When she saw the oil company’s sticker depicting 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg being held by her braids and penetrated from behind, Marie-Eve Mallet felt sick.
“I had this scarily familiar anxiety, this weird crushing feeling where I know that no matter where I go, I’m outnumbered. And at any time, any one of them decides that I don’t belong there, they can make my life very difficult,” Mallet, an Albertan oil fields worker, said.
“That unless I was lucky and working with genuinely good guys that wouldn’t harm me, then I’d have to fight for myself.”
A labourer in the Alberta oil fields since 2014, Mallet’s using her cheques to pay for a neuroscience degree at the University of Alberta and then, hopefully one day, med school. She likes the work, but she’s typically the only woman on the crew, so she’s dealt with a lot of machismo crap.
“I’ve seen my share of crude stickers,” she said.
The Thunberg sticker surfaced late last month. X-Site Energy Services, the Albertan company that distributed the sticker, and whose logo was emblazoned across the bottom, has since apologized and promised to “do better.”
It’s not the workers themselves that are the problem, she said: it’s the industry culture.
“I had a discussion with a co-worker and he said that company, ‘they’re just going to get more calls now.’ Because it’s not about like, woah, [with that sticker] you guys are talking about the rape of a minor here. It’s like, yeah, these guys, they’re fighting the system, they’re fighting against those who want oil and gas to crash” she said.
“And the companies benefit from the culture.”
For Jan Reimer, the executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS), the Thunberg sticker is an indicator there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of the oil industry recognizing it has a problem.
“The first step to solving a problem is recognizing you’ve got one,” Reimer said. “Then it’s more in the political will and the corporate will and the organizational will to do something about it.”
Violence against women in Alberta is at a crisis point. According to ACWS, the province has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Last year, nearly two-thirds of the women seeking help at the province’s shelters were facing a severe or extreme risk of being murdered by their partner, the highest risk level the ACWS has seen in the past eight years.
“We’re also hearing from police on the ground that are responding to domestic violence they’re seeing increased brutality against women,” said Reimer. “So it’s not just reflected in our work.”
Shelters across the province are at capacity and unable to cope with the numbers, turning away more than 20,000 people looking for help last year, a jump of nearly 40 per cent from the year before.
Reimer says the attitudes that lead to violence can be found in all kinds of workplaces, but that violence fluctuates with the province’s oil economy, getting worse in both good times and bad.
“Unemployment is a risk for femicide,” she said.
The unemployment rates for Alberta males under 25 are particularly high, climbing toward 20 percent in December.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also found that remote “man-camps” set up for oil and gas extraction were directly linked to an increase in violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Sara Dorow pointed out that X-Site’s apology didn’t even mention women or violence against women. She’s the chair of sociology at the University of Alberta and has recently been looking at mental health issues among oil workers.
To Dorow, the Thunberg sticker is “an intensified version of what goes on on a regular basis” in the oil fields.
The sticker and the past year’s spike in violence against women are “not necessarily the same thing, but all traceable to a masculinized industry and oil culture, one that has reproduced itself over the years without changing as much as it could, or should,” she said.
That culture is also failing its men, she pointed out. The failing promises of the oil economy, the physical and psychological toll of the work, and the pressure remote work camps put on workers, their families and nearby communities have all led to rampant drug and alcohol abuse, she said.
“Suicide rates are an open sort of secret in the oil industry,” she said. “This is just a really crappy setup that's only gotten worse with the downturn.”
Dorow said she sees more awareness about mental health and toxic masculinity among young male workers, which is an opportunity for companies to offer better training about gender dynamics in the industry, for example.
“I wish industry would lead the way on this,” she said. “Big oil companies will say they don’t have control over this, but they could require these things.”
Pointing to the Alberta government’s Canadian Energy Centre social media “war room,” set up to bolster the industry’s image and morale, she said the current Alberta-Vs.-The-World political climate makes that a long shot.
“At whose expense are we doubling down on fossil fuels? I think that’s an important question.”
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