Boomtown Bust: How the Sputtering Oil and Gas Industry Is Destroying Men

Men are falling behind in one Canadian oil town, and not surprisingly, they aren't handling it well.

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Apr 26 2016, 3:34pm


Fort McMurray, Alberta (photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam)

Few industries conjure up an image of raw masculinity in their workforce in quite the same way that fossil fuel exploration and extraction does. Perhaps it's an unfair assumption to make in 2016, but it does seem that the average person enticed by employment in oil and gas still tends to sit somewhere between that of brawny manual labourer and high-flying alpha finance dog; the intersection of two classic macho work environments. That's not to say women are excluded from all of this, but it does raise the question: What sort of culture is created when hyper-masculinity is the norm? And what happens in areas built around oil when the industry turns to shit?

While every commodity's worth fluctuates over time (he writes, with the confidence of a man who has taken not one economics class in his life to date), it's safe to say that petroleum is in a particularly bad place right now. In June 2014, the price of crude oil was roughly $105 per barrel. By January 2015 it had tumbled to $48, and in the first month of this year it stooped below $28: less than a third of what it was two years ago and the lowest it had been in well over a decade (it's since risen slightly to around $43). The crash brought with it inevitable job losses, and in provinces like Alberta where the economy is centred around fossil fuels, you might expect this to mean unemployment rates have soared. It's not quite that simple though.

Employment in Alberta has actually risen since the crash, but it's women who have driven this increase, taking on 22,800 new positions in the province between September 2014 and December 2015. By contrast, 16,000 Albertan men lost their jobs in this same period, which is not entirely surprising: Industrial labour and goods production—which happen to have firmly male-dominated workforces—are generally the first to suffer during a recession. And when a large portion of the male population in areas built around these industries find themselves out of work, the social implications can be profoundly damaging and not just for men.

In 2005, an article by Deborah Tetley in the Calgary Herald painted a brash picture of Alberta boomtown Fort McMurray's debauchery and crime, like a post-millennial update on Pottersville from It's A Wonderful Life. (The Herald has since deleted much of its online archives, but you can read it here.) Dealers roaming the streets offering coke, crack, meth; men arguing with sex workers; violence; links to the Hells Angels and other organized crime groups—Tetley's observation of Fort Mac is one of a young town with an immense cash flow and few inhibitions. 2010's Fubar 2 only helped cement that reputation.

"There are a lot of macho men with too much money," 26-year-old Fort Mac-based engineer Jay* tells me. "The strippers at the local are flown in from Montreal and they make an ungodly amount of money, you can get drugs delivered to your front door by your friendly neighbourhood dealer. My biggest gripe with the drug industry actually involves the employers in the area: I've seen many people who came here as marijuana users become cocaine addicts, because you can very easily fail a drug test for marijuana even after weeks, but cocaine is generally out of your system quickly. That means that workers risk their jobs by using a relatively mild substance to relax, and face no consequences from moving to much harder drugs."

There's no single factor to which the likes of Fort Mac's social problems can be attributed. In spite of the vast amount of wealth that exists in these areas thanks to oil, there's widespread reluctance from local government to invest in infrastructure such as healthcare, housing, transport, and law enforcement because boomtowns by their very nature are often short-lived. Their logic is roughly: "Why pump money into what may well be a ghost town just a few years later?" Suffice to say there's a plethora of reasons why places like Fort McMurray may, essentially, be doomed.


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

"Our last camp had a major drug problem, so bad that one young man overdosed and died out on the line. It is bad, but it seems some people use 'nothing else to do' as an excuse for this behaviour."

Travis Stacey is a 29-year-old pipeline worker based out of Kelowna, BC. He got into the industry roughly ten years ago and has worked his way from the ground up to the supervisory position he now holds. His reason for joining probably won't shock you: "I was broke! I needed quick cash, to be honest." It sort of goes without saying that oil money is incredibly alluring to young men—in 2013 the average salary for Canadian oil and gas workers was estimated to be $130,000—but it would be wrong to call it "easy cash." Those employed in this industry often do so stationed for lengthy spells in camps hundreds of miles from what you or I might deem to comprise "humanity." "Major sacrifices are made for long periods of time to make the coin," Stacey says. "Many fathers don't see their kids or wives for weeks on end, sometimes even eight months can go by before a guy can go home to his family."

There's also little in the way of entertainment aside from getting fucked up, and as a result substance abuse is a serious problem among oil workers. On top of that, the anti-social hours and locations are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle or maintaining stable personal relationships: "The minority of us try to stay healthy and focused: gym, healthy foods, and reading. But the majority socialize within each other's rooms all hours of the night with drink and drugs. A lot of people become loners and don't do anything, but most people reach out to each other by partying together."


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

Stacey says that while he doesn't believe the industry entirely deserves the reputation it has for drinking and drug-taking, he understands how and why these issues arise."It's definitely improved with kids that come up with a better head on their shoulders. Facilities—new camps—are adjusting better to the healthier lifestyle. When I was in my first camp there was no gym and no healthy foods, now it's mandatory to have such amenities. However, there are still people who will never buy into the other activities to keep their minds occupied and off the drinks and drugs, but I think these certain people might be behaving this way regardless of where they're living or working. The only reason is up here it's more mainstream and accepted with the young money."

A 2011 study conducted by the University of Regina examined Fort Mac's police force between the years of 1986 and 2009 and concluded that "young men with little stake in the community" placed "an inordinate pressure on the police," who were forced to respond to, among other things, higher levels of social and physical disorder, accidents, and crime. The report's author, Rick Ruddell, writes: "Boomtowns are not a new phenomenon. North American examples of resource-based population and economic booms include the California and Klondike gold rushes that date back to 1848 and 1897, respectively. Historical analyses show that rates of violence in US resource boomtowns, particularly homicide, were much higher than in other Western towns."


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

Crime rate increases are a massive problem in current boomtowns south of the border too. In Sidney, Montana, located on the western edge of the Bakken oil fields, DUI and narcotics offences soared between 2010 and 2013. Felony assault alone rose 825 percent in those three years. About an hour northeast of Sidney lies Williston, North Dakota, whose oil industry has made it one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Last year the FBI announced it would be opening up an office in Williston to tackle a rise in crimes related to drugs, prostitution, and violence. Speaking to Al Jazeera in April 2014, Bob Ganaway, a farmer in the town said: "There's a lot more fighting amongst people here. When you start putting a lot of money out there, then jealousy starts. And pretty soon, it's neighbour against neighbour."

Physical violence is an inherently masculine trait. In every country where data is available, men are generally more than four times as likely as women to be the perpetrators of serious and violent crimes such as homicide and aggravated assault, and this has always been the case historically. With this in mind, it would be fair to assume that if boomtowns experience higher rates of violence, the industries they're built around are dominated not just by the male, but by a particular type of male.

Asked how his industry compares to the rest of society, Travis Stacey says: "It does feel more macho. You have to be a certain type of person to work out here. You don't survive being 'softer,' if you will—you'll get chewed up and spat out. I'm so used to it now I can't peg exactly what kind of culture it creates, but definitely a 'man up or get fired' type of attitude. Not much time for HR or sensitivity."


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

"What stands out for me is all the swearing used by certain groups–mostly male, but some women as well," says 60-year-old John van Engen, who works at Kearl Lake—located about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. "If swearing is macho, then I guess working up here is macho. I personally don't work directly with any women, but at the camp they say 20 percent of the workers are women. Imperial hires most of them for office, training programs and even heavy haulers in the mine. Generally, if there is a woman in the group, the swearing will be minimal."

For all the problems such a hyper-masculine work environment creates, it breeds an almost admirable sentiment we might easily associate with a lost generation of working class men. For Stacey, the appeal of the job is completely understandable: "I love the 'get 'er done' mentality, the get-your-hands-dirty, problem-solving side of the job. You're in the bush and have to make whatever you have work. I love the hard challenges that we face every day, and the creative ways we have to conquer them. I love the money and financial freedom it gives me at the time. I like the brotherhood it creates between and within crews, and I like the rough and rugged nature of the business."

In spite of its reputation, Stacey says the gender gap is beginning to close: "It's slowly transitioning, there are a lot more women working in the industry currently than when I first started. Ten years ago there were maybe two women [on my camp], now there can be anywhere from 20 to 60."


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

Jay agrees: "There are far more women working in highly skilled positions and decision-making positions than my experience growing up on the Canadian east coast."

One thing about his job Stacey seems to resent is that parts of it are plagued by immaturity in fellow workers ("Being surrounded by many uneducated people can be frustrating"), and by the sounds of things, he's a lot more grounded than many of his peers. In that University of Regina study, one of the key findings, Ruddell writes, is: "All other factors being equal, young single males are more likely to become involved in crime than their older and married counterparts."

Jay says that for all the downsides of working in an industry like his, things are improving for the people in these towns. "I don't dislike my job, but I certainly don't love it—like most people, I'm mainly here for the money. It definitely feels isolated at times, especially in the depths of winter when you may not see the sun depending on your shift schedule. However, the oil companies pay for large rec centres, and the people have knit together a relatively supportive community here. People get married and raise families here, it's not just a giant work camp anymore."


Photo via Flickr user Government of Alberta

I spent much of the last few months researching and writing a book on modern masculinity, with a particular focus on the evolution of men in the 20th Century in Britain, where I grew up. Of course, a lot happened in the past 100 years to shape the country's ideals of manliness, but I traced some of the most significant changes to the decline of the industrial working class in the 1970s and 80s, specifically in towns for which coal mining had been the lifeblood of generations upon generations of men. For more than a century, this labour gave men a real sense of purpose and pride and when the industry was decimated under Margaret Thatcher's watch, thousands of British men lost not only their jobs, but their sense of worth. Because their jobs were so closely linked to the very ideals of masculinity to which boys and men have historically been taught to aspire, the end of mining meant these men were left feeling, for want of a better word, emasculated, and in their desperate attempts to claw back some sense of manhood, a number of social issues arose.

In Western society we have tended to look at problems of violence, substance abuse and petty crimes such as vandalism as being an inevitable side effect of unemployment and poverty, and although there's little doubt that this is true, it's become clear to me that we also need to take into account the role that toxic masculinity plays in all of this. I wrote earlier that physical violence is an inherently male issue. Men fighting other men, for example, is a public demonstration of machismo, and—while I'm reluctant to ascribe any kind of meaning to a cruel, meaningless act—domestic violence is often used as a means of asserting dominance over one's partner or family. Reports of domestics skyrocket at times of economic uncertainty, something regularly attributed to increased stress on the part of abusers. However, I feel this is too narrow an explanation.


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

Not all abusers are men, nor are men themselves immune from becoming victims of domestic violence themselves, but the majority of cases of domestic violence reported each year are perpetrated by men towards women. Last year, one Calgary-based support group for abused women said calls had increased by 40 percent in 2014, which, given employment rates, would make sense. It's worth pointing out again, though, that for women, employment actually increased in this period, lending further cause to the idea that on some level this is an issue of fractured masculinity in Alberta wrought by the severe decline of oil.

Alberta already has a serious problem with domestic violence: The province has the second-highest rate of self-reported spousal violence in Canada, and a survey in 2012 found that one in ten Albertan men thought it was OK to hit women in certain situations. Now, there's even more cause for concern. The problems Deborah Tetley wrote about in 2005—violence, substance abuse, isolation—still exist, but today they're also at risk of being exacerbated by the stress and hopelessness of unemployment. This is perhaps the most clear example of how such a toxic form of masculinity affects women: they end up becoming the metaphorical and literal punching bags of men in these situations, and even when they're not being directly victimized by male violence, they are often expected to deal with the fallout of men's problems. The presence of women in the workforce appears to provide a calming effect, while at home they are relied upon for emotional and moral support; in the most masculine of environments they provide a necessary antidote and yet suffer the most for doing so. In some respects, women's lives are improving in these towns, but unfortunately as things stand with the state of the industry, there's not a great deal of hope going spare.


Living quarters at a Fort McMurray worker camp (photos via Flickr user Gord McKenna)

"The mood has become more conservative and more concerned about when the next project will be," Travis Stacey says. "Lots of uncertainty about new projects being shelved. Some people are aware there might not be a next job for a while, so there's nervousness about job security."

But with a decade of experience under his belt and a certain level of seniority, Stacey finds no reason on a personal level to fear unemployment: "I don't worry, when you're in this industry, you have to ride the highs and lows. Even in 2009, the crash seemed worse than this, and it was still very busy for us. There are lots out of work or laid off from companies downsizing, but my direct circle hasn't been drastically affected. Yet. The more sought-after workers seem to stay busy, it's the average joes that struggle and seem to be out of work. The better guys in the industry that I know of are always working."


Photo via Flickr user Dennis Haslam

For John van Engen it's a matter of sticking around just a little longer. "Because I don't have a trade, I get moved around to where the work is. The future doesn't sound too promising for the industry in general due in part to the price of oil; as far as the industry is concerned, the belief is that the high-cost operations will lose ground or shut down completely, but there will always be oil produced due to the mobility of the product. I have five to seven years to build up enough money to retire and hope I can hang in there."

The problem, of course, is that it's not the men like Stacey and van Engen—stable, in long-term relationships, endeavouring to stay healthy—whose jobs are on the line; those most at risk are the ones whose coping mechanisms are the most destructive. And until either the oil economy picks up again or something is done to reach out to isolated young men on the fringes of the industry, things are only going to get worse for towns like Fort McMurray.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity

Follow Jack Urwin on Twitter.


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