October 17, 2007
The work camps of Fort McMurray
by Lindsay Bird
The Dominion - http://www.dominionpaper.ca
Two mechanics from site picked me up at the Fort McMurray Greyhound station at 2pm. I had spent the uncomfortable six-hour bus ride from Edmonton beside a large, sweating man from Bathurst, New Brunswick, who worked at the same site to which I was travelling. When this connection was discovered, he excitedly phoned his sons, also on-site, to tell them 'a girl was coming.' My introduction to the alternate society of work camps had begun.
Of Wood Buffalo Region's population of 80,000, over 10,000 live in work camps flung far and wide throughout the bush. Here, being female is akin to having a giant pair of antlers on your head and wearing neon clothing adorned with flashing, beeping lights -- all the time. In my camp, perhaps 30 or 40 of the 1400 people were women. The first time I attended meal hall, I made the mistake of wearing a mid-length skirt and, while trying to swallow incredibly inedible "food," I overheard several conversations about the possible colour of my underwear.
Generally, work camps service the construction sector, with most contractors' workforces living in trailers on or close to the worksite--anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours from Fort McMurray. The trailers each hold between 30 and 50 men, plopped onto a carved-out section of bush; these camps typically house 1,500 to 2,500 people. Like weird small towns, you see the same people over and over again, learning more about their habits than their personalities. Being a girl, this is naturally amplified. "You wore a red shirt yesterday" is both a brilliant observation and a good pickup line, in camp terms.
The camps are not trying to emulate small towns. Rather, they reinforce a sense of estrangement from the immediate surroundings; rules about what personal items are allowed are many and domestic comforts are few. Meal times are set, quiet hours are enforced and any unusual activities are investigated by the security guards. Most workers are on a rotational schedule, working six weeks at a time, before being flown--at company expense--to their home territory for two. Due to intense overcrowding, many camps have adopted what is known as "hotel-style service." Employees check into a camp room for their shift and leave with all their belongings at the end, effectively forcing them to live out of a suitcase. Company policy states that "this emphasizes that our workers are on-site to work," and not to establish any type of home within the camp.
This is exactly what makes camps successful in oil companies' eyes. Workers living in camp are far more likely to have spotless attendance records than those living in town. There is not much point in missing work when all you can do with a day off is sit in an 8-by-12-foot bunk. The productivity of camp workers is therefore worth the expense of keeping them in camps, where the bill for a single day's lodging can vary from $120 to $180 and is entirely picked up by the client or contractor. Oil company logic follows that by creating too plush an atmosphere within camps would lead to increased absenteeism and, at the very worst, a home away from home.
This institutionalized nomadicism has contributed to the careless atmosphere most camp residents have towards Fort McMurray. It is not a pretty town and its air of neglect is palpable: as the saying goes, everyone works in Fort McMurray, but nobody lives there. Many workers avoid going to town altogether, preferring to wait in line to use the long-distance pay phones. Town nightlife is fraught with bar fights--especially between non-union and union members--centred on how much money one can spend at the strip club or casino. Outsiders would be amazed to learn that it is possible to throw $300 worth of toonies at a stripper over the course of an evening. The small upside of this testosterone fest: if you're female, your drinks will always, always be bought for you.
These alive and alarmingly abundant stereotypes contributed to my thoroughly mixed reaction to camp. On the one hand, the camp functions as a refuge from these harsh elements of town life; but on the other, it subjects one to a totally unnatural way of living. Work is the focus of existence. As the "hotel-style" camps emphasize, life is something that happens when you're away from camp. What exists in camp, then, is a society defined by work and routine, out of touch with larger civilization. As one camp resident of two years says, "Camp life is hard to describe to anybody who hasn't been there. Even my family doesn't get it."
The drag of the daily routine, enforced always by rules, is indeed hard to convey to outsiders. In search of a small break in mid-December, my friend Dave bought a toboggan and brought it to go sledding on the hill behind the camp. We had talked about the possibility of sledding for weeks beforehand and the potential for an activity other than watching TV or getting drunk had us all excited. Three of us bundled up against the -30 degree weather one night and took the sled out -- only to be stopped by a security guard after our first run down. "I don't think there is a specific rule against this," he said, "but you better stop anyway." Minutes later, we were back in our rooms having a beer and the piercing disappointment we all felt could only be understood by someone else worn down by the monotony of camp.
The sense of mental isolation, compounded by geographic remoteness, means it takes a certain hardiness of personality to survive in camps. For those who can, there is the benefit of saving large amounts of money within short spans of time. The friendships formed in camps are close-knit, as people depend on their friends to stay sane in such an absurd environment. My camp life was positively shaped by the people I met there and they are the reason I look back at my time there somewhat fondly -- that is, until I remember the meal hall.