By Brady Tighe
When I fly up to Fort McMurray for a seven-day shift in camp, there are some things I expect: Bad coffee, salty food, miserable weather that ranges from vicious heat to teeth-shattering cold, profanity, talk about sports teams that suck, bugs the size of Buicks, country music that makes me want to put a screwdriver in my ear, and people who think the NDP are responsible for everything from their lost car keys to the downfall of humankind.
What I do not expect are children and animals, which is what I encountered when I arrived back in camp recently. It took a while to sink in: This was not some kind of misguided attempt to take school kids on the dirtiest field trip ever, or townspeople arriving to find out what all that strange noise to the north is, but something much worse. I learned that wildfires had forced some 22,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray and flee for the multitude of oil and gas sites that dot the landscape nearby.
Those wildfires have now moved on from burning down the city to burning down the rest of the province, but the effects of their lustful and heartbreaking pyromania will be felt here for years. As will the stories. In the last few days, I have witnessed and heard about the endless heroism of both front line responders and everyday citizens of this province. But I am also seeing some things that make me shudder.
While it’s true that tragedy brings out the best in people, it also brings out the worst. My initial joy at hearing about all the donations given, and the aid arranged for those who have lost homes and been evacuated, has given way to an impending dread that those who exploit tragedy, then don’t do the right thing unless there is an advantage to be found in it, will come swooping in to pick the bones of the aftermath clean like the jackass hacks they are, and leave Fort McMurray alone to piece itself back together once the masses have moved on.
Oil companies, such as the one that owns the site where I work as a scaffolder, did jump into action to help the citizens of Fort Mac, by clearing out all non-essential personnel to make space in their camps for evacuees. Their immediate response was commendable. However, billion dollar companies see tragedy as a chance to buy their way into the hearts of the gullible and sentimental, of those who forget that a large corporation will set you on fire one day and then give you a free bucket of water and ask to be vigorously thanked for it the next.
According to an article in the Calgary Herald, over 40,000 oil workers have been laid off in Alberta in the wake of sinking prices. The ones remaining have faced cuts to pay and hours, loss of overtime, and other general kicks to the guts. The oil companies, of course, will tell you that they are suffering right along with the working-class of the province, and doing the best they can in an unsympathetic political environment. Last year, northern Alberta heavyweight Canadian Natural Resources Limited blamed a two-point hike to the provincial corporate tax for its second-quarter losses, and claimed that “the increase in the rate to 12 per cent means it will have less money in future to reinvest into drilling and other operations, hampering future employment.” Nevertheless, though CNRL slashed its operating budget for the year by 36%, it also supposedly managed to avoid cutting any jobs.
But here’s how it really works up here. While large companies own their sites and maintain staff to dictate and manage the direction of the work, most of the real labour — maintenance, construction, cleaning, camp operation, and any other specialty tasks that occur in the day to day of running the site — is done by sub-contractor companies. These are the ones that have really been shedding employees. It was at a CNRL site last year that 25 workers for the sub-contractor Pacer Promec Energy Corporation were stranded after being laid-off and initially offered no way home. So while it’s technically true that CNRL didn’t cut any jobs in 2015, they have nevertheless, by chopping away at supply contracts, doomed hundreds of workers to the dole. That’s how the firm managed to turn a $131 million profit in its fourth quarter. And while I’m sure we’re all sympathetic to the plight of the big oil companies, and feel sorry for the executives who’ve had to put a FOR SALE sign on the dash of their second Maserati, we should remember that these corporations remain very much the indifferent overlords they’ve always been.
That’s why their sudden, new-found generosity is galling. A caustic cycle has been set in motion up here in Fort McMurray. The same companies that had until very recently been railroading the city and its people are now reaping all the benefit and high-praise press that comes with helping out (a role that was basically forced upon them). They’ve been delivering flats of water to people they laid off just a few months ago, and to families who, even if they have a home to return to when the city is open again, may very well be evicted from it before long, because dad or mom or both have been cashiered from the oil patch. And those families are supposed to be grateful. It’s charity of a particularly hypocritical kind. Certainly, it will be short-lived.
The oil companies will be back to their corporate ways soon enough. Meanwhile, the real heroes of this story will remain those who were brave enough to look a massive inferno in the eye and say, “Hey, I’m going drive into that, because some family in a truck is out of gas.” They’re the ones who will really deserve to be remembered, as the city rebuilds. And they’re the ones who will do most of that rebuilding, as big oil returns its attention to the people it actually cares about — its executives and shareholders, far away from where Fort McMurray smolders.
At least maybe some of those heroes will get a job out of it.