Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:

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Camp Life

Part Hotel, Part Prison

'Work camp' is a term that conjures up images of dilapidated bunkhouses in the woods, bereft of privacy or amenities. The reality is quite different, as you can see from the picture above, the view from my window at the 2,000 room Surmont 2. In an oil sands work camp everyone has a private room that is cleaned every day while you work. Bathrooms are shared with only one other person, or no one at all. Cable TV and Wifi are in every room. The food is not only nutritious and limitless, but delicious, as most camp kitchens are run by Red Seal sous chefs. Staying in an average camp today is a lot like staying in a hotel, except free, or rather free for you—your company will foot the $260 daily bill for your stay.

The work camp building boom in the oil sands was borne out of the apparently insoluble housing shortage in Fort McMurray. Building there continues at a glacial pace while the population surges. The only solution for the oil companies is to maintain thousands of fly-in fly-out workers in remote work camps, an admittedly expensive expedient. Known as the ‘shadow population’, there are thought to be around 60,000 of these itinerant workers, a little less than the total population of Fort McMurray itself. Some of the camps are small, as few as 20 labourers living in couple of trailers. Others are absolutely enormous--Imperial Oil’s Wapasca Lodge houses 4,500 workers. This video gives you a sense of the scale.

Not only have the camps grown, but they’ve become surprisingly comfortable. Until as recently as a decade ago many were still reeking male-only bunkhouses with a single shared bathroom. One might even have to share a hot bunk with a night shift worker. Then the price of oil went up and companies began expanding and hiring aggressively. At some point someone realized they could better lure talented workers away from the competition by making the camps livable. What followed was an arms race in luxury accommodations that continues to this day.

Fort Hills, featured in this video, is Suncor’s latest salvo in the camp wars. With squash courts, games rooms, movie theatres and professional chefs, it is marginally, only marginally, better than the several camps I stayed in. As far as I’m aware, all the camps built in the last five years are close to this standard.

Rooms

This is your boilerplate room at ConocoPhillip’s Surmont 2 camp where I stayed. I'd say this is the industry average. If you are unlucky you may have to share a washroom with the person living next to you ("Jack and Jill"). Whereas at another camp I worked at my room was twice the size of the one shown here, had a double mattress and a fridge. At the very least you can expect relative privacy, cable TV and wifi, even if the walls are thin.

Room

Food

Let’s take a look at Surmont 2's menu. On a randomly selected night you have the choice of three dinner entrees, prime rib, broccoli chicken or bam shrimp, and sides of mashed potatoes, green beans and baby carrots. If you’d prefer something more fattening there’s a diner serving fast food. Alternatively there’s the health bar, with a curry and soup of the day, steamed chicken, and fresh fish flown in that morning. For dessert there are four or five different cakes baked in house, and even a self-serve ice cream bar with waffle cones. I couldn’t get enough of the waffle cones. This is all available on one day and the entire dinner menu changes daily. You can see the full menu here.

The breakfasts consist of sausages, bacon, eggs (cooked however you like), hash browns and beans. Cereal and porridges are on hand too. For lunches there was a large assortment of sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, pastries, and leftovers from last night you could bag and take to eat out on the work site.

It is served buffet style and there is no limit to how much you can take. I didn’t fully grasp this until a portly man ahead of me in the breakfast line asked for “30 pieces of bacon.” The cook didn’t even bat an eyelash while she erected a teetering mountain of bacon on his plate.

Breakfast, Dinner, Dessert. I wasn't eating healthy on this particular day, though the options were certainly there.

All in all this was pretty standard for camp food. I stayed in four camps and only in the tiny temporary one did the food deviate noticeably in quality. In reality there was little room to ever complain about the chef's culinary skills—though having little else to talk about we still did. At one camp complaints about the boring sandwich lunches reached management’s ears (they forced frequent 'customer' satisfaction surveys on us) and they deftly responded by setting up a sandwich bar. After work you’d simply fill in a card describing whatever sandwich you wanted and the next morning it would be ready waiting for you.

Follow the Rules

The oil companies have been seeking to dispel the popular notion of the “rig pig” and instead want to retain skilled cocaine-free employees. One of the easiest ways to do this is to clamp down on unruly behaviour in the camps and turn them into comfortable, welcoming places. Achieving this vision has necesitated the hiring of small armies of private security guards to patrol the hallways and parking lots to maintain order.

A handler carries the drug dog through the mud on a routine sweep of the parking lot.

Company policy becomes law in a work camp. In many instances you will be forced to sign a waiver giving the company the right to search your room and belongings without your knowledge. If they find weapons, illicit drugs, prescription drugs without your name on them, or (in a dry camp, which is most of them) alcohol, you will be immediately fired. You are required to get 8 hours of sleep every night to be deemed ‘fit for duty’ and if security finds you stumbling around the halls in the small hours of the morning you can be prevented from working the next day. For safety reasons some camps proscribe any walking around outside. Some will not even offer parking, making you reliant on an ephemeral shuttle to get in and out of camp, effectively trapping you on site for the duration of your shift.

Though the rules are on the whole fairly reasonable, the stereotypically rowdy attitude of many oil sands workers makes it hardly surprising a lot of people still get fired. Indeed, people disappear so frequently nobody even bothers asking where they went, or what they did, sometimes making it feel like some totalitarian society in a Solzhenitsyn novel. Nevertheless I did hear a few of the more colourful explanations for firings.

  • New hires must go through orientation, a two hour video lecture on safety rules at the job site. At its conclusion a drug-sniffing dog is brought in to ‘meet’ the nervous new employees (Surprise!). At my orientation the dog got ‘hits’ on two out of seven people and they were immediately fired. Hits in the orientation were so common my security guard friend told me it was actually noteworthy to get through an orientation without one. Sometimes there would be a single person in the lecture and the dog would still get a hit, comically rendering the whole orientation pointless.
  • At one point a prostitute apparently took up a bustling practice in the camp, walking the halls searching for the pre-arranged signal: popcorn on the floor outside the door. When this scheme was uncovered by security anyone found leaving popcorn outside their doors was immediately fired.
  • During a routine search of the dorms Viagra was discovered in an operator’s room. He didn’t have a prescription for it so he was fired.
  • The manager of the site’s security was discovered holding sexual congress with a secretary in a janitor's closet. His position did not save him and they were both fired.
  • An electrician was operating a veritable illicit pharmacy from his trunk in the parking lot. The RCMP was called after he attempted to escape.
  • After a night out on the town, a tradesperson made it back to camp too late to sneak to his room without arousing suspicion. He passed out in his car instead. When security knocked on his window in the morning he blundered out of his car, still roaring drunk, and attempted to wrestle his way into the guard’s truck to make his getaway.
  • This hard hat sticker was briefly popular.

  • A drunk (in a wet camp) ironworker took a swing at a security guard when told it was past quiet hours. Gone. But outside of that fights were extremely rare. Most of the workers are Canadian after all.

It is not my intention to give the impression the camps are dens of iniquity and sin. Quite the opposite, drugs, sex and alcohol (in dry camps) are rare, easily avoided and taboo. That’s why all these anecdotes all end with someone getting fired. Life in a camp is wholesome by default and if you go looking to engage in activities that would make you unfit for duty you must remember you are under video surveillance every time you leave your room.

Many chafe at this strict enforcement and the rigid schedule. Where else but prison are you told where and when to eat, sleep and work, and constantly monitored by video cameras and uniformed guards? At one point on the Kinosis project someone began handing out tongue-in-cheek hard hat stickers that referred to our camp as a penitentary and featured a blindfolded prisoner. They quickly declined in popularity after those sporting them started to disappear.

Be Confident In Your Sanity

The paternalistic oil companies do their best to alleviate the isolation and feeling of utter dependence that seeps in. Most camps have recreation rooms with billiards, foose ball and ping pong tables. There are enormous TVs to watch hockey, though because people come from every corner of Canada picking which game to watch is difficult. You can spend your evenings in the gym. You can watch TV in your room and use the Wifi to Skype your loved ones (bandwidth permitting). Ensuring productive workers requires a delicate balancing act between a friendly and permissive atmosphere and one where the residents feel like caged children.

Poker night in my camp room.

Some thrive in this atmosphere, but for others all the amenities cannot overcome the monotony. Long shifts (expect 14 to 28 days) can leave you feeling the outside world has forgotten you exist. You long to go anywhere that is not ‘this place’. Your life begins to revolve around your numerous and irritating bosses and their slights and snubs, real or perceived. For whatever reason the enforced separation of camp work frequently takes a wrecking ball to romantic relationships. The men and women with families often struggled to get through missed birthdays and holidays (the work doesn't stop except for Christmas/New Years).

The key to keeping up your spirits is having good coworkers. While almost everyone will be friendly and talkative to some degree, work cliques are pervasive and it can be hard to meet people from other companies. If you have good coworkers in your company then this isn’t a problem. A sense of comradeship quickly develops and in a short time the people around you become some of the best friends you’ve ever made. The bulk of my time in the oil sands I was lucky enough to have such a positive and tight-knit group of friends. Those long shifts flew by and the trials of working in the snow or mud became enjoyable when the experience was shared with friends. For those few periods when I did not have friends to share the experience with I sought refuge in the gym and in video games. And I thought about leaving.

It’s a bizarre experience, though one I'm thankful I had. The amenities and food are excellent, and by and large the people are kind and interesting. You can scarcely ask for anything more. Yet it is taxing. Isolated, you can’t help but dwell on the illusion that everyone you know and love is continuing their lives in the outside world without you. The depressing realization that all the days have blurred into one another and you can barely remember if what happened yesterday actually happened a month ago. It’s enough to drive one a little mad.

But then I remember my favourite book, The Forgotten Soldier, and realize how much better we have it than virtually all the other humans that have ever lived, and I feel foolish for complaining.