Pride in Oil Sands
I have been working in close proximity to the oil sands for almost 20 years. Though its reach extends to the north, south, east and west of me, I have never been engaged directly in the work of extracting oil from the sand or the process of turning it into marketable products. I have never been of it, but I have been influenced and inspired by it, and the thousands of people who ride the thrilling roller coaster of an industry that has a profound effect on the economy of this region, province and country.
Terms like “shift change”, “six on, six off”, “EDOs”, “mutuals”, “turnarounds”, “heavy haulers” and “buggy whips” are peppered throughout conversations I’ve heard over the years, so much so that they form part of the language of this place. When someone mentions they are “going to site”, it is well understood by anyone who has spent any length of time in Wood Buffalo, though it would cause looks of confusion in most other places.
I have observed through the three iterations of my career in Fort McMurray - first in the radio broadcast industry, then with Keyano College, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray - a consistent pride felt by people who hop on and off those buses every day and keep the oil flowing. I get the sense that these hard-working men and women truly love what they do and that they are proud to be working in the oil sands.
Charles Wilkinson and Tina Schliessler’s seminal 2013 documentary film Oil Sands Karaoke captured the story of five singers who worked in or around the oil sands. It provided a fresh perspective of an oft’ vilified industry, a story that was resplendent with flashes of redemption, rebirth, second chances and the pursuit of dreams. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.
In trying to fully understand the authentic allure and appreciation of an oil sands career, I posed a series of questions to three different people: a process operator, a health and safety manager and an operations controller. Their answers may help generate some clarity as to why this industry and this place attracts people who come on a two-year plan and, in many cases, end up staying for their working life.
In their own words, here are three perspectives about why they love working in oil sands.
Kyle Mazerolle, Process Control Room Operator, Syncrude Canada Ltd.
I love my job for many reasons; the most important being the freedom it gives me. In the past 8 years, I have been lucky enough to travel the world, and on those travels I met my wife. None of those travels would have been possible without Syncrude.
I work a six on, six off shift that allows me to live life to the fullest. I am able to pursue my passions all year round.
Working in this industry has been very engaging. As a Control Room Operator, I deal with constant change every day. No two days are the same; you have to be quick of thought and action. I find this constant change to be very fulfilling; it keeps my mind sharp.
Working in this industry has taught me to be very humble. I am nothing but grateful for all that I have gained through working in the oil sands. With the constant negative media coverage, it is hard to show the benefits and rewards it really has to offer. People need to understand that this business is not very different from most industries. The same challenges are overcome daily; it’s just on a different scale and I think this scares most people.
My advice for people would be to come into this business with an open mind and see if it works for you. I, more than most, know what it is like to grow up in Fort McMurray. I have grown with the changes and have embraced all the positives and negatives that go with living in a so-called Oil Town. I continue to live here for the freedom; I wouldn’t change that for the world.
H & S Manager, Suncor Energy Inc.
I am the manager of health and safety for Suncor’s base plant processing plants, including upgrading and extraction. I have been working in the oil sands for 10 years and have had previous roles in both operations and maintenance as well.
I love the company that I work for, and the industry that I work in. I love coming to work every day knowing that I am surrounded by passionate, interesting, intelligent, hard-working and innovative people. I have always looked for chances to challenge myself, and to be challenged. Every role I’ve had has given me those opportunities in spades. I’m constantly amazed by the incredible people I have gotten to know - primarily because of my work - and the incredible development and growth opportunities I have had. You really don’t have to look hard to find someone in the process of changing life as we know it. And to be in the middle of that kind of energy and to know that you’re a part of something that big; who wouldn’t fall in love with that feeling?
I am very proud of the roles that I’ve had. Part of that pride comes from being a young female in roles you wouldn’t necessarily expect me to have been successful in. I think that a lot of the reason for my successes (though I will take some credit for myself) is that there has never been a shortage of incredibly talented people willing to invest their time and energy into me. Working for Suncor gives me an opportunity to stretch and reach for roles and chances that I wouldn’t find anywhere else in Canada.
I would say that I understand how people sometimes feel strongly opposed to my industry; it’s hard to see past the strong opinions of our opponents and sometimes those people have stronger voices than we do in sharing the real story. I would also say that there seems to be a strong polarization of the conversation on both sides so we need to be open with each other in learning about the industry with factual conversations and listening to concerns.
I would tell people that I am proud to work for a company that is honest about what we must do better, that provides energy that we need to live our lives, and is brave enough to say that we need to find a way to do it more responsibly and more sustainably. I am excited to see what we as an industry are going to do next. I would tell them that this is where history is being made, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Operations Controller, Fort McKay
Group of Companies
I am an Operations Controller for Fort McKay Group of Companies (FMGOC), which is owned by Fort McKay First Nations. I’ve been with the company since 2012, it will be almost 3 years this fall with FMGOC, but I have a combined 6 years of work experience within the oil sands industry.
I have been able to expand my expertise in my profession by being able to tap into my auditing, project accounting and contract review experience. Previously, I was an auditor with the BC Provincial Tax Ministry and I also have over 12 years of construction and project accounting experience. Working within the oil sands industry, I have been exposed to so many new challenges and this has made me work harder and push myself to achieve more. I know for a fact that if I didn’t move to Fort McMurray my career would have plateaued and I would not have been exposed to so many opportunities.
I have often explained to my friends that live in other provinces that I have never experienced or seen a harder working group of people like those that work within the oils sands industry. But, not only do the people work long shifts and have long work days, they still seem to find time to volunteer and be part of the community. I am in awe of the energy the community members place on volunteering or even giving back financially to support the various organizations within the region. I have never witnessed the level of community and industry engagement as I have seen here within Fort McMurray as in comparison to other places and industries in Canada.
The outside media seems to have a narrow view of the oil sands industry. They are very quick to judge a book by its cover. They only seem to focus on certain visual aspects of the industry, but then don’t look deeper at the areas that have been reclaimed and brought back to their original state with a thriving healthy eco system. An example of this would be the area used to raise bison, which is part of the agreement between Syncrude and Fort McKay with the use reclaimed land. What everyone seems to miss is that we all require oil and the by-products of the oil.
The other side of the oil sands industry that is completely missed is the understanding of the people and community who work within the industry. We have a thriving region that provides all community members various opportunities in sports, culture and the arts. There is so much more that the media can report on regarding the oil sands industry and our region. They should try to live a week in our shoes and truly experience what it means to live and work here.
Three people with three completely different life tracks that led to oil sands careers, enumerable opportunities, financial freedom, and an indelible sense of pride in what they get to do every day. Kyle, Michelle and Francesca are only a small sample of a curiosity worth exploring, a reality worth sharing: that living in Wood Buffalo and working in the oil sands is a pretty good life choice.