Though I first wrote about this months ago, the degree to which the "working up north" scenario has become so prevalent here in the Okanagan continues to amaze me. Reflecting on all the people I have met, talked to around town, and seen as part of my counseling practice, this theme has only appeared more and more often as time goes by. When we look at why some families have chosen to have the scenario as part of their lives, it may highlight some of the evolving values in our society, and specifically here in the Okanagan. Allow me to share a number of observations with you, and an interpretation of what it may mean for parents, teens and children.
First, I had an interesting conversation with a local crane operator, who told me of his experience working up in the tar sands, and how there was a great need for people of countless trades up there, including his own. He chose to return from collecting a large paycheque in Alberta, and instead commute regularly between Kelowna and Kamloops as part of making a living as a crane operator in the Okanagan. By his own admission he makes significantly less money now, but does not regret his decision months later. His parting comment was this: "No matter how many times you come home, or how flexible your company is, you ARE going to miss big events in your kid's life. That wasn't how I wanted to live anymore".
For a long time, my own assumption was that if the economy here in B.C. were stronger, many or most of those off earning a living up north would return to live in the Okanagan full time. After all, why would one choose to live away from family if it were not required? A millwright here in Kelowna had his own thoughts about that idea, and encouraged me to look past my own assumptions. In his words, a qualified tradesman (or woman) committed to making a living within a commutable distance should be able to do so, as long as the desire to work is strong. A limitation comes, he suggested, from the lure of the large paycheque that is impossible to overlook. Those who place high enough importance upon having a generous house, new vehicles, and perhaps a boat will have fewer issues working significant distance from home than those who simply wish to provide for the necessities of life, with enough left over to register a child for hockey, for example.
So, is there a larger statement being made about local families currently living with the working up north scenario? I am not prepared to state that anyone who chooses this option simply wants to have more toys for the family to enjoy, or a roomier house in a trendy area. Without question, there are a few significant reasons for a husband and father to spend weeks at a time working far away other than simply material items. These can include a fatigue in living with a month-to-month budget, or needing a different and exciting challenge in one's career path, to name two. Nonetheless, I don't doubt there are also a large number of people who choose this work who rightly want to make the most of their lives in the Okanagan, and allow their families the opportunity to enjoy the same. Part of this often includes ski passes, boating costs, money for numerous kids' sports and recreational programs, trips to Vegas or Mexico during the winter months, and the list goes on.
The larger question then becomes one of priorities, and this is where the impact upon families is important to be carefully considered. No amount of money can ever replace the value of healthy, loving, joyful connections within a family. The benefits of these connections, and everybody feeling safe, happy, and significant to those around them, are ones that will pay off for decades and even generations to come. Our society often supports the idea that the ability to accumulate wealth and privilege is of prime importance, without always considering the consequences of such a popular belief. In our unique local area, and with the ability to build significant wealth up north one of its realities, it can be easier here than most other places to lose sight of this important sense of perspective, and create the healthy, happy family all of us want.
The more clients I see, the more I am reminded that children and teens want nothing more than to connect, and enjoy the presence of both (when possible) parents in a comfortable home. Interestingly, very few tell me they require toys and expensive activities before they are prepared to deepen family relationships. When deciding whether working up north is the best option for a family, and at times it may be, factoring in the degree to which healthy connection for everyone in the home can be maintained is essential to consider.
Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and parents. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice: