“Boys Will be Boys”: Alberta’s Toxic Oil Culture

“Boys Will be Boys”: Alberta’s Toxic Oil Culture

The winter sun streaming through trees as pipeline is laid down. 

The winter sun streaming through trees as pipeline is laid down. 

I never thought I would work in the oilfield. I was terrified of the notion of working endless hours in brutal winter conditions with men hardened by years of living a lifestyle I could never understand. I had heard about the “types” of people who work in “the patch”—tough alpha-males who drink, do drugs, and cheat on their wives—and that reinforced my conviction that I could never survive out there. Although the mental image of me—more an artist-musician type—wearing coveralls and handling a tiger-torch was laughable, my determination to fund my band’s record dwarfed my fears of the patch, and before I knew it, I had my very first pair of Red Wings, the oil-patch equivalent to Louboutins. 

Me in coveralls using a tiger-torch to literally set the place on fire. Hilarious!

Me in coveralls using a tiger-torch to literally set the place on fire. Hilarious!

On my first day, I rode in a crew truck with four other people, two of whom were a couple who physically assaulted each other (regularly) and chain-smoked with the windows up, along with their pit bull. The poor dog was rarely let out during the day and was forced to do its business in the back seat (where I sat); on the ride back to the hotel, the dog would run from one side of the truck to the other and bite at my face and ears, expending his pent-up energy whatever way he could. 

“The sky looks threatened, heading home in the dust singing ‘life is forgetting,’ good enough for the frivolous.” We played The Tragically Hip’s “Vaccination Scar” on repeat and it always sounded best on the dusty lease roads leaving site. I took this photo on my way back to the hotel in Fox Creek, AB on a day we got off work early.

“The sky looks threatened, heading home in the dust singing ‘life is forgetting,’ good enough for the frivolous.” We played The Tragically Hip’s “Vaccination Scar” on repeat and it always sounded best on the dusty lease roads leaving site. I took this photo on my way back to the hotel in Fox Creek, AB on a day we got off work early.

I endured these conditions because I knew that if I didn’t keep my mouth shut, I would lose my job along with the hundreds of dollars I had spent on winter gear. Besides, this is the way of the oilfield, and if I were going to make it, I’d have to be hard (“as fuck,” so the hoodies told me) like the guys and roll with whatever. Complaining would only feed the stereotype that women are too emotional and can’t handle this type of work, making it harder for the next woman who wanted the opportunity to make money. I knew this because the head of safety—also in charge of hiring—had let it slip that the company didn’t want to hire me because they had “issues” with the last “girl.” What that really meant, I later found out, is “boys will be boys” and sexual assault is inevitable, so it’s best not to hire women. Time is money, so the saying goes, and if a company is forced to fire a guy who can “git ‘er done” over something as trivial as a harassment complaint, who would be putting pipe in the ground? We need that pipe in the ground! It’s much more lucrative to remove women from the equation (reducing the number of problems to 99), rather than to change the system. The guys are encouraged to identify with this Albertan culture of hegemonic masculinity because that’s what ensures they’ll work 120 days of 16-hour shifts with no coffee breaks. That’s oilfield money, baby!

These lovely screenshots were sent to me by a co-worker. The grey bubbles are from the Vice President of Operations and the blue bubbles are from one of the most valued workers. In the first screenshot, the worker is asking for a new phone. He is stuck in camp so no phone means no access to porn, hence the “I can’t jerk off” text. The second screenshot refers to the fact that a lot of sites have a medic and they are usually female. “Merv & Vern” are nicknames for my sister and me. 

These lovely screenshots were sent to me by a co-worker. The grey bubbles are from the Vice President of Operations and the blue bubbles are from one of the most valued workers. In the first screenshot, the worker is asking for a new phone. He is stuck in camp so no phone means no access to porn, hence the “I can’t jerk off” text. The second screenshot refers to the fact that a lot of sites have a medic and they are usually female. “Merv & Vern” are nicknames for my sister and me. 

I don’t blame the men in the industry because they are not immune to the effects of toxic masculinity. The guys are expected to be invincible. The long shifts isolate them from their families, they are often forced to live in prison-like camps, and the only acceptable way to deal with their emotions is to escape through drugs and alcohol. I don’t know that I’ve been on a job where the entire crew was sober on any given day. Sobriety issues cost oil companies hundreds of thousands of dollars with incidents causing equipment damage or, worse for the contractor, being kicked off a job. Word went around that our company had to refuse all the jobs that required drug testing because no one would pass. We were kicked off my first job because we had gone past the completion deadline by a few months, our supervisor walked off the job without warning, the superintendent was on a drug binge and unreachable, and the lead hand was on meth. I was eventually sent to the hamlet of Red Earth, AB where my supervisor (or spread boss) kept a case of whiskey in the back of his truck and drank one 40oz bottle every day—at work. Near the end of the job, the spread sent me to an unsupervised lease with another labourer to pick up the garbage left in the ditch.

The ditch is where the pipeline is lowered and buried.

The ditch is where the pipeline is lowered and buried.

I was still so green that I trusted that he would not make me do something outrageously dangerous. I did what I was told and hopped into the bell hole to pick up the garbage. Please note that every work site has a variety of heavy equipment such as excavators that could complete the task safely and within minutes. I got stuck. Really stuck. The other labourer called for help, but when my boss got to the lease, he laughed and told him to get me a shovel so that I could dig myself out. The spread then said he had to drive to another lease and so my partner had to point out that it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave me in the ditch alone. I could, after all, sink to my death. My boss finally agreed that he would stay with me while my fellow “swamper” went to find a shovel. I tried to dig myself out to no avail. Of course, digging could never have worked in the first place since there was nowhere for me to go; I was surrounded by quicksand. 

This photo was taken by my partner at a time we both still thought this was funny, not realizing how dangerous it was.

This photo was taken by my partner at a time we both still thought this was funny, not realizing how dangerous it was.

My boss yelled “Come on! Dig!” Then, he took out his SLR camera and started taking pictures. By now, I had been stuck for at least half an hour and the mud was past my waist. I was exhausted and had no more strength or leverage to move the narrow shovel in the heavy, sticky slop. I couldn’t feel a bottom with my boots and kept sinking. I wasn’t afraid because I didn’t understand the extent of the danger—after all, my boss seemed to think it was funny and was taking pictures. After encouraging me to dig myself out for another ten minutes, my boss finally decided to get the excavator to pull me out. He told me that he would dig behind me to “relieve the pressure,” but the muskeg pushed towards me, forcing me to lean backwards and twisting my legs below. I shouted for him to stop, so he moved the bucket ahead of me and started to scoop the mud in front of me. Once the levels had dropped down to my knees, he placed the bucket up against my torso so that I could pull myself out of the pit and jump in. When I got to dry land, he said, “You’re sexy when you struggle.” I pretended not to hear him, and I went to see the medic to ask her if she had anything in her truck that I could use to clean myself the best I could—I had muskeg where I didn’t want muskeg. She didn’t have anything, but when I told her what happened, she was furious.

She exclaimed, “Do you realize how dangerous that was?” 

“It’s just a little mud; I’ll be fine!”

“Last week, in the States, an operator was working on a lease, and it was all ‘skeg. There was an air pocket, and his machine went under. They could hear him over the 2-way, but they didn’t have time. They never found him.”

“I didn’t know that could happen…I just did what I was told.”

“He knows better.”

When I got back to camp, I had rashes all over my legs from the muskeg. Apparently it’s OK that I could have died, since at least I would have looked sexy doing it. I could have reported the incident, and now I feel I should have. But at the time, I was thinking of the “no rats in the patch” rule and the mocking Hurt Feelings Report that had been handed out by the head of safety. I knew that they would find a reason to fire me and could easily falsify incident reports to protect themselves. They had done it many time before.

What matters is that this kind of incident doesn’t just happen “up north”; these guys eventually get their days off and go home or to nearby cities such as Edmonton. My spread boss doesn’t save his comments for the patch. He doesn’t just turn off his misogyny when he goes out to the restaurant or the grocery store; this is how he treats the waitress, the cashier, and his wife. I had had the displeasure of experiencing this for myself when the guys invited me to dinner at Sharks, where they berated and harassed the waitress the entire time. I wasn’t invited again and I was told that it was because I don’t “put out.” Obviously, I know that this doesn’t apply to every guy in the oilfield (after all, my boyfriend works in the same industry), but in my three years of experience, I have met less than a handful of men who do not live by these unwritten rules. In 2014 more than 130,000 people were employed in the energy sector, which translates to a whole lot of people living with those principles. Oilfield dads raise their sons and daughters in an environment that values this toxic masculinity, and these ideologies become the norm. The oil companies perpetuate a culture that dictates that manhood is measured in lengths of pipe and the speed at which it was put in the ground, leaving men with no choice but to conform if they want a job. Websites sell oil-patch swag reinforcing it as a lifestyle, and identity. The men have to “fit in or…” find other (less manly) lower-paying jobs. Not long ago, I witnessed a woman hitting and pushing a man at a bar, calling him a “pussy” and not a “real man” because he didn’t want to fight. The responsibility and power to make a change lie in the hands of the industry leaders and policymakers. Once oil companies are forced to value the wellbeing of their men and women, Alberta can start to detox.      

In the meantime here’s a quick scene from the Canadian comedy Fubar. It’s closer to reality than you might think.

Marie-Eve Mallet is a foodie and musician in the band Silvergun and Spleen. She currently resides in Alberta but plans on relocating to Montréal to pursue medical school. 

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