its gross domestic product is growing thanks to high and natural gas prices, Alberta's energy resources have brought a gusher of wealth next door.

Alberta's wages the highest in Canada while the taxes are lowest, the provincial government is spending on services and the main cities are booming.

In the last two years alone, more than 23,000 Saskatchewan residents migrated to Alberta. While the population does fl ow both ways between the two provinces, the net loss from Saskatchewan to Alberta was still more than 7,000 people.

Scott Newell, a 35-year-old graduate of the University of Saskatchewan law school, left a practice in Saskatoon for Calgary law fi rm Parlee McLaws LLP in 2000 and he's seen the population of Saskatchewan transplants grow ever since.

Like many professionals, he was attracted by more money, greater opportunities and a faster pace.

"You just sort of have more options. There's more restaurants to go to, there's more bars to go to, you're close to the mountains.

There's just, I guess, more amenities available in a larger centre," says Newell.

"There's a different attitude here, too. I think it's tangible. People are more positive here, more excited about their prospects here than in Saskatchewan.

That may be a function of a number of different things but that's certainly the case." Newell says Calgary was also attractive because he knew other people from Saskatchewan who had come to the city before him.

That network of individuals makes it even easier for Saskatchewan residents to leave. "Probably most people who are professionals in Saskatchewan know a few people in Calgary and they've got that 'in'. . . . I've even had my fi rm approach me in the past and say 'do you know anybody in this type of area in Saskatchewan?' It's seen as a bit of a recruiting area," says Newell.

In fact, about 14 per cent of the University of Saskatchewan's graduates live in Alberta, the largest amount outside of Saskatchewan and well ahead of the seven per cent in third-place British Columbia, according to the university's alumni relations offi ce.

Todd Hirsch, chief economist for the Calgarybased Canada West Foundation think-tank, jokes that "you can't swing a cat in Calgary without hitting a dozen people from Saskatoon or Saskatchewan." Hirsch says the loss of professionals and skilled labourers from Saskatchewan to Alberta should be of particular concern as the province struggles with an outfl ow of people.

"The problem with outmigration is that it tends to be the youngest and the most-educated who are most likely to leave because their opportunities are better elsewhere. Most of them usually have jobs lined up before they even leave the province," he says.

"It's losing a taxpayer and it's also losing a potential worker." Sometimes it's not a better job or the bright lights of the big city that attracts Saskatchewan residents to Alberta.

Diane and Greg Brkich (no relation to the Saskatchewan Party MLA) were reluctant migrants to Alberta.

Frustrated by a lack of support and services for their autistic son Gabriel, the Kenaston couple moved to Calgary in early 2004.

They went to Alberta because that province offers and pays for extensive services such as oneon- one therapy and respite care for families.

Brkich says they know other families from Saskatchewan with autistic children who have made the move to Alberta for the same reasons.

She doesn't excuse Saskatchewan for not providing more help to her son and her family but says Alberta clearly brings more resources, and a different attitude, to the table.

"Alberta's very, very progressive. An extremely wealthy province -- they think big and there's no issues of money for anything," she says.

Steven Lewis, a Saskatoon-based health-care analyst who is also an adjunct professor with the University of Calgary's Centre for Health and Policy Studies, says he doesn't think there is any data on interprovincial migration due to healthcare reasons.

He does not think it's a factor in attracting people to Alberta except in cases like the Brkich's, where there is a specialized program in place.

"In very general terms, the care access is pretty much identical. You can quibble that the wait time for this may be longer in Alberta and for that longer in Saskatchewan and so on," says Lewis.

"People, when they're thinking about a place to live, are thinking of jobs, schools and everything else and they're not likely to be thinking about wait lists." For the Brkich family, who never wanted to move from Saskatchewan, the transition was dif- fi cult.

"We had to sacrifi ce so much to come here . . .

we both gave up our jobs to come here; we had no jobs in hand when we came. Our homestead was in our family for 100 years and my husband was born and raised on the family homestead. All our family is there. We had to give up a lot," she says.

Although the move to Calgary has been more than worthwhile because of the progress Gabriel has made, the adjustment has had its own diffi culties, mainly related to the higher cost of living.

They are kicking themselves that they did not buy a house immediately upon moving.

"That hasn't been easy, that's for sure. Real estate has risen 30 per cent every year since we've been here," says Diane.

While Albertans rake in high wages, they also face increasing costs, seen most clearly in real estate prices.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the average price of a house this year to the end of May is $326,744 in Calgary and $223,713 in Edmonton, compared to $156,056 in Saskatoon and $132,378 in Regina. To the end of April, the average house price in Saskatchewan was $128,179, less than half of Alberta's average house price of $262,918.

That's one of the factors that causes some optimism the drain of Saskatchewan residents to Alberta may be stemmed.

Hirsch says Alberta is starting to feel some pressures from its stunning growth in recent years.

"It seems almost blasphemous for an economist to say things should probably slow down, but yeah, there is strains on infrastructure and strains on housing and even strains on the environment when population and economic growth is too rapid," he says.

"Saskatchewan has an important card to play getting in on this energy and resource boom, which doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon, by marketing itself as . . . 'the underpriced alternative to Alberta.' " Jim Nowakowski is a Saskatoon businessperson who has thought a great deal about the impact of Alberta on Saskatchewan.

The development of the oilsands has meant a bonanza for his company, JNE Welding, with about half of the company's metal fabrication work coming from Alberta.

At the same time, while the company has been relatively successful in hanging on to its workers, Nowakowski knows the welder-fi tters he employs could leave their jobs today and walk into new jobs in Alberta tomorrow.

The company is expanding its workforce from its current level of 75 to 80 employees to 120 to 130 next year. Nowakowski says the company probably has to hire two to three times the number of employees it hopes to retain because of the fi erce competition for skilled labour.

"The belief is that it's happening in Alberta, so the momentum is carrying people in that direction . . . they're hearing of all these opportunities in Alberta and the high wages so a lot of people are focused in that way," he says.

Nowakowski is a big booster of Saskatchewan, however. He says JNE Welding could have easily set up new operations in Edmonton but chose to expand in Saskatoon instead.

Nowakowski says Saskatchewan has been held back in the past by government policies that haven't allowed the province to take advantage of its full potential.

But he's also frustrated by a long-term negative attitude about Saskatchewan that persists among many people.

"We have the resources, we have the people, we have to change our attitude. We have to change the general view of people suggesting their kids have no future here, that they have to send them somewhere else." Too few people recognize how much the provincial economy has improved in recent years, especially around Saskatoon, says Nowakowski.

Opportunities for both employees and businesses are greatly expanding, he says, and Saskatchewan has the potential to lure back not only former provincial residents but also Canadians from other parts of the country and new immigrants.

He agrees with Hirsch that, instead of being Saskatchewan's nemesis, Alberta can be an aid to the province's growth.

"We're close enough to the hottest economy in the world. We're far enough away not to get burnt, but we're close enough to enjoy the heat. . . . It's a shame if there are people here in Saskatchewan who don't recognize that and are not able to take advantage of it." University of Saskatchewan economics Prof.

Eric Howe says high wages in Alberta have been the biggest factor in why Saskatchewan has seen a continued decline in population at a time when the provincial economy is strong.

Alberta's strength does create upward pressure on Saskatchewan wages, though, says Howe.

Alberta boasts the highest hourly wage rates in the country, with a 6.8 per cent increase from April 2005 to April 2006. Saskatchewan's wage rate went from sixth to fi fth nationally in that period, with a 5.5 per cent increase that was second only to Alberta's.

Howe believes an increase in pay will help arrest Saskatchewan's population decline but he warns there are other factors involved in Alberta's appeal.

"I think the provincial population is going to gradually go up but it isn't going to increase by very much. We're not Alberta, we don't have mountains," he says with a laugh.

For his part, Newell says the recent birth of his fi rst child, Celia, sometimes makes home more alluring to him and his wife, Heather.

Both of their families still live in Saskatoon and the more relaxed pace makes the city an attractive place to raise a family.

But Newell says the economic situation will continue to give an advantage to Alberta.

"I think it's an employment issue primarily. I mean, I wouldn't rule out going back if I thought that I could fi nd a job that's as attractive to me as I have here. But if I was to look at that right now, it's very unlikely," he says.

jwood@sp.canwest.com

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