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What It’s Like Living in a Work Camp in Northern Alberta

In Canada's murky job market, it's tempting to head out West for some quick oil sands cash. But not all camps are created equal.

by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi
May 31 2018, 6:35pm

A camp in northern Alberta. EPA/AMRU SALAHUDDEIEN

It’s no secret that the oil sands are a huge part of Alberta’s economy. And in a murky job market, it’s not uncommon to hear that someone you know is headed to Fort Mac for some quick cash. Many Canadians turn to jobs up North (or Out West depending on your location) to provide for their family, relieve debt, or simply because there isn’t much work available. And to a lot of people, working up in the oil sands may sound pretty good—you often get a free room, food, and you’re making a more than decent wage. But for many people who live in the work camps around the oil patch, reality can be harsh.

Work camps are the oil companies’ solution to ensuring workers are safe, housed, and fed. They are structured similarly to hotels, with check-in and check-out policies. And depending on the location, they can hold upwards of 5,000 people. And while not all camps are the same, if a project happens to take you to a less-than-desirable camp, you aren’t left with any other choices.

'If You Lose Camp Privileges, You Lose a Job'

I was working at Kearl Lake, we had to stay at Wapasu [Lodge]; two weeks on, one week off. You have to check out of your room every time and then check in. If for any reason your name doesn't show up on their computer, they want you to leave and you're stranded in the middle of nowhere. Usually when you get to camp, it's seven, eight, nine o’clock at night. So there's no one onsite to call, and you're kind of stranded for a bit until eventually somebody comes around to help you. If you get frustrated and angry, the girl behind the desk, it's not her problem. So if you raise your voice, you get kicked out of camp. Then you lose your job, because the site uses that camp and no other camps. So if you lose camp privileges, you lose a job.

Some camps are better than others, but they're all pretty much the same. You get a single bed, that may or may not have had sheets changed. The one camp that I was in, they were supposed to change your towels every day and then they laid off a bunch of cleaning staff to make room for more workers, so [then] they changed the towels every three days.

Their healthy food options are salt, or covered in salt. Wapasu every day had some different kind of pasta, with the same sauce, but a different label. Marinara sauce, rosé sauce, tomato sauce, everyday. And then there was the ‘Italian sauce’ which was just yesterday’s tomato sauce with parsley in it. So you got nothing but carbs feeding into you—rice, pasta, potatoes, and then a 'meat of the day,' which was bland. Their beef is from New Zealand or Australia and not from Alberta.

—Steve, 35

A room in a work camp. (Supplied)

'There'd be Cases of Empty Beer Along the Highway'

There is one camp that I stayed at that was dry. So no alcohol, no smoking in the rooms. I was up there from 2011 to 2013, I lived there. So basically, there is a small, small airport like there's two runways, it’s tiny. It’s like the municipal airport size, with a huge flow through there. So, you knew when you guys came in for their flights because a lot of them are from the East Coast or Calgary or wherever they live, and then they were coming from camp and those bars in there would be absolutely packed before flights. Even two or three hours before flights.

There's a little town just off of the highway 63 along the Grasslands, I think, and there's a gas station and liquor store there. And the amount of people coming in and out, their buying booze on their way home or on their way back up to Fort McMurray, this is before the highways were cleaned, but there'd be cases of empty beer along the highway; both ways, going North and South.

It definitely needs improvements, like with a lot of the guys with Wi-Fi, they sit in their rooms after hours and they kind of isolated themselves. Unfortunately, with the cost of everything up there, it's tough to get guys out of their rooms and stuff and [doing] some of the activities, you're still isolated, and like some of the activities in some of those camps, those guys don't want to...they're just so bagged after a long shift, they don't want it. They want to basically eat, and go to their room and watch Netflix. At least that's what a lot of the time I did after, because you're just so tired after your shift. They did have gyms you could go to and stuff that but they could definitely do more. Like, I don't know what they did for marketing around getting guys out of their rooms after. The meals there, they're cooked well and stuff, but I guess it's a lot of…I’d say junk food, a lot of deep fried things and stuff like that. So maybe if they put a healthier diet out there [it would be better], but a lot of guys won't eat it either after those 12 hour [shifts] they're tired, and they just want to eat and go to bed.

—Mike, 40

'You Sacrifice a lot of Your Life to Provide for Your Family'

I’ve had lots of positions—leadership mostly. I did tool work, I did planning work, and then scheduling work; so I got the full taste of everything. I stayed at the good camps, I stayed at the bad camps, I've been there and saw that. The good camps are usually few and far between.

One camp I stayed at, just picture walking into a closet and standing in the middle, and reaching out your hands to touch all four walls—that was your room. The walls were paper-thin; you could hear the guy next to you breathing. It was shared bathrooms down the hall; I literally went there for two days and we just said ‘we're not staying here.’

Some were good—but it all depends on the job and the site. They're all relatively livable, you're not up there for a good time, you're there to sleep and eat and go to work. But there are some camps that are like five stars compared to the lower grade camps.

A work camp rec room. (Supplied.)

They just try to jam a bunch of people into small areas. They really cut down on things like the cleaning staff, and I would come into a room that hadn’t been made in two weeks, and it's sitting there, and the room would be tossed and it's a pain in the ass. But the worst part about camp was checking in and checking out. It's just total chaos and they make it very clear that they don't give a shit about you.

You see things about the oil sands, and you hear the jokes about the oil money and realistically, we don't make that much more money. Once upon a time we made quite a bit—like I made quite a bit of money up there—but your average joe up there, he makes the same amount of money as a two-person income in town.

So going up north and working in these camps, or working at these sites, you sacrifice a lot of your life to provide for your family. Lots of guys try to blow it out of proportion, you're not there for a good time, you're going to get paid. But they could take a little bit better care of the guys that are out there because they are sacrificing a lot to be there. It's not like they won the lottery or anything; it sucks the whole time.

—Alex, 33

'I Was in Financial Ruin'

After my mom and my dad had passed away I just needed a change. I was in financial ruin; I had the opportunity through a friend who had some longevity with the company I was hired for. And she got my resume in there, and we did the phone interview, and they basically hired me. I started as a housekeeper and I was there for four years.

The conditions of the camp that I was at were excellent, one of the cleanest camps out there. I can vouch for that because we had a boss, that was boss of the housekeeping department, she very strict in the cleaning. She had us like she was the sergeant and we were like the troops. I didn't understand that when I first went there I was like, ‘oh my goodness, she's pretty mean.’ But when I saw the performance and how we always used to get 100% when Service Excellence [the authority in charge of service standards] would come in to check on random rooms.

Our staff accommodations were very clean; the bedrooms were great. Most camps have problems with bedbugs, and we had only had maybe one problem, within the whole four years I was there.

In terms of a social life, I'm very personable and I have an outgoing personality, so it's not hard for me to make friends. I also had the option to leave camp and go to my apartment—which was only a 25 to a 30-minute drive from my camp—so when I got sick of camp life and felt like it was getting too overwhelming, I could just jump in a cab, and I could sleep in my own bed and chat with my roommates. So it wasn't really stressful on me in that way, but for people that couldn't get an outlet like I had, it could be hard.

A lot of people that I worked with in housekeeping have left because the wages have gone down quite a bit as well—as in the hourly wage—so that's one of the reasons why I'm not looking to go back over to another camp. The economy is so bad over there because of the [2016 Fort McMurray] fires; the money's just not there for them to pay us the high wages anymore.

—Tara, 42

'You’re Just a Number, Not a Person'

My camp is like prison, you're in these cubicles and I'm in my room right now, and it's maybe like three meters by three meters, so you're just in there. This camp isn't really bad for like health conditions, but the first camp that we were in…that was really bad. You would get sick constantly, everybody was sick and there was like mold, and it was really bad.

There are so many people in a confined space that as soon as one person gets sick, everybody gets sick. It just keeps going over and over, you’ll get better and then you'll get sick again. I've never been sick like that, honestly think it was like a super-virus or something like that in that camp.

And it's pretty much impossible to have a social life. That's like the hardest thing for me is you go home, you have one week, and it sounds like a lot, but that week feels like a weekend. Because you have your family, and friends, and chores, and appointments, and you have to squeeze it all in one week, so it's really tough.

I wish they would have even a phone number that people could call, because I've heard stories of suicide and everything like that and really, if you have nobody here, it's really lonely.

If you're lonely and desperate and you just need that one phone call, it would be nice just have like a counsellor or something like that, I think that'd be a good idea. But I was talking to some guys about it, and they're pretty much saying that the oil companies don't care—you’re just a number, not a person.

I've heard stories of people like saying stuff on Facebook [about the conditions] and then they'll find out about it and then, they're banned from site. So for me, I don't ever want to come back here, I don't want to work up here anymore. But if it was your career, your livelihood, and then for sure, I wouldn't be talking about it outside of work.

—Jake, 28

A work camp in winter. (Supplied.)

'They Try Their Best, But It's a Business'

“The larger camps up North, that’s a different animal all together, those are like mini cities. The camp that I’m in is only a 300-man camp, not even north of Fort McMurray, those are the bigger camps. The bigger camps have Tim Hortons and pubs and bars like a city. The smaller ones are just more for people who are going up there for a few days or contractors who are going up for a few days and then leaving. At a smaller camp everyone knows your name, at larger camp you’re just a number.

It's basically like a hotel room, maybe a little smaller than a hotel room. But for me, I have my own shower, my own bathroom, my own sink. But there are levels of rooms in each camp and that level depends on your employer. You can literally be sharing a shower with 50 other people, in a group shower or in a group bathroom.

As far as food goes, depending on the camp and how many people are there, the food is actually quite good. We have a salad bar, a choice of two or three different proteins, vegetables and whatnot. But the smaller camps will just have a little bit more deep fried foods, things like that. They try their best, but it's a business. So if there's more guys there, if it’s full, they'll have a better quality of food. But if they don't have a big budget to spend on food, they have to cut costs. So you get a little bit more deep fried food every once in a while in a smaller camp.

Camp life is tricky; you can't make up for lost time at home. Being home every night is quite nice when you're in the city, it’s got that social atmosphere at home, where up at camp you’re literally just there to work. You’re social to a point, but you’ve worked with these guys all day, so sometimes you just don’t want to hang out with them at night. I'm on a two weeks, on two weeks off schedule, but I'm the only one who's off for two weeks in my social circle. So everybody else was to go to work Monday to Friday, and that makes it hard to see people when I am back home.”

—Anthony, 36

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