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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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"[With] my last company, my entire flight was covered. If I flew from Fort McMurray to Victoria it was $900 and they covered the whole thing. They only do that in Canada. Right now, I get a flight allowance. I get $500, and my flights never exceed that. So I make money. They throw money at you."

Highway 63, known as the most dangerous highway in Canada, is the pathway home for oil sands worker by car. Trucks pulling massive oversized loads, sometimes as big as small buildings, lord it over the two-lane highway. 

"Dudes are trying to whip around them. They're exhausted after a two week long shift and they're trying to get back to their families. It's a four hour drive from Edmonton Airport or home, or just to a bar," Elder says.

"It's not being reported how hard the oil sands workers actually work and what they sacrifice to be there," Elder says. "I sacrifice a full life, being at home with my family, being able to be with my partner. We work outside 99 per cent of the time. We brave wind, snow, hypothermia, frost bite. You 
get frost bite in seconds if your skin is exposed. Like in 30 seconds you're in the early stages of frost bite."

Not rah-rah for oil

Elder has good friends who are environmental activists and sometimes their attitudes frustrate her; like they see things in black and white, unable to appreciate how dependent the entire Western economy remains on oil extraction. Or what the industry provides for people like guys who lost their incomes when Newfoundland's fishing industry collapsed.

"These people aren't just greedy pigs who want to go up and make money. They need to. They have to. They don't have a lot of choices."

Elder continues, "If you went up there and said here are some green jobs in Newfoundland that would ensure you job security and decent pay, I'm sure they would go back in a second. They talk about Newfoundland like its the motherland, like it's paradise. They walk around with tattoos of Newfoundland all over their bodies. And it's heartbreaking because they can't be there because there's not work. A lot of the fishermen are up there.

"If you did not have enough workers up there, if the oil industry collapsed, it would be catastrophic economically.

"There's a system that's larger than us, we all have to realize we're part of it. Being an oil sands worker, that's the thing that infuriates me. Don't look down on me until there's other opportunities. If there are better solutions out there, I'd like to do them. My skills are transferable." 

Says Elder, "A lot of people in the oil sands are green." They get how hard the road is that lies ahead for Canada in forging a sustainable energy policy that doesn't rely on bringing about what climatologist James Hansen has called "game over" by expanding the tar sands.

Many of her coworkers don't like how much Canadian oil is being exported abroad and into the U.S. They think the oil should remain in Canada and benefit Canadians. 

"I just wish Canada would get a handle on their own oil policies," she says. "I wish Canadians would benefit more from it."

And I'm like, 'woah, woah...'

Meanwhile, her attitude is, get on with it. 

It wasn't the big money that got her to pick up and leave Victoria for Fort McMurray initially, she says. She went to pursue her career.

"Whether I do it here or anywhere in the world, I do it because I love what I do. The money's a bonus. That's the thing." 

People had varying reactions to Elder when she went to work up north. "There's three groups. The first group says, 'You're a baller. It's an old hip hop term that means 'you got lots of money. Oh, you make money. All the drinks are on you. And I'm like, 'woah, woah.'

"The second group understands the money aspect, but they're like, 'You're really doing something up there. I'm really proud of you. We respect you. We're really inspired by you.'

"Then there's the third group and they're like 'how do you even sleep at night,' questioning my morals. That group makes it hard for me to go to work. That group's hard for me to handle.

"I'm not pro-industry. I'm not rah-rah, pro-oil. I'm up there trying to make a living.

"Don't hit on the oil workers. We're not the ones who have our claws in the government," Elder adds. "We're just honest people trying to support a family or trying to support ourselves."

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