Discover more from Wild Life with Amy Jay
Working and Living in Fort McMurray
I worked in the oil sands for a decade. Seems like a weird choice for an environmentalist, but you know what?!
After living and working in Canada’s biggest oil boomtown, I loved it. I learned a ton and met a lot of great people. I now understand how the gas in my tank (or diesel) got there.
Don’t be a NIMBY. We all consume Oil&Gas products daily. Support local.
At the age of 18 I moved to Fort McMurray with very little work experience and no direction. I had almost no money and didn’t understand much of anything. I was excited to get out into the world and see what it’s all about. It was an experience that set my life into motion.
Before I left Ontario my family suffered a big loss. My stepmother was a very kind and loved person and her passing was hard for everyone. I was in my final year of high school and my grades slipped badly. With the family grieving, my applications to college just didn’t happen. In a strange choice, after graduation I decided to do an extra semester of high school and work part time.
For a short while I was a waitress. I made $6.20 an hour plus tips. I however didn’t make much in tips as I learned two things about myself;
1- I was a terrible waitress.
2 - I have a strong aversion to other peoples dirty dishes. I have all of the respect in the world for servers and dishwashers.
After that I got a job at an oil change place. I have always had an interest in cars and I was excited to get greasy. However on my first day I learned that I would not be doing the oil changes - which paid more - but would be the cashier. That got under my skin. On one occasion the alarm in a corvette was set off and I promptly showed the people being paid more how to disable it.
This just wouldn’t do.
I didn’t give that employer any notice when I packed up my Dodge camper van and left town. And you know what, I don’t even feel bad about it. All I knew was that I was ‘going out west’. I didn’t know where I’d end up. Some of my closest family friends who I still consider my brothers had moved to Fort McMurray so I decided to head there.
I arrived in Fort Mac in 2006. Things were booming. Finding housing was nearly impossible and I ended up living with my family friends a few times as I got my footing. I did a program called ‘Women in Trades’ while working part time as a cashier at Canadian Tire. The program helped me to get all of the small tickets needed to find work in the Oil Sands.
I then worked in the parts department at Canadian Tire where I met the people that helped to open the door to finding work ‘at site’ - where the money is. I also met some crummy people like a manager who convinced himself that I’d been stealing and gave me a bad reference - but let’s leave jerks like Craig in the past where they belong.
The Oil Sands
The Oil Sands isn’t ‘the rigs’. When you work in the Oil Sands you’re working in a massive job site, usually just called ‘site’. Alternatively a ‘rig’ is a drilling rig. It drills a hole to tap an oil well underground. Fracking is another version of drilling using pressurized steam or water. The Oil Sands are different. They are open pit mines. They use very (VERY) large shovels and heavy haulers to take sand that is soaked in natural bitumen and extract the oil from it. I worked at two different oil sands sites that process oil in that way.
Each site employs a few thousand people. The exact number of employees is an ever changing thing as new jobs come up and are completed. My role was handling parts and materials for various aspects of the business. I handled all kinds of things from large valves, pipe and engines - to funny things like brushes for the buffalo.
We buy diamonds and gold for our fingers, marble and quartz for our countertops, and lithium for our batteries. All are mined from the earth. We use oil for a bunch of different products. Even with the use of alternative energy, there’s no end in sight for the oil industry.
Undoubtedly, digging up the ground and creating an open pit mine changes an ecosystem. What was surprising about the Oilsands was their focus on remediation and reclamation. There’s a strong focus on creating processes to bring the wildlife back and making it a healthy place again. Though far from perfect I believe that our oil industry is being held accountable and continuing to focus on doing it in a better way.
Another interesting thing is that natural bitumen literally seeps out of the ground there. On a hot day you can watch oil run down the banks and into the river. It’s strangely… natural. I’ve swam in the rivers and came out with oily spots. Not saying that’s healthy but - natural.
Nightshifts in my Favourite Warehouse
When I started working at Suncor bosses didn’t work nights. I was at the beginning of a group of new hires and was often the most senior person, sometimes making tough calls. I’m someone that likes a challenge so for me that was a blast. Anyone that’s worked night shifts knows how fun they can be, and that there are no shenanigans. Ever. (Thick sarcasm)
For years I worked on ‘L’ shift. Twelve hour shifts. I’d work 3 days, 3 nights then 6 off. It took some getting used to and was tough on my circadian rhythm, but man it was fun! My favourite area to work in was the mine where the heavy haulers are repaired and maintained in a huge shop. Huge. Picture me driving an electric parts buggy like the one below around trucks so big their rims are 63 inches in diameter.
I operated a lot of different machines on a daily basis. From man lifts and warehouse pickers that you wear a harness in - to large forklifts that lift 50,000 lbs. It was fun being so comfortable with machinery and heights..
It was also a little funny. I found things to be very equal opportunity there, but sometimes a truck would arrive with something large like an engine to be offloaded.
‘You’ll get your guy to offload it?’ the truck driver would ask
‘Yep I’ll send my guy’ I’d reply
A few minutes later I’d appear in one of the big forklifts, ‘Large Marge’ or ‘Big Bertha’ and watch the drivers face turn to terror. Sometimes they personally own their trucks and you could see their concern. Of course once it was easily offloaded I’d look smug and get back to whatever I’d been doing.
A Fort McMurray Resident
The cultural diversity in Fort McMurray was a pleasant surprise. The town draws in people from every corner of the world. I worked with people from different countries in Africa, Asia, India, South America. I can’t imagine being from the equator and then suddenly in a northern Alberta cold snap. Brr. That said, it’s true that the dry cold doesn’t get ‘into your bones’ as much as wet cold. It’s surprisingly more tolerable.
The town is also very well appointed. There are many neighbourhoods, elementary and high schools, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, you name it. There’s even a museum and a couple of theatres. One amazing addition that was built when I lived there is the MacDonald Island Park, Canada’s largest community recreation facility!
Fort Mac is an outdoor enthusiasts paradise. It’s a town surrounded by wilderness and has multiple rivers running through it. The extreme weather and unique work shifts create a feeling of camaraderie unlike anywhere else. A feeling that ‘we might be tough oil workers but we’re all in this together’. I loved it and in 2009 when real estate was in a supposed low I bought a condo. I found my home base. 700 square feet with underground parking, a very nice feature when it’s -40.
By 2016 my life was moving away from ‘the Mac’. The town was amazing to me and had taught me so much. I spent the first ten years of my adult life there and would never change that. But it was time for my life to head in a new direction. I’d been commuting to B.C. and loved spending my time in the mountains. It was time to think about leaving my incredible job.
I decided to list my condo for sale as oil prices dove in 2016. Then, the big fire happened. When everyone was allowed to return prices dove further. I ended up finding a buyer and sold at a huge loss. I’ve found that to push forward with new opportunities you have to accept some loss. I’m okay with the monetary hit. Fort Mac gave me more than just money. It taught me. It took me under it’s wing, and showed me my own strength.