From Bonavista to Vancouver Island

From Bonavista to Vancouver Island

Exploring the lives of Canadian commuters
May 23, 2014

Canada’s first commuters were arguably the fur-transporting coureurs de bois, who travelled thousands of kilometres through the wilderness, spending months away from their loved ones. Some of the country’s contemporary commuters are no less ambitious, criss-crossing the continent, spending hours in a car, bus or train every day on their journey to work. Their lives may be a bit more comfortable, with some in aircraft seats rather than kneeling in a canoe, but the challenges of commuting, including time away from family and friends and the potential impacts on the community still exist.

Several years ago, the reasons for commuting and the ways in which commuters deal with its challenges captured the interest of Barbara Neis, a sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“You can’t live in Newfoundland and not be aware of the high rate of extended commuting that’s going on,” she says. “Every time I got on an airplane, I was sitting next to somebody who was a commute worker.”

She adds that the labour traffic from Canada’s East Coast to economic hot spots such as Fort McMurray, Alta., is well known, but only in the most general terms. Good statistics that would portray the size and dynamics of such traffic are much harder to come by. Such numbers would be valuable for municipal officials in places like Fort McMurray, for example, who may be providing local services to large numbers of individuals who declare their residence and pay taxes somewhere else in the country.

In fact, what Neis concluded was that the subject of extended commuting — which affects large numbers of Canadians as well as temporary foreign workers — has been studied only in a limited way.

“What people haven’t done is come at this fairly systematically and looked at what we’re calling the spectrum of employment-related mobility,” she says, referring to extended commuting that ranges from driving within or through cities to flying across the country, out of the country and — for Canada’s growing number of temporary foreign workers — into the country.

So Neis has spent the past four years assembling On the Move: Employment-Related Geographical Mobility in the Canadian Context, an unprecedented, seven-year research partnership that launched in 2012, funded in part by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), that is designed specifically to examine the spectrum of commuter behaviour, from extended daily commutes to prolonged absences, in multiple sectors and provinces. With an overall budget approaching $4 million, On the Move comprises some 40 researchers in 17 academic disciplines at 22 universities in Canada and abroad. The partnership also includes dozens of students, along with participants from more than 30 community organizations representing industry, labour and government.

 “A lot of these people have never been networked before,” explains Neis, noting the piecemeal nature of research in this field. That makes the CFI contribution all the more significant, she adds, since it is helping to acquire communications infrastructure to enable this far-flung group of researchers, community partners, stakeholders and project administrators to stay in touch. An innovative video-conferencing system, for instance, will allow individuals to interact with one another without the need for any hardware other than their existing desktop computers.

The CFI is also helping the network outfit students and researchers with high-definition video cameras to turn research data into a series of more broadly appealing digital stories, which should encourage a wider audience to consider how extended commuting is affecting employers, workers, their families and host communities. That audience could well include people in a position to determine policies affecting the mobility of labour, whether it be a federal government agency or the human resources department of a company.

Neis says the project is addressing issues such as the human resources challenges of managing a “just-in-time” labour force, the impacts on individuals constantly transitioning between a work and home life that are potentially thousands of kilometres apart and the health and safety implications of working for several long days in a row, which many workers do to maximize their earnings in the time they’re away from their families.

In this way, Neis would like to see the insights provided by On the Move inform how employers regard their commuting staff and how those commuters regard themselves. In the meantime, she is eagerly awaiting the release of the core findings from Statistics Canada’s latest National Household Survey, which now contains details of how far people are travelling to their jobs and the time it takes.

“I can’t wait until those new data become available,” says Neis. “There’ll be lots of really interesting work that we can do with that information.”UVic a research capability that no other institution has and enables researchers to look at things as small as the inside of a virus or individual atoms of gold, unlocking a world of hidden possibilities.

Originally posted: October 21, 2013