Farmers And Travelers In A Tar-Sands Boomtown

Fort McMurray, Alberta, has tripled in size as global energy companies focus on the largest oil reserve outside of Saudi Arabia. I’m up in Fort McMurray, northern Alberta, the international boomtown at the center of the Canadian oil fields. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny Canadian Thanksgiving, and much of the town is cleared out, with workers back home for the holiday in Edmonton or Calgary, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. After just a few hours here, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers from Somalia and Ethiopia, an equipment operator and a bartender from Nova Scotia, and hotel workers from the Philippines and Labrador. They’ve come to this remote place for the money. You hear talk of drivers pulling $140,000 for six months’ worth of long shifts, of safety technicians earning $200,000, of McDonald’s workers making $20 an hour. The cost of housing says plenty about the high demand for labor. One worker pays $1,900 a month to rent a single room — about the going rate. Another bought a trailer home for $400,000 four years ago and figures he can pay it off in another five or six years. Subdivisions and apartment blocks rise up along the town’s busy ring road, and many workers for the big oil companies like Syncrude and Suncor don’t even need private housing; they stay in camps of stacked trailers at the work sites. I saw a middle-aged man sleeping in a parked Mercedes with British Columbia plates. Dallas JohnsonDallas Johnson showed me the town and a bluff where oil-laden bitumen cracks free from the cliff.Photo: Jonathan HiskesThe energy company Suncor built the rec center to provide some social amenities to keep pace with Fort McMurray’s furious growth. With so few residents who consider themselves “permanent,” the town has fewer churches, social clubs, and veterans’ groups than most settlements of its size Fort McMurray streetscapeA subdivision in Fort McMurray where new homes sell for $800,000 and upwardPhoto: Jonathan HiskesHe drives me past his high school, which will be one of four when the latest is completely built, and along clusters of beige homes that would fit right into suburban Chicago. The streets are broad and empty, and there’s no indication that we’re in a mining town until we turn onto a bluff and walk down a short trail. Dallas disappears down a cliff and returns in a moment with a chunk of bitumen that smells like asphalt. It takes a firm grip to crack it now, but in the summer heat it oozes sticky from the cliff, Dallas says. (Workers must either blast steam underground to melt the oil-sand mixture before it can be pumped up, or plow the top crust of the forested land to dig it out.) He says environmental critics are nearly as common and as fleeting as the contract workers: “Anyone who comes up here and says you can’t have oil sands drilling, they’re looking at what drives Canada’s economy. Canada wouldn’t be what it is without this.” A preacher I know says the world is made of farmers and travelers — people who are able to settle down and tend the metaphorical soil of a particular place, and people who need to move and search for a place where the grass isgreener, the air sweeter, the jobs better-paying. I like that description. And Dallas seems to me to be a classic farmer type, one who is tending the oil-soaked soil of the Canadian north. Yet even he says he wants to move his family when his schooling is done, possibly to OnTARio, chiefly because of the winters here. A town this remote is always going to want for longtime residents, he says. “It’s hard to ask people to bring their families to one of the coldest places in Canada,” he says. “But the need is for people to be more invested in the community.” ((12 OCT 2010))

















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