Going Mobile: A "Way of Life"

Harold is a construction worker in the oil sands around Fort McMurray, Alberta. For twelve years, Harold has been flying back and forth to western Canada from a small seaside town in the Avalon Peninsula (Newfoundland) that his family has called home for four generations. Each time Harold leaves for Alberta, his wife Janet drives him to the St. John’s airport, more than an hour away. Lately Harold has been catching the five am flight, which means they leave the house before three in the morning, driving the quiet roads in the dark.

Harold is not alone. He is among tens of thousands of workers from Atlantic Canada who commute long distance to work in Alberta (Inter-provincial Employees in Alberta). And like so many of his fellow Newfoundlanders working in the oil sands, Harold was first drawn into going mobile by what he calls the “big money” – an income that would allow a better life for his wife and three children back home. His children are now grown, and Harold is deeply pleased that two of them are attending Memorial University in St. John’s. “Working away has allowed me to do more for them and other family members than I thought I’d be able to do,” says Harold.

Harold never got a university degree himself. His parents worked hard in Newfoundland’s then booming cod fishery to put Harold and his four siblings through school. But as uncertainties in the economic landscape of the 1980s and 1990s hit their family pocketbook, Harold decided to leave university and go for his Red Seal ticket in a construction trade. “Why are there so many Newfoundlanders out here in Alberta? Back when they had the Cod moratorium, back in ‘92, the fishermen they lost their livelihood. They weren’t allowed to go cod fishing anymore. And they didn’t have any education because when they were old enough to work, they were on the boat in order to help their families out. So once that all came crashing down they didn’t have anywhere else to go.”


After earning his Red Seal as a scaffolder, Harold worked for a while on an offshore oil project in Newfoundland. But once the construction phase of that project was done, Harold found himself looking for work again. Despite some signs of economic growth in the province, Harold became increasingly worried about providing security for his family. Resource-based industries such as those that Newfoundland and Labrador have relied on – cod fishing, offshore oil, minerals and mining, paper and pulp – are notoriously volatile, and in some cases only seasonally available.

In 2005, Harold and his wife sat down to think through their options. Joining the wave of men “working away” in Alberta, where a new spurt of investment was creating one of the largest resource-based industries in the world, was an obvious if difficult choice. It seemed to promise steady, high-paying work for years to come. In fact, before Harold knew it, years had passed and he was still a long-distance commuter. “I never forget what my sister said. ‘You’re gonna make it a way of life.’ And you know what? For better or worse, it has become a way of life.”

Work-Family Relations: A Stranger at Home

The return home from a rotation in the oil sands is rejuvenating. Harold loves getting off of the plane, smelling the salt air, and meeting up with his wife.

The problem is, Harold is never sure how often he will see his family and hometown, or for how long. The length of his work rotation has always varied by the particular construction project. Currently, Harold’s contract on an upgrader-building project has him working 8 am to 6 pm, seven days on and seven days off. But since the second oil downturn of late 2014, Harold has only been able to return home every two or three months. That’s because some employers, including his own, stopped paying for airfare to cut costs. That cost is passed on to Harold and his family. To maximize financial support for his family, Harold often spends his days off in an oil sands work camp, far from his wife and family and community.

Journeying back and forth to the oil sands for the relatively high pay has always been about providing for his family, even though their particular needs have changed over time. Right now, it’s about getting his two older kids through university. Harold is dead set on staying focused on that goal, especially as he sees so many of his fellow workers get into the vicious cycle of making good money, buying big ticket items like a new house, a new car, and a boat, getting into debt, and then having to beg their bosses for more overtime to cover the debt. Harold feels lucky that he has provided for his family by avoiding this easy trap.

While he’s in camp, Harold talks to his wife every day, and tries to connect with his kids at least a couple of times a week. But still, no matter how much contact Harold maintains while he is away, he feels the loss of closeness to family and community, and finds it jarring to transition back and forth between work and family.

It isn’t just the fatigue of the red-eye flights and airport hopping that are challenging. There are several days of adjustment each time Harold goes back. “I can’t help but feel sometimes like a stranger in my own home,” he says. He has missed out on various family and community happenings, and has lost some of the sense of intimacy that comes with daily contact. Over the years, and for her own wellbeing, Harold’s wife has carved out friends and social networks of her own. And where Harold used to be an active contributor to his community, volunteering for events and on local committees, his long and uncertain absences make this impossible.

When he is home for a week or two, and if he hasn’t taken on some extra paid work, quality time with family is a priority, whether it’s a movie with his wife, or fishing with his son. He also works around the house doing repairs or yard work – not just at his own house, but also at his parents’ and at a friend’s place. A few years ago, Harold and a buddy down the street agreed that when they were on opposite rotations out in the oil sands, they would fill in for each other by doing “man’s work” around each other’s houses. Still, Harold’s wife has taken on more of what he calls the “alpha” role, managing almost all aspects of the household while he is away. It’s a big adjustment for both of them.

Sometimes when he is back home, Harold finds himself longing to go back to work, where his role – his place in the world – is clearer. But then as his scheduled flight back to Fort McMurray draws closer, he begins to feel the dread of returning to camp, where he knows he will miss home horribly.

Camp: Escaping Routine

When Harold’s plane lands in Fort McMurray, it’s a forty-five minute ride out to the work camp where his employer has booked rooms for the crew for the duration of the project. Some camps are nicer than others, with a gym, a coffee shop, and a 24-hour dining hall. But no matter the conditions, it feels like a prison to Harold. It’s partly the predictable monotony of the daily routine: rising early, lining up in the dining hall for breakfast, hopping the shuttle out to the work site, hopping it again ten hours later to return to camp, washing up, lining up at the dining hall for supper, calling home, unwinding with a bit of television, going to sleep, and then getting up and doing it all over again. It’s also the institutional feel of camp spaces that gets to him: the pre-fabricated modular parts, neutral tones, long hallways, and small individual rooms with spare built-in furnishings.

Surviving camp takes work – physical, emotional, and psychological. Along with trying to eat well, avoid drugs and affairs, and break up the routine, Harold calls back home daily, often with text messages in between. This is all part of “me taking care of me,” training his brain to stay focused and optimistic.

The biggest challenge, says Harold is the sense of isolation. Camps are erected in the boreal forest near to oil project sites, with some accessible only by air. And once you are in camp, it is not easy to leave (except for the daily trip out to the project site for work) until the end of your rotation. To make matters worse, the company stopped the shuttle into town as part of its cost-cutting measures in the 2015 downturn. This makes his seven days off in camp, without the distraction of work, even more daunting. “Everybody feels like you are trapped again. It feels like you got to spend all day here, which is unfair … and cruel.”

Harold counts himself lucky that a buddy in camp has a truck he can borrow now and again, and that as a Newfoundlander he has contacts in Fort McMurray. When he can bum a ride into town in someone’s truck, Harold will take care of banking and shopping errands, and then stop by the Newfoundlanders Club for dinner and a drink. Sometimes he is invited over for a barbecue at a cousin’s place in town.

Most mobile workers don’t have those kinds of connections, and feel the built-up stress of living in camp. Harold has been witness to the ultimate toll these stressors can take. He has known two oil workers who took their own lives in camp.

Still, the vast majority of camps do not offer counseling services beyond the informal and unpredictable supports provided by camp staff and fellow workers. Harold knows that you can’t blame everything on camps – individuals make choices about how they do or don’t take care of themselves – but he knows from experience how difficult good choices become amidst the deep isolation and monotony of camp. Harold sees other workers paying for sex or drugs, spending wildly at the casino, or getting involved in affairs. He doesn’t like it, but he understands why.

Work: There for the Money

Each morning after breakfast Harold and other members of the crew line up to board a shuttle that takes them to the project site, about thirty minutes away. The day always starts with a safety meeting, with reminders about everything from safety harnesses to tool storage. The pace of each workday depends on economic conditions, the type of project, and a host of contingencies arising during the day. Harold hopes for busy days, because it helps to make the time go faster and to distract him from the isolation and worries about home. During coffee breaks Harold tries to call or text a family member.

Recently, there was a work stoppage due to some unexpected maintenance. Harold and others from Canada’s eastern provinces were frustrated for a week, unsure about whether to stick around and hope they would get paid again or to go home and try their luck. “If you’re there for the money, and the money doesn’t come, it can be doubly frustrating,” says Harold.

Harold is a long-time union member, and is working on a unionized site. He recounts a strike a few years back when some people just got on the plane and headed home. “They left. But I didn’t do. I stayed with the guys up here. These guys, these women up here want to sustain a better future – you can’t just abandon the ship.”

Exiting: Sticking it Out

Harold cannot wait to move back home, to the new house he and his wife have built in Newfoundland, overlooking the sea. It’s hard to say when. He feels rich, says Harold, not only because he has a house and no debt, but also, and most centrally, because his family is healthy after a series of health scares. That is something money can never replace. In the interim, and especially until his kids are through school, he is going to stick it out, flying back and forth.

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