Wednesday, 16 April 2014


Hello Friends.

I live in a place where money spurts up from the ground. I can't figure out exactly how drilling for oil works, and what this pipeline is about, and why Alberta's livelihood is so completely linked to the practice, but there you are. Since moving here from a much bigger city, I've been trying to determine what makes this place different beyond obvious comparisons like size and population.

Sometimes it feels like the 1920's gold rush here. Maybe it's because our own relocation was prompted by our loss of jobs in Ontario and new opportunities here and so we're looking through a decidedly different lens, but it feels like nobody was born here, and everyone is here for a job. There are obviously people born and raised here who happily stay put. There is a lively arts and culture scene that proves not everyone is a transplant, not to mention well-established neighborhoods and family homes that have been around for generations. The educational opportunities here are amazing and the economy is such that people really build a life for themselves.

I wonder, though, about the startlingly high murder rate and statistics regarding drug-related crime. I think about how to reconcile that with a city seemingly awash in prosperity. It's like how Toronto brags about being a progressive, thriving city (with a thirty year old transit system, obviously corrupt mayoral government, and unbelievably high poverty rate), or how Regina thinks putting in a new stadium will somehow fix the dying centre of town where the soup kitchen is operating at maximum capacity and people get stabbed to death in the mall. I wonder what will happen to Edmonton if the oil wells ever dry up, and what that means for the people on the rigs. I'd like to find out.

Dream: Go to work on the rigs.

Goal: Unachievable in every sense. From what little I do know about the job, it is grueling physical labour for long stretches and any mistake could result in injury or death. I'm Princess Delicate Baby Flower when it comes to things as simple as climbing a ladder or painting a hallway, I can't imagine actually doing what these guys and gals do on a regular basis.

Having said that, part of me longs to be one of those immersed journalists of the bygone era who filed their stories by living among the people they were reporting on, almost like anthropologists. Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people with jobs of every stripe for his definitive tome Working. Working is thousands of pages of first person accounts of what it's like to be a nurse, a cashier, a factory worker, a brain surgeon, a ditch digger, etc. Barbara Ehrenreich took an assignment from Harper's magazine concerning Bill Clinton's newly introduced Welfare to Work reform bill. She wanted to see if she could actually pay rent and eat three meals a day on a minimum wage job in America without assistance, so she worked at a restaurant, then an old folks home, then a WalMart, while living in a rented room, and then a trailer. The result is her fantastic book, Nickel & Dimed. I can't afford to quit my job to live among the riggers to interview them, and I certainly couldn't do the job myself, so it's my hope that one day I will be able to interview a couple and report back.

Plan: Figure out just what it is I want to know about working on the oil rigs, and what it means for the place where I live. If I could interview an oil rig worker, here is what I would want to know:

What is your work day? Oil patches are (obviously) far away from everything. As I understand it, most workers live on the site for arrangements like two weeks on, two weeks off. The two weeks on have them bunked in cramped quarters, up early, and in bed late, for grueling 12 hour days in conditions that apparently aren't the safest. According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics (couldn't find the correlating Canadian findings) as many as 4.2 percent of oil and gas workers are hurt on the job each year, sustaining injuries ranging from burns to head trauma, exposure to toxins, and amputation.  The other day at work I wrote, "extensive" when what I probably meant was "comprehensive" in a press release. It was a mistake, but my arm didn't get blown off and nobody died.

Aren't you bored? A 12 hour day doing anything sounds awfully tedious, but because of the inherent danger in the labour, it must involve a kind of concentrated, focused boredom (which is the worst kind). Plus, working on a weeks on/weeks off system sounds attractive, until you realize that the "weeks on" weeks include weekends too. I have a friend who used to work as a security guard on an oil rig, and from what he described to me, working on the rigs is like going to war but there isn't a war on. It's like being in prison but you're sentenced to two weeks at a time. Drugs and alcohol are absolutely forbidden but there is a lot of fighting and a looooot of porn. My friend would routinely bang on the doors of single-occupancy places because the tenant was blasting hardcore videos as loud as they would go. What does that say about one's state of mind (not to mention their hearing)?

But aren't you on drugs? I probably should have mentioned this bit at the beginning, but all of my evidence is absolutely anecdotal here, aside from a little lazy online research. That said, though drugs are expressly forbidden from any rigging site, I've heard some of these lads and lasses find creative ways to fill their off time. Who can blame them, really? If your job requires you to be hyper-focused for hours on end with no place to escape to at the end of the day, couldn't you be forgiven for indulging in some chemical escape when your work is done? But it's not just pot. I've heard it posited that the reason cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs are so rampant in this province is because so many of these guys have too much money and too little to do.  It's been proven that long shifts without breaks compromises your health immeasurably. Throw drugs in the mix and I shudder to think what could result.

Are you married? The other side of the "nonstop drug party" mentality must create its own problems. A lot of workers with demanding professions like doctors, lawyers, and labourers like riggers have a strong impulse to seek stability in their non-work life and so rush into marriage (and consequently, divorce). My security guard friend told me that a lot of these guys see their friends making poor life choices and so they put their money into the wedding, the home, and the kids. Trouble is, of course, that hubby and Daddy (or wife and Mommy) are necessarily away a lot of the time. What does that do to a marriage and family?

How much money do you make? Really, how much? Because my understanding is money is far and away the biggest draw for this job. Working in retail here, I noticed how difficult it is to fill vacancies in the service sector. Unlike Ontario, where I battled viciously for full time shifts in lousy jobs, here in Alberta, my full time availability was a godsend. It was not that long ago that people took service sector jobs after high school or university while waiting to find a job in their field.  I suppose a rise in professional internships (and folks living at home longer and being subsidized by their folks) means this pattern is on the decline but to some kids, a job on the oil rig must look like the Golden Ticket. "I work two weeks on, two off and I make HOW much?!" I'm sure the money is good and beats whatever I made folding sweaters then, or what I make now writing copy. But I'd also imagine working on the oil rigs is a very specific skill that can't be applied in too many other fields. Service sector jobs at least teach you how to deal with a variety of people and not be an asshole (in most cases). However, I wonder how else you can parlay your oil rigging skills when you're ready to leave the profession behind? To that end, maybe you can't leave the profession behind. You must get used to the weeks on/weeks off and especially the paycheque!

I say all of this not to denigrate what has to be an extremely difficult and demanding job. Alberta has the oil sands to thank for pumping money into this province and generating the economic boom that has landed the Doc and me into comfy jobs for the moment. But I keep thinking about those men and women that hit all the criteria I just described. The ones with mind-numbing yet dangerous jobs, high paycheques, families they never see, and drug problems.  What becomes of them if something happens to our oil supply? What happens to the cities here when the drills stop drilling and the plenty we currently enjoy becomes scarce? I worry that the wealthy execs and greedy tycoons are becoming wealthier and greedier off the backs of these workers. I worry that counting on one resource to help everyone isn't particularly resourceful. Apparently, we have enough oil in the ground for generations to come, but what goes boom must too go bust, and things can't stay this way forever. I like my new home very much yet I can't help but think that I'm benefitting from the complex machinations of a really shaky system, and that system is rigged. 

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