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Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Alberta and Me

From a land of oil, true enough

Amanda Perry

The day after 2,400 homes in Fort McMurray burned down in a forest fire, I was at a wine and cheese reception in New York City. A fellow graduate student, from Toronto, brought up the news. “It seems like karma for climate change, doesn’t it?” I wanted to slap her.

I’ve never been to Fort McMurray, the city of 68,000 people in the largest of Alberta’s oil sands regions. For someone born and raised in Edmonton, this is a neutral fact. My inability to drive is far stranger, and my lifelong habit of voting NDP is more common. (The capital city, nicknamed “Redmonton” for its tendency to swing left at the ballot box, was swept by Rachel Notley in May’s provincial election.) Still, the petroleum industry has loomed large in my family, as the place where men — almost always men — turned for work when jobs ­disappeared or debts piled up. Chief among them was my father, Randy.

In November 1983, he lost his construction job. My mother was pregnant with my older sister, and my parents had just bought a house, with monthly payments that climbed higher than his unemployment benefits. The math was not merciful, and work is scarce for carpenters in the winter. At twenty-five, he decided to exile ­himself to Fort McMurray, a six-to-eight-hour drive north, to take a contract at a Syncrude oil sands mine. He lived in work camps for two years, at times unable to return for a month or more. In the process, he made enough money to pay off the entire mortgage. By the time I was conceived, my family had leaped into the middle class.

Growing up, I logged this feat alongside other blue-collar glories, like the skyscrapers my dad had helped build downtown and the three times he had fallen off buildings without breaking any bones. Yet I was never encouraged to go into the trades myself. “Carpentry is a young man’s job,” my father insisted. Maybe if I had been a boy, and not quite so clumsy or absent-minded, he would have taught me more, but what he really meant was that this work made you old. My grandfather, a general foreman with PCL Construction, retired on disability pay at forty-eight, after his joints gave out (he’d started working as a lumberjack at thirteen). Before my father hit fifty, he needed surgeries on both shoulders to repair torn rotator cuffs. The weeks he spent sunk into the couch, arm in a sling and high on Percocet, taught me that all occupations consume time but some devour your body. His pain placed me on the side of labour before I had words for my politics.

Tangled connections between there and here.

Alexander MacAskill

In the fifteen years since I’ve left Alberta, however, I’ve confronted other understandings of my father’s stint up north: no longer an exercise in self-sacrifice but rather greedy complicity in ecocide. When I moved to Vancouver, the oil sands became the tar sands, a carcinogenic crime that leached poison into the water and pumped carbon into the atmosphere. I dismissed these critiques as a form of disguised classism, enacted by people in $200 yoga pants. By the time I found myself in New York, I had shifted to presenting the debate as a clash in left-wing values. The oil sands may be an environmental concern, even a disaster, and all extraction involves Indigenous dispossession. But this time, at least, the workers are well compensated. After I arrived in Montreal, with its anti-pipeline graffiti and smug celebration of hydroelectricity, the ­matter became more urgent. I needed a defensible ­position as people heard my accent in French and asked where I was from.

My father let me interview him when I took a trip back to Alberta in the summer of 2021, a concession after he flatly refused to drive a grown woman to Fort McMurray itself. (“When are you going to get your licence?”) That week, the province’s iconic blue skies were instead clogged with smoke blowing in over the Rockies. Wildfires were tearing through British Columbia, and one of them had just decimated the village of Lytton. We sat on the front porch anyway, so that my dad, now retired and easing into his mid-sixties, could inhale cigarettes as we spoke.

“I had to quit to get out of there because it’s the arsehole of Alberta,” he began. “We had T‑shirts made: ‘Happiness is Highway 63 South.’ ” He would travel home along that road, which is still notorious for accidents, to visit an infant daughter who did not recognize him.

My father arrived in the oil sands during the final years of a production boom that started in the 1970s, as technological advances and spiking prices finally made the project profitable. Extracting the large deposits of bitumen from the soil around the Athabasca River is a messy procedure. In the ’80s, the going technique was to mine the sands, pump them full of hot water, and pipe the liquid slurry into funnel-shaped vessels so the bitumen could be siphoned off the top and everything else shipped to tailing ponds. This process requires razing thousands of hectares of boreal forest to create landscapes my father compares to the moon. (In situ ­operations, which use steam to extract bitumen from deposits further underground, joined these ­surface mines in the early 2000s.)

When 1,600 ducks drowned in a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008, the event made the news internationally. My dad remembers similar controversies from the ’80s, though his main ­concern was the impact on human life. “All ­winter long, you used to listen to diesel trucks running because you’d never shut them off because it was so flippin’ cold,” he recalled. Now, in the summertime, “you got to listen to the duck boomers.”

If environmentalists were an inconvenience, the real danger came from explosions. The prime culprit was naphtha, a flammable liquid derived from the bitumen refining process. At one point, a piling rig, a kind of truck-mounted drill that can weigh up to 180 tonnes, hit an underground current of what the crew assumed to be groundwater. It was almost pure naphtha, and the whole contraption was tossed in the air. The operator in the cab attached to the rig vanished — until they saw him “about fifty feet that way, still running.” Others were less lucky. One winter, a crew was pumping out the sewers using a “sucker truck.” The valve to release the retrieved liquids had ­frozen shut, so someone heated it up with a torch. But the sewers were filled with naphtha, and the truck exploded.

“You see this big sign: ‘Two and a half million man-hours accident free.’ Well, what happened to those three guys that got killed?” my father exclaimed. “Those weren’t Syncrude employees. Those were contractors. So they don’t count.”

My father’s reflections included some salacious details: the trailers were rigidly segregated by gender, because there had been previous issues with prostitution rings. There were technical elements that I struggled to picture, like pits of molten sulphur, a by‑product of the refinement process, which would take a decade to solidify. And there were more subtle physical tolls. People developed what he called the “Syncrude hack,” a persistent cough that he attributed to breathing in toxic hydrogen sulphide. Otherwise, his life was monotonous. “You just ate, slept, and worked. And lost all sense of time.”

The same logic that drove him north brought him back. By 1986, oil prices had dropped and so had wages. He returned home to help expand the prairies’ most decadent temple to consumption: West Edmonton Mall.

My father is ill positioned to judge Fort McMurray as a city. He only occasionally left the work camps for pizza and a “few wobbly pops” (and, in any case, it was still just a town in the ’80s). Still, his portrait of those years was so bleak that I was shocked to learn that Wyatt loved the place.

Even though he’s now thirty, with a big frame, full beard, and sleeve tattoos, I continue to think of Wyatt as fourteen. He’s my youngest cousin on my father’s side, and, like all the Perry men, he went into the trades. We don’t have much in common politically: Wyatt grew up near Alberta Beach, population 1,000, and, loyal to his postal code, he’s a fan of Pierre Poilievre. But we both possess the family party gene and a millennial desire to delay commitments, so I did not judge him when, after his plumbing contracts dried up in 2019, he cared most about maintaining his lifestyle. “I was just always out with people. Doing stuff, drinking. I think I even went to BJ even though I was laid off,” he told me this past Christmas, and he laughed when I did not recognize the initials. “Big Valley Jamboree: the biggest festival in Alberta.” (I went as a seven-year-old; there’s a photo of me in overalls, a red handkerchief, and a cowboy hat, with the local country music star Danny Hooper.) With no work in the Edmonton area, Wyatt wound up spending eighteen months in Fort McMurray, where he helped expand the water treatment plant.

“Have you ever seen the movie Hercules, the Disney one?” he asked. “When people were like, ‘Is that before the fire or after the flood?’ ” That was how residents talked. Given the multiple crashes in oil prices, the 2016 wildfire, and severe floods in 2013 and 2020, the pandemic was just another in a series of disasters.

There is a cottage industry of sensationalist journalism painting “Fort McMoney” as a seedy boom town dominated by casinos and strip clubs. The most notorious, a 2012 article in British GQ, described the place as plagued by “crime, an explosion in prostitution and the tough, young, bored single men with too much money and too little to do who are fuelling the chaos.” In his 2017 book, The Patch, the Calgary writer Chris Turner countered that the ­majority of Fort McMurray was a “tidy, suburbanized company town,” with a multicultural population and thriving Muslim community.*

Bad-faith reporters would love a narrator like Wyatt. “Every single girl has a tit job, every single guy is on steroids, and everybody’s on cocaine. That’s just the way of Fort Mac,” he announced. My jaw dropped as far as he hoped it would. But he also called the city “one of the nicer places I’ve lived” and compared his neighbourhood of Timberlea to the upscale Edmonton suburb of St. Albert, where everything is “brand new, really nice, super convenient.” And he pushed back against my assumption that hordes of men ran the place. Many of his friends’ girlfriends retrained as power engineers through the education program Women Building Futures, and they proceeded to out‑earn their partners.

Wyatt’s experience was likewise cosmopolitan. “I always diss Newfies and French people, and I just thought it was funny,” he explained. Then he ended up living with an Acadian and a Newfoundlander and developed an affection for the pronunciation of oignon. His claim that “there is not a single person from Alberta in Fort Mac” except, perhaps, “me and one other guy” is obvious hyperbole. But my father also noted that Newfoundlanders dominated the city in the ’80s, being the people desperate enough to take the work. Sometimes a disrupter of families and sometimes an economic lifeline, the oil sands have ripple effects in Atlantic Canada and beyond.

If Fort McMurray has a checkered reputation, it’s nothing compared with the oil rigs, where Wyatt worked for a year shortly after high school. Essentially large drills that run non-stop, the rigs are scattered across Alberta and northeastern British Columbia, sometimes located in the middle of the forest. Where bitumen mines are enormous operations that employ thousands of people, rigs can operate with teams as small as six or seven. They often require schedules of two weeks on, one week off, with twelve-hour days. As for the workers? “It’s just all dudes, and the testosterone levels run really high,” Wyatt explained. Though the “rig pig” stereotype did not apply to everyone, it certainly applied to some: he described a co-worker, “tatted up to his neck,” who picked fistfights, dated a stripper, and planned to buy a Viper sports car, despite not having a garage to put it in.

Wyatt is far from a rig pig, but it was not overly surprising that he spent some time out there. When I found out my first boyfriend, Sergio, had done the same, I applauded the universe for its taste in satire.

Sergio and I met when I was a seventeen-year-old studying literature at the University of Alberta. He was from Colombia, fresh from a year-long exchange in Vienna. Over our two-year saga, he offered more anguish than commitment, but his dreams of being a diplomat let me imagine a future far from Edmonton’s cul-de-sacs and strip malls. He moved to Ottawa after we’d parted ways and then completed a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics. But he needed to return to Canada for several months to be eligible for citizenship, and he wanted to save money to finance his life in a European ­metropolis. So he signed up for the rigs.

On his first day, Sergio recalled, someone asked him to grab a two-by-four, the most ­common size of lumber in construction. He didn’t know what it was. “They just looked at me like, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?’ Anyway, so the learning curve was radical.”

These days, my ex-boyfriend works in Brussels as a policy consultant on crypto currency. When I called him, he waxed philosophical about his rig experience as “an intense social experiment.” (Wyatt’s phrase was “just total fucking anarchy sometimes.”) The climate was harsh and the work was physically demanding, and despite their protective equipment, labourers would still end up sprinkled with invert, a fluid used in the drilling process. “Long‑term ­exposure will definitely give you cancer,” Sergio claimed. The psychological elements were even more taxing. Group dynamics were reminiscent of high school pecking orders, complete with a fair share of bullies. And between shifts, it was “tricky for people to be functional because they have an incentive to kind of compensate for the time in the rigs.” Both he and Wyatt described a split between those who had concrete commitments (houses, girlfriends, families) and those who wasted money on trucks and drugs. They had both heard of all-female rig crews but had never seen one.

I expected Sergio to have stories of discrimination. He maintained that being Colombian gave him a form of “cool currency” that made him “exotic,” and that riggers were a far more multicultural set than one might assume. The key was to work hard and learn the rules, including the informal ones. Ultimately, he ran into the most trouble for reporting a dislocated knee. Documenting injuries affected the crew’s safety record and their bonuses; he was so stigmatized in the aftermath that he transferred to another site.

Unencumbered by a relationship or even an apartment, Sergio spent his days off travelling: to Ottawa and Hawai‘i, to party in the Nevada desert at Burning Man. He still managed to return to London a year later with $45,000 in savings.

In Montreal, I live in the riding of Steven Guilbeault, the federal minister of the environment and climate change. According to Wyatt, this makes perfect sense, as I am his “PC cousin”— the politically correct one. Climate change is the top voting priority for wide swaths of my social circle, trumping language politics, immigration, or the question of Quebec’s independence. And politicians representing both my former and current homes are happy to stoke resentment for the sake of winning votes. When the Alberta government hosted a referendum on equalization payments last year, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, retorted that the Western province should have to pay “green equalization” penalties for its emissions.

The recent success of Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands has made it easier to have nuanced conversations with those who’ve flipped through its pages. The graphic novel, which chronicles the time the Cape Breton cartoonist worked in northern Alberta to pay off her student loans, was released by the Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly. (The French translation was routed through Belgium and has acquired some European slang.) In her effort to depict “the humanity of camp workers,” Beaton echoes some of what I already knew, including that labourers continue to die and companies continue to cover it up; the “two and a half million man-hours accident free” of my father’s day has been euphemistically updated as “three million man-hours without a lost-time incident.” And she shares my blind spots: the Cree and Dene around Fort Chipewyan, who may suffer from elevated ­cancer risks due to industrial pollutants, make only a brief appearance. But her book is also disturbing in new ways. Beaton moved to the oil sands as a young woman, and she chronicles relentless sexual harassment, including two times when she was raped. At one point, she wonders how her father would have reacted to the misogyny and isolation had he too come to Fort McMurray. Would he have become a predator as well? For me, it’s not a rhetorical question, and I do not have the courage to ask it directly.

True to my role as the PC cousin, I recently joined the board of advisers for Imago, an anglophone theatre company in Montreal with a feminist mandate. I was surprised at the number of prairie transplants on the team, including Danna-Rae, a stage manager and technical ­director who grew up in Fort McMurray. We talked about her experience over coffee at Cinéma Moderne, a classic-film house on St‑Laurent straight out of the hipster playbook.

Danna-Rae’s family relocated to Fort McMurray in the ’70s, after her father took a job as a welder at one of the mines. Growing up there could be disorienting, as oil booms periodically sent the population skyrocketing and schools swelled with new arrivals. And the physical environment was a study in contrasts. She recalled being a teenager and “driving through thick, thick forests, seeing the northern lights and stars out,” only to come across open mines and tailing ponds. Yet Danna-Rae also discovered theatre in Fort Mac, thanks to a performing arts high school. She launched her career as a kind of “stationary roadie” for major concerts, while collaborating with the Keyano College theatre nearby and acting as the technical manager for a new black box venue.

She moved to Montreal following two years in England, where she went after the 2016 wildfire. “I was really good at evacuating,” she joked, but it actually was easier for her to make a transatlantic jump when her whole community had already been disrupted. Her family home was spared in the blaze, though parts of her car melted. What Danna-Rae remembers the most, though, was how just until the evacuation, no one thought much of the situation. “Seeing wildfires up there, having, like, literally ash fall on your car, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. That’s every ­summer up there, having the river valley socked in with smoke.”

My father, Wyatt, and Sergio could all be construed, in a broad sense, as pro‑oil. My father supports pipelines as the “safest way to transport the stuff” and to avoid disasters like the explosion of a derailed train at Lac‑Mégantic, Quebec, a decade ago. While Wyatt agrees that “we should try to find ways to be greener,” he worries about the effects of measures that target companies: “Where are they going to start cutting money from? They’re going to start cutting money from the lower guys.” Showing his training as a political scientist, Sergio argues for oil’s capacity to “really catapult societies” into higher levels of economic development and suggests that rapid transitions to new energy sources may be the privilege of wealthier nations. All three assert that oil is more deeply embedded in our daily lives than people assume and that most critics are disconnected from the industry and the people it employs.

Danna-Rae’s ambivalence mirrors my own. She has nieces and nephews who earn a good living working for oil companies and admits that, “in a roundabout way,” the industry “allowed me to get through school without any debt.” As an environmentalist, she thinks the developments need to be reduced, but she can’t call for them to be immediately shut down, given the potential consequences. I imagine what might happen if boom turns to permanent bust: Edmonton and Calgary collapsing in on themselves, like Newfoundland after the fishing moratorium or Cape Breton at the end of coal mining, and the people deciding whether to struggle or scatter. Would they wish they had saved more money, or would they be grateful they had made the most of an opportunity while it lasted?

I’m not sure that any of this constitutes a meaningful position. If I watered down some Marx for the sake of an argument, I could say we all just elaborate our ideologies in response to our economic base, so none of us can be trusted to critique the source of our paycheques. Besides, how true is the story I tell about how my father paid off the mortgage? Houses were more reasonably priced forty years ago, and my mother worked as a teacher. Surely we would have been middle class even if he hadn’t gone north. And surely the fact that my mother made so much at an Alberta public elementary school — more than I do at a Quebec college, even with a doctorate — has something to do with oil royalties.

Yet the problem goes beyond cash. “Isn’t it weird, being so emotionally connected to industry?” Danna-Rae asked me. Amid another fire season, we both feel the strangeness of belonging to a place that others insist is burning down the world. The ­cartoon version of Alberta, a symbol of ­extraction’s evils, overlays the more rounded lives of people who live there. It ­interferes with the love of those who have left.

I’m glad that I did not slap my compatriot from Toronto all those years ago. Part of me still thinks she might have deserved it. But these days, when I hear similar sentiments with softer ­phrasing, I’m ready to start a conversation.

 

* Due to a production error, the print version of this essay incorrectly stated the year of The Patch’s publication. The book appeared in 2017, not 2007. The magazine regrets the mistake.

Amanda Perry teaches literature at Champlain College Saint-Lambert and Concordia University.

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