This Article is part of the Tar Sands Reporting Project special report See the full report

Success in the oil sands

A glimpse into the life of a certified electrician, one of three women among 500 employees on site in the oil sands. From our archives.

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You have to prove yourself

Proving herself through hard work has led to rapid pay increases and a recent promotion. 

"I got promoted a lot in the last couple of months, which made me feel unbelievable. I got pulled into the office with my project manager and my general foreman. They said, 'You are doing a fabulous job.' And at that point, they promoted me. It just felt fantastic. I've had a lot of times where I've thought maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe I don't belong here. The guys look at you and they look at you as a woman. I have guys say, 'You can't lift that, you can't do that,' and I say, 'Okay I'll prove it to you.'"

"Every time I go to a job, I have to prove myself," she says. "I can't just muscle through it like the men can, I have to be one step ahead.

"I've seen other women and heard of other women in companies and they play the 'girl card'. And it makes it hard for other women to come in because the last girl wouldn't lift anything. I have to prove to them not only that I would do it, but all women can do it.

"That day I got promoted, it was just like...I do my job well, I'm an extremely hard worker. I belong." 

Elder's been at her current company for less than five months and has already gotten a $4 an hour raise. She's been working in the oil sands now for four years.

"I've done a little bit of everything up there," she says.

The journeyman wage in Victoria is on a scale between $24-30 an hour, Elder says. If you're hired by a really good company, you might get just above $30. But in Fort McMurray, the lowest you would get as a journeyman is $43 an hour and the highest is about $55-$60 starting. It's great pay, but she works for every penny of it.

"I work so hard. I tell the guys, 'An easy day for you is a hard day for me. A hard day for you is unimaginable for me.'"

Sex, real estate, and sacrifice

Even on oil sands projects, real estate, lifestyle, food and entertainment occupy workers' minds. And sex. 

Although women are scarce on job sites, it's a different story in the camps, where the workers live. The office workers are mainly women, Elder said, as well as assistants and service workers in the bar.

Oil sands worker camps are dormitories that look like three-story modular hotels. Some are very old and, Elder said, "definitely living in them is not even...well, human rights-wise, they shouldn't even be there. But they're starting to tear the worst ones down."

One of Elder's friends just went to a camp with a superb lifestyle, inasmuch as a lifestyle can be superb in the oil sands. Devon-Jackfish has a swimming pool, an arcade, a million-dollar gym, squash courts, a theatre, a full gymnasium. Virtual golf. Those are the new camps that are being put in today. They have personal trainers, they have yoga.

Devon-Jackfish has sous chefs and unbelievable food, Elder said. It's like staying at a five-star hotel. And the oil company is paying for it. But wherever workers stay, they cost the company a lot of money: in the area of $250,000 a day to have employees remain on site, and that's not including pay.

The older camps like the one she's in, Kirby-Lake, has a gym, a theatre and a bar. 

People say there's a lot of cocaine in these camps, but in all the years she's been in Fort McMurray, Elder says she's never come into close contact with people who use cocaine.

But the camp she's in now is one of the worst she's been in for "sexual escapades."

"One lady got caught and fired for giving the guys blow jobs for money. There was another girl who said, 'I would make so much money in camp if I didn't have morals.'"

Yet if they find booze in a "dry" camp, "you're escorted out of the camp and fired," she says.

"At the camp I'm in, you work, you eat, you sleep and go to the gym. There's not a lot to do. Everybody is there on a shift, two weeks on, one week off. Every time you leave a site, you hope for a better site next time."

But no matter how bad it is in camp, every couple of weeks you can fly out for home.

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