News

The 1,300 km commute (Part 1: The people)

Thousands of Okanagan residents regularly travel 1,300 km to spend days, weeks or months working in and around oil fields in northern Alberta. In the first article of a three-part series, reporter Wade Paterson interviews a few of those workers, and learns the pros and cons of working so far from home.  - Wade Paterson/Capital News (Cover by Kiana Haner-Wilk)
Thousands of Okanagan residents regularly travel 1,300 km to spend days, weeks or months working in and around oil fields in northern Alberta. In the first article of a three-part series, reporter Wade Paterson interviews a few of those workers, and learns the pros and cons of working so far from home.
— image credit: Wade Paterson/Capital News (Cover by Kiana Haner-Wilk)

Neil and Pamela

When Neil Wells and Pamela Black moved to Kelowna in 2010, they had a futon, a kitchen table, a few pots and pans and a great deal of uncertainty.

Three-and-a-half years later, sitting in their contemporary north Glenmore home, the couple talks about how they’ve built their lives in Kelowna over the past 42 months.

Wells and Black were living in Newfoundland in early 2010. Black had recently completed her bachelor of arts with honours in psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland; Wells had wrapped up his three-year process operations engineering technology program.

In April 2010, Black decided she would move to Kelowna to pursue a Master’s degree, with a focus in forensics, at UBCO’s Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law.

Following that decision, Wells had a tough choice of his own to make.

I was kind of in a weird position, because I wanted to get something with my program and start getting resumé experience. At the same time, I wanted our relationship to keep going,” says Wells.

At that point, the couple had been dating for more than three years.

Wells understood there wasn’t an overabundance of local jobs in his field, so he knew he’d have to find something where he could fly in and fly out if he wanted to live with his girlfriend in Kelowna.

Luckily, his aunt works for Syncrude, one of the Alberta oil sands’ largest producers of crude oil, and was able to get him a job as a contract process operator with the same company.

It was a new experience for Wells, whose only previous job was part-time work at Shoppers Drug Mart doing shipping and receiving.

He explains he was nervous and not sure what to expect when he first travelled to Fort McMurray in August 2010.

I was fortunate my aunt was living there. She took care of me, bringing me back and forth to work, introducing me to people,” says Wells.

They train their workers really well, and I ended up being there probably two months before I actually even started my job. So I got extra training, which ended up benefiting me.”

As Wells began his new career, Black was also facing the challenge of settling into a new situation.

Neither of us had been west of Ontario when we decided to move out here,” says Black.

We had no clue what we were getting ourselves into.”

The first year wasn’t easy.

Wells was on a schedule that required him to work 11 days straight before getting three days off. After accounting for travel time, he and Black only had about 48 hours together, twice a month.

It was really tough,” says Wells.

The young couple didn’t have a lot of material things at that point, either. They rented a small apartment in Rutland and owned a minimal amount of furniture.

Black says she and Wells would go shopping for one household item each weekend.

One weekend he’d come home and we’d go get a mattress; the next weekend he’d come home and we’d go get a television,” she says.

During that time, Wells rented a car during his short visits home. The couple didn’t own a vehicle, so Black utilized public transit to get herself to the university.

Wells knew his shift would eventually switch to six days on, six days off; he and Black tried to focus on that “light at the end of the tunnel.”

We really learned to get better at speaking on the phone and use Skype and as many different types of communication as we possibly could,” says Black.

And we’d try to spend as much time as possible with each other when he was in town.

It was definitely hard though.”

In July 2011, Wells was given a more desirable work schedule, which consistently gave him six days off in a row.

The couple agrees dealing with the separation has gotten easier over time, and they have figured out the best ways to schedule their time, both together and apart.

Wells works three day shifts and three night shifts during his six days in Fort McMurray. He uses his time walking home from the bus stop after each day shift to speak to his girlfriend on the phone.

When he’s back in town, the couple takes care of chores and makes sure they spend time with each other doing things they enjoy, such as watching their favourite TV series or taking their dog for walks.

Black’s program at UBCO keeps her busy when Wells is working out of town. She tries to do more work when he’s away so she can spend more time with him when he’s home.

Although Wells tries to dedicate as much time as possible to his girlfriend, he realizes the importance of making other friends in the Kelowna area. And that hasn’t always been easy for him.

This year, he signed up to play with a local hockey team, but work commitments only allowed him to play in about one-third of the team’s games.

It’s hard to build a close bond with them when you’re only there every three weeks,” says Wells.

It’s difficult for him to build close relationships with people, and also be in on all of the inside jokes and everything that’s happening when that group is always hanging out, because he’s only able to make it every once and a while,” adds Black.

One of the toughest situations Wells and Black have had to deal with since moving to Kelowna happened at his sister’s wedding in July 2012.

I was playing cards with my grandmother and I looked up and noticed that my vision was blurry,” says Black.

I didn’t think too much of it that night, but I got up the next morning and it was still blurry.”

Black set up a couple of appointments when she returned to Kelowna. At first, an optometrist suggested she had acute onset nearsightedness.

I didn’t trust that; I knew something else was going on. After a couple visits to the doctor and a blood test, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.”

Although Wells was initially in town when Black found out about her condition, he had to go back to work a couple of days later. Black found herself struggling to understand her new medical requirements on her own while her boyfriend was working.

She did her best to explain what she had learned to him when he returned home from work.

It was really scary. I didn’t really know what was going on. Eventually we were able to start scheduling my appointments with the diabetes educator around times when Neil was here.”

Wells says that was probably the hardest time for him: Having to be away from his girlfriend in order to go to work.

If she happened to fall asleep, and I texted her and she didn’t answer, the worst started running through my mind.”

On several occasions, Wells asked friends to check on Black to make sure she was OK.

Luckily it’s never gotten to the point where I’ve been unconscious,” says Black.

Although there have been challenges with the lifestyle Wells and Black have adopted, there have been numerous advantages as well.

Black completed her Master’s degree and is now enrolled in the clinical psychology Ph.D program at UBCO; Wells has gained valuable experience up north and is constantly building up his resumé—recently completing his power engineering ticket.

The couple purchased their first home in March 2013. They drive their own vehicle. They have a labradoodle named Murphy.

We’ve come a long way,” says Black.

Abra

Abra Playfair rarely met other women during her time working as a paramedic in northern Alberta.

Being the only female crew member was “really hard,” at first, she says.

She quickly noticed her fellow male crew members often talked about “men things”—usually using vulgar language to do so.

You have to be a certain kind of woman to be able to work with that many men around you,” says Playfair.

The paramedic, who works for BC Ambulance Service when she’s not employed in the northern Alberta or B.C. oil fields, wasn’t deterred.

She was always “one of the guys” growing up, so she was optimistic she could fit in with her crew.

At first it was really hard. There were lots of phone calls to mom; lots of phone calls to my best friend.

But as you spend more time with the guys, they become your friends—and they respect you for what you’re doing up there.”

The Fort St. James native became a paramedic in January 2010.

Since then she has divided her time working for BCAS and doing stints in the northern Alberta and B.C. oil fields—when there is work.

Along with looking after those who are injured, Playfair is required to keep track of every crew member, and check in with them periodically to confirm their locations.

Initially, it was the appeal of a higher paycheque that brought her to the region.

I know that sounds bad, that it was all about money, but that’s really what draws most people up there.

You stay in for about 21 days in a row, you’re working 12-hour days, then you usually get a week off. So it’s hard…but when you come out your bank account is full.”

When Playfair first went up north, she was single; now she is in a serious relationship.

She expects to get another two or three years out of oil field paramedic work, but it’s not a long-term career for her.

As much as I love the money, it’s not for the rest of my life because you can’t do something like this with kids.

I’ve met women who are lifelong oil patch paramedics and they’re single.

They’ve got great houses in Costa Rica, but they’re single.”

Tony

The day Tony MacKenzie leaves for Fort McMurray for another two weeks of work, he updates his Facebook status, indicating he’s on the right path with the perfect people in his life.

We will get to where we all want and need to be: Together,” he writes.

We just have to keep walking it with love, patience and faith.”

The night before that, he sits on a beige leather love seat in his Kelowna living room, explaining how life’s path brought him to Fort McMurray, and how he hopes it’s a temporary solution.

The 44-year-old former federal meat inspector was recruited to work in northern Alberta as a construction survey assistant in 2008.

His job was interrupted later that year with the economic downturn. He returned to the industry in the spring of 2010 until 2012.

MacKenzie took most of 2013 off to focus on finding work in the Okanagan.

After 10 months of not being able to find anything suitable, I was forced to go back,” he says.

In November 2013, MacKenzie was offered a job by Athabaskan Resource Company and has since been working 14 days on, seven days off.

He says he enjoys the work because he’s part of a team that’s actually building something.

You’re working with the world’s largest machinery, building huge projects,” says MacKenzie.

It encompasses a lot of things that I enjoy.”

Although MacKenzie has job satisfaction, he doesn’t enjoy the distance separating him from his family, which is comprised of his fiancé, Laura Forester, her daughters—Madison, Rebecca and Jordan—and his son, Tomas.

When I’m at work, I’m constantly thinking about home.

It’s challenging to go away and leave your family…you miss the little things, like a hockey game or a dance recital. So you’re making those sacrifices.”

MacKenzie says time with family is his top priority when he’s in Kelowna.

People work in the Fort McMurray area for a variety reasons.

There are those who see it as the best way to provide for their families; some aren’t able to find an adequate job in their hometown that fits their skill set; others see working in northern Alberta as a way to gain experience and beef up their resumé; many simply enjoy the paycheque.

There are people who are addicted to the lifestyle and the paycheque,” says MacKenzie.

They’re making ridiculous amounts of money, so they’re spending ridiculous amounts of money.”

While MacKenzie says he is appreciative of the money he receives, he’d gladly take a pay cut to be working in the Okanagan, closer to his family.

For now, he’s in Fort McMurray to gain experience he didn’t previously have, with the hope those skills will help him find work in the area.

I don’t want to be going; right now it’s a necessity.”

In January, being away was particularly hard for MacKenzie as Laura got quite sick and was hospitalized.

I got the phone call on a Tuesday and was home that evening. (My company) was able to transfer my tickets and give me the extra week off.

None of my family is here, so we didn’t have anybody to step in and care for the children—so I had to come home.”

He says he is appreciative Athabaskan Resource Company accommodated the situation; however, he would’ve come home whether they were able to switch his ticket or not.

MacKenzie’s goal is to find a job closer to home within the next 12 months.

And this year is a big one for he and Laura; the couple is eyeing down a wedding date in October.

But, for now, MacKenzie appreciates the positives. His company pays for his flights to and from Fort McMurray; he’s living in a “very good” camp; he manages to speak to Laura every night.

We make sure that every night, before I go to bed, we Skype or FaceTime,” he says.

Just before the conversation with MacKenzie ends, his four-year-old, soon-to-be stepdaughter, runs across the living room, taps his leg and says, “I like you.”

I like you, too,” says MacKenzie.

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com

Twitter: @PatersonWade

Other stories in the series:

Part 2: The community

Part 3: Getting there

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