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Aaron Labaree: Postcard from Tar-Sands Country

August 10, 2012

The rush to mine Canada’s bitumen deposits has created modern-day boomtowns. This summer one of them lost its oldest bar.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/trucks.jpeg
Image courtesy of Aaron Labaree

By Aaron Labaree

 
In the past decade, the Northern Albertan town of Fort McMurray has experienced a boom rivaled by few cities outside of the developing world. Fort Mac, as the locals call it, sits near the eastern edge of the giant Athabasca bitumen deposit. What you call these deposits depends on your point of view: they are either oil sands (a vast source of wealth, jobs, and energy) or tar sands (a planet-cooking ecological disaster site). Whatever you call this oily, sandy, tarlike substance, demand for it has shot up with the price of oil, and what within recent memory was a town of dirt roads and cold-water apartments has gained forty-thousand people, bridges, a mall, a golf course, and recently, courtesy of the Suncor Corporation, a gigantic Community Leisure Center complete with water park, basketball courts, and library. On a Saturday night last month, though, the town lost its oldest bar. The Oil Can, which has occupied its spot on the city’s main drag since the ’30s, closed its doors. The long, warehouse-like building it occupies has been sold for redevelopment, and rumor has it that this oilworkers’ bar will be torn down and replaced by something more sleek and modern.
 
The old bar could hardly be less. “The first time I drove into Fort Mac,” said Steve Almond, who managed the bar in the mid-’70s, “all the windows in the Oil Can had plywood over them. I thought it was closed. But I went over and the bar was open. I guess they just got tired of puttin’ glass back in the windows.”
 
The place was a little rough. “I came here… to fight, really,” said one seasoned Oil Can patron about the old days. “I’m a fighter. I come in, pick out the biggest guy in here, try to knock him out.”
 
Almond and the bartenders kept a five-gallon pail full of baseball bats within easy reach. When things got out of hand, banging these on the bar usually helped. If not, they could call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the station opposite the bar.
 
“You could look out the window and you’d see them coming across the street. They’d grab whoever I’d phoned about, next day he’d be trying to come back into the bar. There weren’t too many places to drink in those days.”

When I took Suncor’s tour of its mining and upgrading operations a few days before, I asked what the acrid smell in the air was. “Money,” the woman next to me replied.

Fort McMurray in those days was in the midst of its first boom, which began when the Great Canadian Oil Sands company (now Suncor) built its first plant in 1967 and accelerated production after the oil shock of 1973. But it was still a one-horse town. As Almond put it, “Back then you could shoot a gun off down Franklin Avenue Sunday afternoon and not hit anything.”
 
Nowadays there’s a little more cultural life and quite a few more places to drink, like the nearby Diggers and Club NV. But those are mostly for the young people who’ve been drawn here by the promise of big money working on the oil fields (“Call In Advance For Our V.I.P. Bottle Service,” reads the marquee at Club NV.) For the old timers, the Oil Can is one of the last remnants of the days when Fort Mac was a small town, and people who hadn’t been here in years came to see it off. By 10 p.m., the line to get into the bar snaked halfway through the parking lot.
 
“My grandma was a waitress here,” said a young woman named Keela Stampe. “She’s gonna cry at the end of the night, and so am I.”
 
“It’s gonna be a sad night when two o’clock comes around,” seconded a woman named Lindsay. “I just hope it don’t end with a fight.”

* * *

Inside it was well-lit, loud, and getting more crowded by the minute. Lining the walls were laser-printed posters crammed with photos of Oil Can patrons. Signs behind the bar said “Hangovers, Dispensed and Served,” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Go Home with Ugly Men.” A bottle of Bud cost $6.75. When I took Suncor’s tour of its mining and upgrading operations a few days before, I asked what the acrid smell in the air was. “Money,” the woman next to me replied. This town is swimming in it. Out “on site,” a janitor makes thirty dollars an hour, and it just goes up from there. The kid who worked at the newsstand told me he just sold his truck for $500 dollars more than he bought it for a few years ago–and a week later saw it selling online again with the price jacked up another $500. At best, press reports portray Fort Mac as a soulless boomtown, at worst a drug-and-prostitute-ridden hellhole. Growth has indeed brought more crime, more drugs, more Ed Hardy shirts. But it has its wholesome side as well. At a table in the corner, I talked to a Marc Plecas, a round-faced young guy from British Columbia who works on site driving a heavy hauler, one of the house-sized trucks that cart 400-ton loads of bitumen out of the mines day and night.
 
“It’s not just a job,” he said, “it’s a career. There’s training, education. I got no problem with Fort McMurray,” he went on. “Fort McMurray’d be a good place to raise a family.”

For First Nations people, the mining and drilling operations, however lucrative, recall past traumas–uranium mines, hydropower dams, mission schools–that were also brought from outside and billed as progress.

He’s twenty-two. When you talk to locals–or to workers who plan to stick around–life in Fort Mac seems almost like a rough, stripped-down version of the American dream, a taste of the economic opportunities the baby boom generation experienced. Almost anybody here who wants to work can get a job, and almost anybody with a job can expect their salary and their position to improve.
 
Needless to say, most Oil Can patrons didn’t think much of the environmentalists who want to call the cops on this party. The feeling is that pollution is a legitimate concern, but it’s being dealt with.
 
“We’re going above and beyond what most people would do,” said Laurie Bradley, who works for the Canadian energy company Atco. “On site, you spill a drop of oil, you need to clean it up.”
 
“People come up here to protest,” added Adam Ross, a worker at the mining company Albian, “and how do they get here? They drive. To me, it’s retardeXd.”
 
“I’m from B.C., and it’s the same there,” Plecas told me. “Everyone’s against logging–but what do they wipe their ass with?”

* * *


By midnight, the line for beers was five deep and people were sitting on the pool table. Four young Somali guys leaned on the bar, each holding out a crisp twenty and each wearing the sour expression of a man who feels he’s being ignored by the bartender. Canada has a liberal immigration policy, and while there are unspoken racial tensions, for a working town in rural Canada, Fort Mac is astonishingly diverse. The Muslim population is the fastest-growing: on the street you see women in hijab and men in shalwar kameez. The best meal I had was halal food prepared by Philipinos. But the Oil Can crowd was mostly the old Fort Mac, a mix of white people, First Nations, and Métis (mixed.) The only group who are not boosters for the sands are the First Nations people. For them, the mining and drilling operations, however lucrative, recall past traumas–uranium mines, hydropower dams, mission schools–that were also brought from outside and billed as progress.
 
“It’s taking our lives away!” yelled Velma Black, a Chippewa, over the din, referring to the ever-expanding tar sands business. Her daughters live in Fort McKay, the hamlet north of Fort Mac now surrounded on all sides by industrial operations.
 
“They’re gonna get run off their land,” Black went on. The conversion of the land to industry has completed what dams and a ban on fur trapping began decades ago: the destruction of a traditional livelihood. The oil and energy companies have brought money, both in the form of jobs and in lucrative treaty settlements, which can come to many thousands of dollars per Fort McKay resident per year.

* * *

Two o’clock was closing in. “Who out there’s sweaty and horny?” the DJ yelled. A big bowling ball of a guy with a dead-drunk stare pushed roughly through the bar, but everybody seemed to know him. At long tables against the wall, groups of friends sat drinking or watching the crowd with the dignified look of older country people. The end of the evening brought no fights, just the eruptions of young, drunk emotion that always seem to take place in the last minutes before a bar closes. A girl got very offended at something she thought she heard her boyfriend’s shitfaced friend say about her. A young man cried violently on his girlfriend’s shoulder before she eventually coaxed him onto the dance floor.

Fort Mac is a town that looks to the future, not the past.

 
“If anyone wants a drink,” announced the DJ, “the bar closes in two minutes, sixty-nine seconds… and closes forever.”
 
Couples clung to each other as they danced to the final song, Faith Hill’s “Breathe.”
 
The lights went up.
 
“That’s it!” cried the DJ. “End of an era! Last call for the condom machine!”
 
The roar of conversation felt louder than the music. There were puddles of beer on the pool table. A forest of Bud bottles covered every surface. A lot of people had told me they were going to cry when the night was over, but aside from that one young guy, eyes were dry.

There were a lot of memories here and a lot of history, and now the regulars will have to find a new place to drink. But Fort Mac is a town that looks to the future, not the past. While all over the U.S., people cling to whatever job they can get, paying jobs at the oil fields go unfilled for lack of qualified workers, and construction crews are busy expanding the town.
 
The vast strip mines north of Fort Mac represent only a minute fraction of the total resource yet to be exploited, which extends over 54,000 square miles. The Oil Can had given its last drop. But the oil sands are just getting started.

Aaron Labaree lives in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared here.

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One comment for Aaron Labaree: Postcard from Tar-Sands Country

  1. Comment by Dan on August 26, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for putting Fort McMurray in the correct light. We are not the Oil Rig town of yesterday but a city that is vibrant and moving forward, together with an incredible positive future. I salute you for speaking the truth. Thank you!

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