Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:

A Complete Guide

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The People You'll Meet

More Diverse than you Think

The highlight of working in the oil sands (asides from the money) was the people. An almost unimaginably diverse array of people live and work around Fort McMurray. The Economist said the place resembled a mini-United Nations. I wracked my brain trying to conceive of any industrial enterprise in the history of the world that drew in people from as great a geographical reach as the Canadian oil sands. I couldn’t think of one. I was exposed to a greater variety of cultures and personalities than anywhere else I’ve been. I met people from every corner of the country and I spent most of my time working with First Nations’ peoples, both hugely enriching and eye-opening experiences. Overall almost everyone was friendly and easy to get along with, and I met many very memorable characters. Forging lasting friendships with people from the oil sands was a completely unexpected yet entirely welcome aspect of this endeavour.

A Surprisingly International Crowd

You could hardly imagine a more international group of people than the inhabitants of Wood Buffalo, brought together as they are by economic necessity. I met American geologists, Jamaican drivers, Russian drillers, Chinese electricians, Togolese security guards, Indian engineers, Somali taxi drivers, Batswana cooks, Irish heavy equipment operators, Filipino cleaners, Australian welders, Iraqi drivers and Italian safety officers. The census indicates over 100 nationalities and almost as many languages are represented in Wood Buffalo’s small population.

Fort McMurray was just about the last place I thought I’d get an education in multiculturalism, but living there offered that opportunity to an even greater degree than living in Vancouver, one of the most multicultural cities on earth. Seeing such wide representation was refreshing and heartwarming. I believe this country’s diversity is its greatest strength, a belief that was reinforced when traveling through and living in some homogenous and occasionally xenophobic Asian societies.

Though there were so many immigrants I unfortunately didn't take many pictures of them, so here's another picture of me and Andrew.

Some people ignorantly sneer at immigrants and decry their leeching of tax revenue and “theft” of Canadian jobs. Studies show the opposite: even when immigrants with few skills and a poor command of English (or French) come to Canada, after a few years they have a lower unemployment rate than that of native Canadians, are less likely to access social programs, and contribute more to the public purse. Job availability is not a zero sum game. Immigrants open up new industries and raise everybody’s average income. They bring not only their labour to this country, but their ideas, culture and unique experiences, and seeing all that at play in Fort McMurray was exciting.

I hope the immigrants keep pouring in. Canada’s chronic under-population is a problem that has hampered national development for the past century. The government and many think-tanks believe Canada’s ideal population is somewhere around 100 million, almost triple what it is today. We need more people. That Canada is the easiest country in the world to immigrate to is something all Canadians can be proud of.

A Great Canadian Enterprise

The most obvious variety of people, though, is expressed in the diversity of Canadians. Every corner of Canada is well represented, from Comox to Gander. People actually from Fort McMurray are something of a rarity. Instead they come from British Columbian logging camps, Albertan cattle ranches, Saskatchewan wheat farms, Manitoban nickel mines, Ontarian car factories, and Quebecois hydroelectric projects. And they come from the Maritimes. Tens of thousands of them. The sharp uptick in oil sands construction a decade ago coincided with the collapse of the Atlantic fishing industry and spurred a mass migration from Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Over 20,000 Newfoundlanders now work in Alberta, colouring the region with their bewildering dialects of Newfinese. People often joke that when the last person leaves Cape Breton, N.S., for Alberta they should remember to turn out the lights. Some companies seem entirely staffed by a couple families from this or that town in New Brunswick or Labrador.

I had never met many Canadians from east of the prairies before going the oil sands. Now I have friends in every province. I learned about parts of this country I’d never visited, listened to accents I’d never heard and discovered life experiences from within my own country that were almost completely alien to my own.

Some of the carpenters and I.

The oil sands are not simply an Alberta project powered by Atlantic labour. They are a pan-Canadian enterprise unseen in scope and scale since this country waged the Second World War. Some commentators have compared the building boom in northern Alberta to the railway that tied together the disparate parts of this fledgling nation 130 years ago. It can be argued it is having a similar effect in strengthening and reaffirming the bonds of Confederation. It wasn’t something that ever would have occurred to me until, but once I came around to it the feeling there was palpable and exciting.

I personally spent most of my time in Alberta working with First Nations people. My coworkers were some of the most genuine individuals I've met. Overall it was far and away the best part of my time there. I formed lasting friendships with many of the people I worked with, spending weeks off enjoying the hospitality of my native friends in Saskatchewan. My job afforded me the opportunity to get acquainted with many aspects of First Nations culture that I never would have had otherwise. We had so much fun.

I include those personal experiences because they serve to illustrate the opportunity there is in the oil sands to gain exposure to a culture different from your own. If you go you may not be as lucky as I was to live and work with First Nations people (they are awesome), but you will certainly come to know friendly, interesting people from a variety of different backgrounds and it will broaden your perspective.


Don't be an Asshole

This is not to say everyone you meet will be great. Over the course of three different jobs I met some unsavoury characters. One man I briefly worked with told me he had murdered a handful of people for heroin. Another’s sanity began to unravel as we worked together and he almost ran me over with the truck a couple times. But if you can handle the occasional bizarre person you'll find that almost all of the hundreds of people you'll come across will be friendly and positive. I found the work environment supportive and inclusive. There was no hazing or bullying, something I was admittedly afraid of when I first went up.

Many companies hire professional athletes to come in and give pep talks and boost worker morale. Ours was a former player from the Montreal Alouettes. He explained the reasons why everyone is (or should be) easy to get along with: All of us, from the lowliest labourer to the project manager, are sharing in the isolation of living in a work camp away from our families. Deep down we all want to enjoy the days spent at work and want to look forward to getting up in the morning. We all have the same basic human needs of kindness and compassion. If we all realize these facts then it becomes easy to treat everyone else with kindness and compassion, knowing that it will be reciprocated. So simply be kind and you'll have a good time, and when you're done you can go home with your head held high.

Say cheese buddy! Matt and I at our mountain hiding spot.