The first time Sherri Robinson got behind the wheel of a 785 haul truck, she started crying.
“All the guys were laughing their heads off and I was scared to death,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Maple Ridge. “I just kept saying: I can’t do this. But I knew I had to.”
It would be easy to assume Robinson felt she had something to prove: a woman in the testosterone-driven realm of heavy machinery. But her motivation was far less about proving herself, and more about providing for the ones she loved.
“I was thinking of my kids,” she explains, when asked how she got into driving trucks. “I was thinking, I know where that first pay cheque is going: to pay the family’s bills.”
Truck driving in the oil sands was her way out of a financially precarious future. A year earlier, Robinson’s marriage had ended, and as a single mother, she was struggling to make ends meet. Part-time shifts at a B.C. liquor store weren’t enough, so when a friend’s brother offered to train her on ‘the big trucks,’ she jumped at the chance.
“To be honest, I was scared,” she says. “But soon after, when I got into that driver’s seat, I was smiling.”
A month ago, Robinson was working shifts in the oil patch, driving heavy haulers for Thompson Brothers Construction on a Suncor site in Fort Hills, 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. She would wake up at 3:30 a.m., file into the camp cafeteria for breakfast, bus to the worksite, then a 12-hour-day running truckloads of earth from the mine to the processing plant.
“I love my job,” she says, “but it’s exhausting, managing the machines and staying alert. When my shift is over, I head back to camp, have a shower, eat and hit the bed. It’s not safe if I don’t get enough sleep.”
For the past 14 years, Robinson lived a variation on a theme — a work-life balance spread across two provinces. She worked a “14 and 7,” she explains, which means working two weeks straight followed by a week off, when she would fly “back home” to Maple Ridge. Five days later, the cycle would begin anew, with a trip to the airport.
Four weeks ago, however, that cycle was interrupted by a phone call. Not enough work, her boss said apologetically… and she was unemployed.
Her first thought? How grateful she was that her kids were grown up. “At the beginning I freaked out, just like anybody else,” she says, “because I’m the only breadwinner, the one who’s going to pay my mortgage. But some guys have been laid off with new babies or toddlers…” her voice trails off.
For nearly fifteen years Robinson has been able to support her family, pay down her mortgage and save for her children’s post-secondary education, courtesy of driving heavy trucks.
“My eldest son is an engineer,” she says, “I was able to help him through school. Now every time I get in a new truck on site, he knows the model. All my kids are proud of me, a single mom, of what I’ve achieved.”
Driving heavy trucks has given Robinson financial stability and allowed her to purchase her family a home in Maple Ridge, nearly 1700 kilometers from where she earns her pay cheque. The Robinsons' suburban house is a world away from the cramped communal oil worker camps, where thousands of humans are packed and stacked in converted containers and trailers — lives lived in 12-hour increments, punctuated by cafeterias and gyms, movie theatres and poker tournaments.
The split lifestyle takes its toll, Robinson says, on people and on families. “Sometimes the marriage doesn’t make it,” she says. But for those who can handle it, it can be a modern-day Gold Rush. The pay cheque is “good coin,” she says, once you factor in overtime payments.
But over the past year, she says, workers have been worried.
“Everybody can see it coming,” she tells me when I ask about her layoff. “With the price of oil now, the cutbacks on these sites, it’s crazy.”
“Guys were let go a few months back, and on their last day you give them a hug, and they just look like, what am I going to do now? And that’s the thing — what are you going to do? When it was booming you could find something, but now there’s a million other people looking for every job.
In case you haven’t heard, Canada is in a recession. Or it’s not.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair note that Canada’s GDP was in negative territory for two consecutive quarters, while Conservative leader Stephen Harper has avoided discussing the “technical definition” of something he says is in the past — instead touting the .5 per cent increase in GDP since June as "the renewed growth that most had been predicting."
Finance minister Joe Oliver told an AP reporter that the Canada was never in a recession, labeling what occurred earlier this year “a contraction.”
Whatever politicians believe, the reality of Canada's economy for workers—those in Alberta’s oil patch in particular — is less confusing, and more stark. More than niqabs and balanced budgets, the question burning on their minds is how long the lean times will continue.
A few years ago, oil was over $120 a barrel, and petroleum industry jobs were plenty— and secure. But for the past year, Robinson, like many others, has been watching barrels of oil drop in price by more than half. Last week, a barrel of oil dipped below $45, a full $2.22 less than the week prior.
In northern Alberta, energy companies are backing off exploration, postponing expansions and slashing jobs. In late July, a Fort McMurray newspaper reported that Shell Canada had cut more than 700 positions, while Cenovus estimated that 300-400 workers would receive pink slips. Suncor, Canada’s largest oil sands producer, eliminated nearly 1200 jobs from the payroll since the beginning of 2015.
On August 30th, Alberta’s Finance minister Joe Ceci announced the deficit would be $5.9-billion, nearly a billion higher than was forecast by the outgoing Prentice government. Ceci hinted that if oil prices stayed low, that figure could rise to $6.5-billion, the largest in Alberta’s history.
On Sept 1st, almost on cue, nearly 1000 more energy sector jobs, mostly at head offices in Calgary, went on the chopping block, as ConocoPhillips and Penn West Petroleum responded to falling oil prices with a hefty round of layoffs.
The Basin, a Calgary-based energy industry magazine, surveyed the damage:
“One year into the oil price crash, Canadian service and supply companies have cut operations to the bone. Workers have been laid off, equipment idled and dividends slashed […] We are rapidly approaching the point where many plays in Western Canada are simply uneconomic at current prices…"
Responding to this downturn has meant difficult decisions. Companies are operating to make profits, and when the ink runs red, costs get cut. And not just the general labourer and the low-skilled worker. Soon the company decides it will make do with fewer heavy truck operators. Then geotechnical engineers don’t get a call back.
And so it goes, the ripple effect spreading wider and wider.
“Hundreds of applications — for nine jobs”
In July 10 letter to the Calgary Herald, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) President and CEO Tim McMillan said that nearly 35,000 oil and gas jobs were lost this year, and believes nearly 185,000 direct and indirect industry jobs may disappear. Half a million Canadians depend upon oil and gas for employment, McMillan said, adding that all levels of government benefit from the revenue it generates.
While critics say these numbers are overinflated, its clear that jobs are being lost. The country’s overall unemployment rate has hit seven per cent, while the province of Alberta has seen it’s rate climb to six per cent, a rise of 1.3 per cent since the beginning of this year.
If you doubt that a percentage point rise could provoke real hardship, ask Patricia Forrest.
Forrest runs Align Staffing, a Aboriginal-owned employment agency in Calgary that connects workers in the oil and gas sector to available jobs. She tells me that these days, there are far more applications coming in than she has positions available.
“When I post an ad, I get swamped,” she says. “A new resume every minute, literally. The other day I was looking for ironworkers, and by that evening I had few hundred resumes in my inbox.”
“Wow,” I reply. “For how many jobs?”
She sighs. “Nine positions.”
“I see guys who are far overqualified, applying for low-end jobs,” Forrest says. “Last week, I had a guy a former safety officer — I know he was making good money in that position — he saw I had posted for a general labourer. So this guy re-did his resume, and drove down from Edmonton to come into the office, shake my hand and ask for the job.”
How does that feel?
She exhales. “It’s very humbling. And I can’t get over the phone calls. Every phone call is different, but each time, they bring up their kids. Either they have kids, or their wife is having a kid, and they are really, really looking for work, and they’re willing to start immediately. Some say they are even willing to pay their flight to Fort McMurray, like that day, if I can get them on a site.”
“It’s so hard,” she says, “because I can’t help everyone.”
“Riding it out”
Around this time of year, Dan Christal would normally be heading north for work. But when I meet him on the patio of a Commercial Drive coffeeshop, he tells me he’s not going anywhere.
“If I’m going to be unemployed,” he says, sipping cold-brewed coffee, “I’d rather be in Vancouver, where at least I can go biking on the seawall.”
A 31-year-old Albertan, single and childless, Christal fits the demographic of someone you’d expect to work in the oil patch. Born and raised in Calgary, he didn’t develop an interest in working in the oil and gas sector until mid-way through university. He had started in computer science, but as the oil industry boomed, he figured it might be worth changing his major.
So he switched to geology. And since he graduated three years ago, Christal’s pay cheque has been earned through the oil patch: 12-hour shifts examining core samples under microscopes on drilling sites around northern Alberta, sending analysis of the bitumen content to the head office.
“I wanted to get a cushy office job,” he admits with a laugh.
“But I found out that most of the jobs are out in the field. Sometimes I’m in a container office, quite nice, with internet and all that. But sometimes on the SAG-D [Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage] sites, it’s more of a shack. At least I’m inside, though. When you see those labour guys going out there and it’s minus 30 degrees…”
For three years, Christal had divided his time between Calgary and work sites north of Fort McMurray, a distance of nearly 800 kilometres. When he was at camp, he worked day and night shifts lasting 12 hours at a stretch. On his days off, he did his best to enjoy his free time.
But this year was different. Oil workers could sense there was a problem. As the dollar value of a barrel of oil kept sinking, it was only a matter of time before his own job was at risk.
Christal saw the writing on the wall. So before the axe fell, he tells me he decided “to take time out,” leave oil field work, and re-evaluate his life.
“I’m still interested in geology,” he says, “but it’s time to move on from this side of it. Initially when I got this field job, I gave myself a three-year time limit, because all those safety certificates expire every three years. I figured that would give me a deadline. I overshot it a little — but that’s ok,” he says with a smile.
After half an hour, I get the sense that Christal wouldn't mind offering insight into the stereotype of the oil patch worker. Is it true, I ask, about the young guy with the jacked-up truck, blowing his money as fast as it rolls in?
“Some guys, definitely,” he answers, not looking surprised, or offended, by the question. “I have friends who were always upgrading their trucks. It’s weird, but sometimes you’d order stuff online, just so you’d have something cool waiting for you when you get home.”
“I laugh,” he says, “but I have my own version. When I’d get home, I’d grab a friend and we’d go out and have dinner, drinks, drop $150 bucks. Now, that’s me talking as a single guy. Obviously, for people with families, it would be different. And there are a lot of people with families — it’s just we would travel in different circles.”
Christal had access to the idealized oil patch life: big money, few commitments, and a schedule that forces you to work hard... and enjoy the off-time even more.
But when I ask him what he sees when he looks back on it, he’s ambivalent.
“It’s not something you really want to get plugged into,” he says. “When you’re out there, you’re missing everything social — building friendships and relationships. That can be hard on a person, and sometimes you get in a rut where all you want to do is work. But what fun is that if you can’t enjoy your downtime?”
Asked if he's worried about running out of money, he smiles.
“I’ve got enough savings,” he says. “I figure I’ll ride this out, then we’ll see what pops up. In the meantime, I’ve got Vancouver, and my bicycle.”
Interrupted lives and dreams
Debbie Rushton lives on 10 acres in Penticton, B.C. with her husband Tyler and her three Great Danes: Dozer, Sampson and Tank.
“Those dogs mean the world to me,” she says.
Penticton — located in the Okanagan Valley, a top B.C. vacation destination — may not be heaven on earth. But it’s pretty close.
In the height of summer, tourists splurge on wine and spa packages, teenagers laze on inner tubes in the river channel, and families in camping trailers jostle for sun, sand and soft-serve ice cream. The region draws plenty of vacationers and retirees, and it holds a special place in Rushton’s heart.
After three years of living through the freezing winters in Fort McMurray, Rushton and her husband decided to they were willing to start commuting. In the oil patch near Fort Hills they were both on a “20 and 10” work schedule— on for 20 days straight, then 10 days off— which made it possible to consider heading south. So they packed up and moved their home to Penticton, where they found a property that Rushton could open the business she’d always dreamed of: a dog-boarding centre, which she named Okan-Dog-Inn.
The plan was never to strike it rich caring for other people’s canines. Rushton and her husband both relied on the oil patch as the main source of their income. Like Robinson in Maple Ridge, they maintained a home in southern B.C. and worked in northern Alberta’s oil sands industry. In doing so, they joined tens of thousands of B.C. residents who bring home a regular paycheque, courtesy of the province next door.
According to Cheryl Maitland Muir at the BC Business Council, somewhere between 26-30,000 BC residents earned part or all of their income in Alberta. This estimate is not broken down by sector, Muir explains, since categorizing ‘oil sands work’ often involves recognizing ancillary industries like construction, which is tightly linked to oil sands development.
Over the phone with Rushton, I hear dogs barking in the background. I ask her how many kennels she has. None, she replies proudly. “It’s a kennel and crate-free facility,” she explains. “I have one acre fully fenced off, and they play around. It’s like a fun-camp for dogs.”
Rushton got the idea for dog-boarding because of the solace it would give to pet-owners. While working in the oil patch, she constantly worried about her "boys" — her three Great Danes — and wanted to create an environment where people can leave behind their dogs and know they aren't being confined in a cage.
But one day in early May, Rushton answered the phone: another round of layoffs. She knew her number was up. “There’s so much going on with oil prices, and jobs were slowing down.”
With her dreams put on hold, I ask what she plans to do going forward.
“I’d like to get back up there, get working again,” she answers. “But I just can't seem to get anything. It’s tough.”
Rushton is quick to say she isn’t complaining, or asking for a hand-out. She knew there was a chance that work would dry up, and the dog-boarding business in Penticton was a dream she wasn’t willing to put off. She's hopeful that something will come up, eventually. The people Canadians should really have empathy for, she tells me, are oil sands workers with young kids: “especially the single parents, since that’s their only source of income.”
I ask Rushton one final question: how does she see the oil patch slowdown affecting B.C.?
“When my husband and I were both working," she answers, "we’d eat out, we’d shop, we’d buy things, go on holiday... But since May when I got the call, we haven’t been out, we haven’t taken a holiday, not even a little something close to home."
"Those restaurants we’d eat at, the stores we’d shop at, they feel it. With all these people out of work, watching their purse strings, that’s got to be hard for B.C.”
Going to where the work is
The intense competition for increasingly scarce oil sector jobs weighs heavy on everyone.
Back in Maple Ridge, Sherri Robinson says she still wakes up before daybreak at 3:30 a.m. — “just like normal,” she says — and adds that she spent the morning sending out 40 resumes.
I ask how she’s coping with the uncertainty, the worry of unemployment.
Her voice rises, and she lets me in on her secret. “Around 9 a.m. this morning, I got a call back - and they offered me a job! Imperial Oil, up in Kearl Lake.”
I congratulate her and say that she sounds thankful.
“I’m so lucky. But I can’t help think about those people getting laid off. On the plane home, you’re thinking about your family,” she says. “It’s tough, because what are you coming home to? There isn’t enough of this kind of work in B.C.
"I’d much rather live and work here, and be at home with my kids and my dog. But you gotta go where the work is.”