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Working Full-Time

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Issue: 48 Section: Accounts Geography: West Fort McMurray Topics: labour, tar sands

October 17, 2007

Working Full-Time

The work camps of Fort McMurray

by Lindsay Bird

A worker in a camp near Fort McMurray shows us his room.

Photo: Dru Oja Jay

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.

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lindsay, I was just

lindsay, I was just wondering if you have ever spent a few days even in fort mcmurray. I think it is a little bit unfair for you to write an articale about fort mcmurray when all you have to base it on is a bus ride and a day at camp. To say it's not a pretty town when all you did was ride a bus threw it. To say that there are fights every night at the bars between union and non union guys is comical. Do you live in the murder capitol of canada I'm sorry I mean edmonton?

I didn't live a day in camp,

I didn't live a day in camp, I lived a year and a half and still do. I've spent a lot of time in Fort McMurray, either going out at night or doing anything a regular person might do- shopping/YMCA/snowboarding etc.
This article is about living in the camps, not particularly about Fort McMurray itself. It would be hyperbole to say there are fights every night in town, and I don't make that claim if you re-read the article, but I've witnessed enough brawls to accurately state that they happen.
There's tons of tension between union and non-union in town- it's awesome getting called "scab" while you wait for a bus because of the logo on your jacket.
And no, I don't live in Edmonton. And last time I checked, Regina had the homicide title:


Dear Lindsay

I am a woman, trying to find a job in a work camp in Fort McMurray and your pessimistic views of camp living sound pretty rude. I have plenty of relatives and friends in camps over there, all men yes, but they assure me it’s not as bad as you make it sound. Surely every camp is different in atmosphere and I'm sure it's more in the way you see it that makes your days pleasant or not. Sure, being a woman with all those men will without a doubt attract sexist comments, but you just have to not let it bother you. And if you hate it so much in camps why are you still there? Also, my dad always brags about how good the food at his camp is, so again, try not to send out a general negative picture for others. I know you are bored over there, but why not write an email to your friends instead of posting it publicly.
Anyways, that's just my opinion. I really can't say anything since I'm not there yet. Maybe I'm just trying to convince myself I'll be ok over there...

Oil Camps

Lindsay, I must first say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the oil camps and the lifestyle there, especially from a woman's perspective. I am a single 39-year old male with no children or ties doing some research on the possibility of moving and working in the area. I think a single fellow might fare better in this environment if he kept his hormones in check and had a few hobbies to avoid the many addictions I hear that have become a problem there. A former journalist myself, who then got into sales and then service and repairs, I find myself a 'jack of all trades' looking for a change. The money & steady work is obviously a draw for many from all over Canada and outside, but how does one find an oil camp to work in. This would make for a great article, but then again, maybe it is a secret to the area as there are thousands of jobseekers of every type & background looking to go there for the same goal at the lure of $$$$. Being an educated fellow, yet a strong hard-worker, how does one get himself into a work camp or find one that is seeking good help? I'm doing research into this and have been very unsuccessful so far. I've also researched the cost of living in the area and accomodations are next to impossible to come by. One ad I saw listed a 2-bedroom apartment for rent of $3900 a month!!! That is insane! Hence, my mission to find a work camp and many others I am sure as well. I see a few people had some sharp comments back to your article, but for me in Northern Ontario and doing research, I found it to be a great help and a 'slice of life' in the reality of a work camp. Thank you. Chris (any info is appreciated if you have time) :o)

oil camps

Not al apts are 3900. some are 2099.00 and under . Not furnished of course .

work camps

Im a twenty six year old male, I live in BC but have spent much of my time in albertsa, and BC work camps, very interesting article, over the years ive quite a few female friends that work in the camps, and for the most part your right, ive had coversations with my girls bout guys being pigs, or "creepy", but there are also girls in camp that love the selection of buys they can jump from, if you no what i mean. not to say where not pigs, i do have alot of girl friends(just friends) that i spend time with every night but am guilty myself of the color of ur panties conversation, what can i say, by the end of my turnaround its been a while, and sory for the bad example, but when you and your buddys are hungry, you talk about food. But you are very right about the close nit friendships, and harty ithink you said personalitys that keep, us going, oh yah, and only some camps have crappy food, ive had some that have been really good. I think i just wanted to respectfully say take it easy on some of us guys in camp, yah we can get rude and usually dont no how to talk to you, but were just lonely, and besides wanting to see what kind of nipples you have, as creepy as it can sometime seem, really just want some female affection, lots of true points from your view tho, funny article

woman thinking of applying to work at Camp

I have been thinking about the possibility of applying for work and staying at a worker's camp. I am female, single but will be supporting two kids with the money I make. Is it more difficult now to secure employment in unskilled jobs that would provide housing? I am also looking to see if I can locate someone who may be working at one of the camps is there any way to do that?

We have the same name!

We have the same name! Atleast one of us have a flair for writing. On the topic of this artical, i would hate to live in fort mcmurray or be anywhere near it. The isolation would be to depressing and im not just going off of what you wrote. I have relatives who worked there and man, if they could phone everyone in their phone book, they would because thats how bored they were. I didnt even hardly speak to my counsin before he went there.


I am a director/producer shooting a documentary about different workers experience in the oil sands. We want to tell a variety of stories based on workers from the east coast, woman, veterans and new workers to the camps experiences.

Living in the "OILSANDS"

Hi...I have lived in Fort Mac and the first three times that I went there I did not know anyone and did not have anywhere to stay well....Except for the Homeless shelter till I got on my feet with work and all.You have to be out in the mornings and you can't go back until around 5 P.M., so if you plan on going there make sure you have a place go lay your head.When it's -30/-40 it gives you the incentive to find work really fast.It's harsh enough with the cold but its harsher when you have noone and just the shelter it keep you from freezing.Not only that when you rent a room from someone for $800/$1000 a month its the same thing as living in camp but I was living in Town. Unless you know who you are renting off, you have to stay in your room the same as camp. Alot of people have surcommed to being lead down a road towards addiction/gambling etc just like I did.Yes Fort McMurray is isolated but there is so much there that can make a person keep from being bored like bowling,theater,shopping,atving....it is a money town with lots to do.It's not a town that just started out, if you calculate the town's population aswellas the camp personnal there is over approx.100,000 people. The housing situation is crazy because the houses aren't being built fast enough for the amount of people that live there. The unfortunate thing is that if you are making $10 p/h or $40 p/h all the rent is the same....it is in the top five for the most expensive places to live in Canada. I can't wait to get back out there again for the $$$$$. There is so much to do afterwork and the town is big enough that there is no need to feel isolated because all the plant sites have busses on hand that even bring the workers back and forth everyday to town to releave the pressure of camp life. Some camps are 1.3 hour drive and the workers can come back and forth.If you make enough money buy you're own food.

Fort Mac Camps: Do they still do this?

First of all, I wanted to say really enjoyed reading your article. It was both entertaining & informative; very well written. I took Journalism in university and you write just as well or better than most people I went to school with. Kudos!

Also, I'm wondering if you know if there is still work in Fort Mac that offers the arrangement of living in camp and working either 3 weeks on & getting sent home for a week (in my boyfriend's case home would be New Brunswick) or the 6 weeks on and sent home for 2 weeks off.

I'm not sure if you even read comments on this article this long after it was written but if you do any helpful info would be greatly appreciated.

hello everyone. i am looking

hello everyone. i am looking to go up to fort mc murray when i graduate. i will be 17, and im female. do you think i will be able to get a job up there at my age?

Good article, I've spent some

Good article, I've spent some time in bush camps, not in Fort Mac, but Northeastern Alberta. All I can say is, if you don't like your job, you will be that much more miserable when you get back to that cell...I mean room. So if you plan to go just for the money, well be prepared to be miserable, etc, because if you don't enjoy the work you are doing, well you'll find out the hard way...

my boyfriend is up in fort

my boyfriend is up in fort mac, says the food stinks but he is always 5lbs heavier when he gets home! his company pays him 12hrs a day even if he only works six! he doesnt drink or do drugs and has managed to put away a lot of cash since he has been gone. sure the conditions may suck, but there is no way in hell my boyfriend could make the money he is making out there, here at home. if you are someone who can stay out of the drinking and gambling etc, there is huge potential to make some good cash.

Wondering with whom I should apply?

Hello to all,

I'm considering work in a camp. I just started researching this topic and would like to know if there is a way to find out more about good vs bad companies/camps?



I really dislike people like

I really dislike people like you who have nothing good to say about fort Mcmurray. I lived there for 7 years and my family still does. It has brought so many opportunities for my family and I. If you have not lived there and truly got to experience all the good things about fort mcmurray, then I pity you. Fort McMurray is a wonderful place and it's definately not an ugly place to live.

realistic first/second year income?

Could someone comment on a realistic figure one could make in a year with no experience.Living in camps, head to the grind. Not spending a cent on drugs/booze/gambling/hookers.
I basically want to get in, work 1-4 years and get out.
Would like to read any and all replies to this
Also if you can recommend a specific company or camp to look into , that would be greatly appreciated.
cheers all.

Hi: I'm a 52 year old woman.

I'm a 52 year old woman. I've worked in Manufacturing/Assembly lines for 30+ years.
I was thinking of working in Fort Mac in one of the Remote Camps.
Does anyone know of a good Company that would hire someone without experience in this field. What kind of jobs do you think I'll be able to do. And if you know anything about the wages that would be great.
My plan is to go there and make money. Working the long hours and living in camp wouldn't be a problem for me.

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