“You’re going to hate Fort McMurray” I was told. “The Oil Sands are a horrible place, really ugly, and full of druggies and drunks” was another frequent comment. “You must be crazy, it’s freezing, you’ll be bored, and there’s nothing to do there except get into trouble” was a third. I had been hearing negatives about Fort McMurray for years, and didn’t let them bother me as, long ago, I had formed my own opinion of the positive side of Fort McMurray from talking to people who actually lived there. Besides, I have always liked walking on the wild side, and was very tired of being poor.
Oil Sands people owned beautiful homes in the little town where I reside; they had large incomes and paid their bills promptly; and they were committed to commuting to work. Although none really commented favourably on Fort McMurray, and all were united in their ambition to get away from it on a regular basis, this, in my mind, was no different from most people’s wish to escape their own environment. After all, my local friends and neighbours were always leaving for holidays around the world despite our town’s many attractions.
What was good about Fort McMurray was how much money people were making and, after years of pedaling backwards financially, that was enough for me. So what if the place was polluted. At least, I would get to evaluate what all the fuss was about with my own eyes. That wasn’t going to stop me from going ahead with my plan to close my business, and learn how to operate a heavy haul truck. This would lead me, I naively anticipated, to obtaining one of the best paid driving jobs on earth. After all, if one of my lady clients could drive such a monster, so could I. I had been an excellent driver for years, in all conditions, and, with the proper training, could easily handle any automatic or standard vehicle regardless of size.
What a dream, the dream of earning enough money to support your family well and live comfortably. It’s the dream that leads everyone to the Oil Sands despite its frigid winter temperature, a dream many actually achieve. As for me, being born and raised in Montreal, I wasn’t afraid of extreme cold and the prospect of freezing sunny days was a welcome change from the gloomy drizzle of winters on Vancouver Island.
Although my business hadn’t been going well for ages, and had come to an almost complete standstill in the crash of 2008, I still had a comfortable margin of equity in my house which was for sale, and the Oil Sands still needed drivers. Plus, I was in a rush to get hired before the crash caused the price of oil or housing to drop lower. So feeling I had nothing much more to lose because I was already in a financial death spiral, I gambled.
In early January 2010, I traveled to Fort McMurray to compete for a place in Keyano College’s haul truck operator program. Transferring planes in Edmonton, I was seated next to a couple of tv producers hired to prepare a promotional film by a mining company. They seemed awfully young to me, with their trim and fit bodies and slightly greying hair, dressed in expensive but comfortable casual wear, in their late thirties or early forties. They seemed so serious, studiously reading their documents and copiously taking notes to the point that I first thought they were lawyers. Of course, we chatted about their business because of its glamour, and in due course, about the current fashion for reality programs. Not surprisingly, they had already considered the possibility of creating a show around the lifestyle of young workers in Fort McMurray. When I told them about my plan to become a haul truck driver, they looked at me with interest and jokingly offered to create a reality show on what it would be like.
Why not? I thought to myself. Well, probably because, at fifty-six, I wasn’t a proper subject for a reality show. After all, even though baby boomers like me still form an important part of the television audience, most are way more interested in watching the adventures of younger people. They are so much sexier.
I didn’t ask the TV producers the name of their employer or the subject of their movie and they didn’t offer the information. Nor did I stop to think that at fifty-six, I was going to make an awfully old haul truck driver trainee. I just casually wondered, looking these guys over, when people in their thirties and forties had become so serious. Then, I assumed they had families to support and estimated they were pretty normal in their efforts. So, that it was probably me that needed to get more serious. — Naahh… I always did better work when relaxed and never needed to get that serious to get the job done. In my mind, they were just a couple of stuffed shirts working in television.
My first contact with the town came through my interview at Keyano Industrial College as I had to compete for one of only fifteen places available in their haul truck driving program for that particular intake. Apparently, they were swamped with applicants.
Getting off the plane I experienced for the first time winter in Fort McMurray. It was a cold, crisp, sunny January day. The traffic on the road from the airport was bumper to bumper screaming by my taxi in hordes of huge, dirty, pickup trucks crammed between truly gigantic industrial trailer trucks. Nobody seemed to mind the icy driving conditions. In fact, slipping and sliding out of control seemed a sport and a risk all were willing to take just for the aggressive fun of it. Here, there really existed a horde of pickup trucks driven by a mob of wild young men, Canada’s worst and most aggressive drivers simply because of their age and spending money. Still, I was happy, and their reckless driving didn’t disturb me as Fort McMurray’s atmosphere overall was invigorating and exciting.
The sun was shining on light powdery snow lying flat and sparkling beyond the edges of the highway, a nice contrast to my home town’s dreary drizzle. I hardly noticed the road’s high banks of thick, frozen, brown slush.
Arriving at the Peter Pond Hotel, I was greeted by a sea of parked vehicles crammed between its plain functional facade, the adjoining shopping mall, and a large, drab looking gambling casino with a line of smokers standing outside spitting on the sidewalk. Every brand of expensive, chrome laden pickup truck was represented in that parking lot as well as a large variety of equally expensive sport vehicles and cars. All were coated with frozen mud and slush, in tight khaki uniforms under which their original color didn’t show. To top it off, about a foot of frozen slush, trash, and ice slashed with tire marks covered every other inch of visible ground.
Later that night, I heard loud, drunk voices shouting in the freezing night. Looking out of the window of my overheated hotel room into the sky in which bright stars glittered like Arctic diamonds despite the lights of the city, I was oddly pleased, and excited, and exhilarated by my memories of that day’s traffic, the sparkling snow, and the cheerfulness of the winter sun. So, I found the drunk voices oddly welcoming rather than bothersome, and realized I was going to hear them a lot in the next eight months, every night of the week as it turned out, a chorus of partying voices liberated in the downtown core to yelp and laugh and howl at the moon by the ever rolling work shifts of the Mines. So I dug out my earplugs from my traveling kit, stuck them in, and enjoyed a good night sleep my first night in Fort McMurray.
My personal interview the next day at Keyano College went well. My age wasn’t much of an issue; and, sufficiently impressed,the two-lady interview panel understood why I wanted such a radical career change at my age: Money, challenge, and adventure. Thrilled, I was enrolled into the April 2010 heavy equipment operator course.
My brother had warned me not to trust Keyano College’s sale pitch, and had told me very clearly that I was taking a huge risk by leaving my house and business. I got furious and refused to listen as I desperately wanted to stop what I was doing and learn something new. Nobody was going to persuade me from getting out of town; make money; live close to my boyfriend’s place of work; and experience what I hoped would be a lucrative if not good work experience.
It took a bit of arm twisting to persuade my boyfriend to drive the road to Fort Mac in winter conditions, but I finally talked him into it at the end of March 2010. I packed my computer and a variety of clothes appropriate for school and outdoor work. Steel- toed boots, a course prerequisite, I bought in Fort Mac Murray. Having taken a second mortgage, I had just enough money to pay for some debts, my tuition, and my living expenses during the four- week academic part of the course. After that, I expected to meet all of my expenses on my salary earned during the three-month student coop part of the program, and get a job driving after.
The driving trip down central Vancouver Island, across Georgia Straight by ferry, onto the British Columbia mainland, through British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain heart, and into Alberta by way of Jasper National Park proved sunny, dry, and spectacularly scenic, memorable, and beautiful. Even Northern Alberta’s flat lands jammed with spindly, scrubby looking pines, had charm. You never knew when an elk or a moose might come running out onto the road in front of our car. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. A large cow moose ran out from the side of the road with the speed of a freight train to cross directly in front of our moving vehicle, but, luckily for all, changed her mind.
Turning off busy highway 64 just before Fort McMurray’s downtown core, we stopped at Keyano College to get keys and directions to my student residence. I had packed bed sheets, a towel, a Pilates mat, and my favourite implements: a coffee press, a mandolin slicer, and a heavy, cast iron pot to bake bread in as I planned to keep up my very particular eating habits. The rest would be supplied on site by the other inhabitants of the apartment.
Facing up to the young women I would be sharing residence with didn’t worry me, as I felt myself capable of fitting in. It never occurred to me that they would find me old and weird or that I too would find them pretty strange. All they ate was junk food! UGGh; and they lived like pigs! I don’t know what grossed me out more: the oily dirt accruing everywhere in the apartment or the super fattening and unhealthy concoctions regularly whipped up by the apartment’s main occupant: a beautiful, smart, self-confident student from Saskatchewan, around twenty years old.
By comparison to her, my only advantages were my former status as a professional and my toned and slim figure. In every other respect, she was more than my match, and despite my best efforts, I never succeeded in making friends with her. Maybe it was my neat-freak habits, which reminded her too much of her mother, or just my appalling age. In any event, she proved to be aloof and self-sufficient; a studious and successful student, who made it very clear from the beginning in a very nice way that she, wanted nothing to do with me. Her only imperfections were her dreadful eating habits and extremely messy cleaning habits, habits shared by almost everyone else I was going to meet in Fort Mac, and in truth, about the same as mine were at her age. In all other respects, she was stellar and I was very impressed by her intelligence and drive.
Still, she didn’t rattle my self-confidence, and my sprightly, optimistic attitude carried me through the door of the haul truck operator course.
Within the first two days of class, either my shining and outspoken personality or a faculty member had given me away as I was immediately pegged and labelled as a female professional smart-ass by another smart- ass in the class: a skinny young man in his thirties, tall, dark, and handsome, with a devastatingly seductive foreign accent, and an understated, know- it all-attitude. Unfortunately for me, his marked intelligence and work experience as a crane operator meant that he almost did know it all and he proved to be the best student in the class.
At 56, I was by far the oldest, and the other students seemed a bit surprised at my presence. Fortunately, there were at least two or three other middle-aged people in our group, although, judging by their serious and cheerless expressions, they probably didn’t share my delusions that they would obtain work. Fortunately for us older folk, most of the students were extremely polite and didn’t laugh at us out loud.
My best friends proved to be of Somalia and Hindu descent. They were kind and genuinely warm and friendly. The other students weren’t too interested in making my acquaintance and dismissed me fairly quickly from their crowd. That was ok as I ended up not particularly liking any of them either. I did my own thing, either studying alone or going for walks outside in my spare time. The rest of the students were typically quiet and nondescript, chatting in small groups in the cafeteria, cracking jokes,trying to impress each other, smoking outside and and acting in concert like in high school. Still, we got along together very well as we shared a common purpose: learning how to drive heavy haul trucks so as to make lots of money.
Another person was a stand out in the class whom I probably should have mentioned first as I met him on the day I arrived in town, at the student residence desk. A tall, fit, intelligent, witty, and irritatingly talkative truck driver of about fifty, a bit insecure despite his many talents as he immediately tried to put me in my place. Of course, he didn’t manage to do that as I rose to the occasion with my usual, well- practiced and offensive repartee. We grated on each others nerves for the entire course sharing a few mildly unpleasant exchanges, but generally behaving ourselves overall. I enjoyed irritating him, and made it a point to put him in his place whenever he gave me an opportunity, although he dished it back with equal virtuosity. As an experienced and intelligent long -distance truck driving professional, he clearly knew a great deal about the business and I respected his experience despite our mutual dislike.
Our teachers, a wonderfully pretty and very experienced truck driving woman, and a middle-aged, skinny but attractive, very articulate and entertaining truck driving man, did their best to teach us mine driving theory and practice. The topics involved safety in the mine driving context, and what we needed to know to operate our trucks. The subject and terminology were foreign to me so I studied hard, did well on my theory tests, and mastered the driving technique through careful practice over fifteen hours of simulator driving. I struggled to learn all of the switches and controls of a Kimatzu 930 electric haul truck and its driving style with my very rusty memory. To my embarrassment, I lost my temper once. Although it was a mild outburst for which I immediately apologized, it was unprofessional and I was surprised to find myself so emotionally juvenile. In the end, after practicing really hard, I managed to pass my final simulator exam with an almost perfect score.
Despite my success, a niggling doubt remained in my mind as I observed some of the other students with truck and farm-equipment driving experience breeze through the simulator practices. What they had already practiced in real life that I had never learned before was critical and crucial: how to back up a large vehicle using only side mirrors. Still,it didn’t worry me. I knew that I could learn to do it as easily, with practice.
When I heard that an oil mine was hiring the whole class straight into the Student Coop without bothering with interviews, I relaxed, trusting that my pleasant personality, experience working under pressure, and twenty-five years of driving ability would see me through the process. After all, I had been told that mining companies liked women drivers, as we are gentle with their expensive trucks; and I was a talented, mature, and reasonably fearless woman whom they might appreciate.
Ok. I’ll admit it. I was also relying on my appearance. — What? — What fifty-six year old woman is silly enough to rely on her looks in our day and age when competing with people thirty years younger? One who has somehow managed to stay athletic all of her life, dies her hair skilfully, minimizes her wrinkles, and has been locked in an ivory tower for years with no one to remind her that business, the Oil Sands in particular, is all about competition; long working hours; ever-present physical danger; spying and tattling; and domination by the meanest and toughest.
I’ll admit to one realistic fear: I worried about how to get through work schedules of six, twelve-hour days; from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; for three days; then 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. for three nights; with a daily two- hour commute, then six days off; when all I had done in the last ten years was work half days after nights sleeping ten hours. Who sleeps ten hour nights in the oil business???? Nobody! You’re lucky to get six hours and being short of sleep and surviving on adrenaline is the norm. After all, when you sign up to work for a mining company, the Government of Alberta essentially tells you in writing that it’s perfectly legal for you to sleep less than eight hours in twenty-four, while working a twelve-hour shift.
However, taking the course had proven easy, and I was ready to face the test ahead. After all, what choice did I have? My house hadn’t sold as the economic slowdown deepened. I was running out of money as living in Fort McMurray while paying for an empty house had proven horrendously expensive. Still, I could borrow from my boyfriend to make it to my first pay cheque. So, permitting myself to be only slightly worried, I charged forward.
The Oil Mine: Reality Bites!
So, you’ve probably seen the Oil Sands in magazines pictures or on TV, their towering smokestacks spouting flames and dirty smoke, utilitarian buildings bristling with grim, complicated looking ironmongery; the gigantic, muddy, recycling ponds where the water polluted by separating the oil from the sands is dumped and hopefully confined; and the humungous machinery. What you can’t even begin to imagine is the constant roar of sound, the thick dirt, the clouds of dust, and the unpleasant chemical smell. Aahh, the smell of oil money in which a veritable army of people bathe while working, walking or driving around in safety gear: glasses, gloves, high visibility outerwear, and hardhats. Not a pretty sight, but as efficient and organized as it can be to make lots of money and kill as few people as possible.
There are two recognizable areas: the plant site near which the work force enters and exits through heavy security and in which oil is extracted by dangerous processes involving the use of heat, water, combustible gazes and chemicals; and the mine itself were the oil sands are dug out as the land is peeled back in layers by an assortment of heavy machinery. When pay dirt is reached deep underground, it’s picked up and dumped by gigantic shovels into huge haul trucks the size of small houses, charged with transporting the oil sands to the plant’s entrance conduits. Of course, the haul trucks also carry the soil and rock removed before the oil sands are reached. This means a whole lot of digging, driving, and dumping is going on in all weather and in all conditions.
The machinery is never turned off as the work never stops unless there is an accident, or the weather has turned the compacted dirt and rock of the roads into mud quagmires or skating rinks. This seldom happens.There are two work shifts in a twenty-four period, replacing each other at roughly twelve hour intervals within minutes of one set of workers departing and the other arriving. Everybody is connected by radio and every piece of machinery is tracked by satellite. All the while, there are supervisory eyes watching from video cameras mounted in strategic locations or from pickup trucks parked along the roads.
I first saw the Mine when I toured it the fourth day of my course. Its entrance building is a modern and attractive structure, in sharp contrasts to the actual mine buildings which are strictly utilitarian. Inside, the roads are incredibly rough; and the heavy equipment amazingly huge. A real moonscape. There is not a blade of grass. Only dirt, sand, dust, and fragments of rocks, plastic, or metal imbedded into the raw ground, and lots and lots of used earplugs. Everything, including the buildings, vehicles and machinery, is the color of dry mud, a light greyish brown. In the mine, away from the buildings, stretches a landscape of rough roads snaking around escalating tables of excavated land, with exposed strata distinguished in shades of mud brown. The roads run parallel at different depths, mounting and descending to and from dumping grounds and digging pits and the whole is encircled by ragged cliff walls.
As students, we had a bus tour of the mine, and during the ride, I was singled out by the safety officer who conducted our tour. We chatted a bit. He was originally from Ontario. A self confident, pleasant man, blunt and direct. He made me a bit uneasy. The only reason I could think of for him singling me out was that he may have been curious about me. My age perhaps? I don’t know. In any event, I found his interest encouraging even though I had been warned by a friend that it was best not to get noticed.
The day whipped by with the usual bundle of little mishaps. We had been promised lunch but it was hijacked by another department, and we had to resort to the main lunchroom and our wallets. We needed strength and energy just to survive the school bus tour of the mine. Our school bus pitched from side to side, jumped jarringly up and down, dropped suddenly into deep holes, and rattled us incredibly. What a perfect introduction to driving. The safety officer immediately spotted that I had forgotten to buckle my safety belt, a huge no no. At that point, simply hanging onto my seat, with my safety glasses and helmet on straight took all of my attention. The safety belt did little to keep me stable or protect my spine on those thin seats during that wild and crazy ride although it probably would have kept me in my seat in case of impact, unless we were hit by a haul truck, of course, in which case I don’t think they would have saved us. I remember thinking that thicker seats would help a great deal in addition to safety belts. Are you even beginning to imagine how bumpy the roads are? Bone jarring bumpy. Spine crushing bumpy. Neck twisting bumpy. Unable to hold onto any kind of a drink in your hands kind of bumpy, in other words, the kind of bumpy that was the norm in the Mine. Protecting workers from long term damage to their spine was obviously not economically feasible as it turned out that basic school buses with scarcely padded seats and simple lap belts were the norm for transporting workers. Bosses rode in pickup trucks with superior suspension and seats.
At is turned out; we weren’t allowed to have a ride in a genuine haul truck for “liability” reasons.
At the end of the day, we were taken to see the chaotically damaged carcasses of two haul trucks whose recent, accidental impact had resulted in the death of a driver. We were told that the driver of the rear-ended vehicle hadn’t been wearing a seat belt while taking a coffee break at the edge of the road in the haul truck’s cabin. Apparently, the driver’s neck snapped on impact while crashing through the windshield and flying thirty feet through the air. The matter was still being investigated four months after and now, a few years later, who knows what really happened as investigations usually take forever and their results, perhaps, never become public knowledge.
I wasn’t in Fort McMurray long enough to know whether that kind of information is ever given out. When there is a mine accident, you hear about it briefly in the news, then normally never again. I guess television networks don’t feel an obligation to follow through finding out what really happened. The Alberta government carrying out the investigation and their client companies have no interest in publishing that kind of information. Yet, as I was to find out, they talk about “safety” all of the time, and love to create piles of paper to store and make Excel statistics with to protect themselves from liability.
I enjoyed the day despite the bumpy ride and dirt. The haul trucks were amazing and I couldn’t wait to drive one. They were oddly beautiful, in their chunky, dirty ugliness, and I realized that my normal view of the world as seen through Vancouver Island’s green colored lenses was simply not applicable. In the Oil Sands I would find a different kind of beauty: the beauty of money. Who cared if I breathed dust all day long and was covered with dirt at the end of the day if it meant an opportunity to earn a pile of money in the short term and, maybe, just maybe, get a job up there.
(That’s it for now)