Boom towns have a culture all their own, and they are not always pretty. Boom towns like Fort McMurray, Alberta are established when a valuable resource is discovered in the vicinity of the town and the city grows rapidly with the efforts to harvest the natural resource. The term “boom town” is typically applied to mining cities that are excavating for oil or precious metals. Because of how workers flock to boom towns to make money, and because of how the towns struggle to accommodate the influx of new residents, boom towns are known to have particular surpluses and deficits, both moral and logistical.
The things boom towns tend to have too much of are men, jobs, money and population. Because boom towns are typically built upon labor trades, it is men who seek and obtain a majority of the jobs. This leads to an imbalance in the town’s population between men and women, making it male dominated. Boom towns obviously have a surplus of jobs or they would not be boom towns. While a boom town is a boom town, its primary industry is ever expanding, creating new jobs daily. The work is highly profitable and earns its employees an impressive wage that they could not make anywhere else. As more and more people pile into town to make their fortune, the population grows to an unmanageable size.
But where boom towns have an excess of some things, they have a deficit of others. Boom towns commonly lack women, space, infrastructure and entertainment. Because it is men who flock to trade jobs, boom towns typically do not have enough women contributing to the population and turn into a heavily male dominated culture. Space for people becomes very limited as the town’s population grows at a faster rate than its infrastructure, causing overcrowding and tension. As the governing bodies struggle to provide basic services to the rapidly growing population, recreation for town residents gets put on the back burner and neglected, which consistently leads to debauchery among bored boom town residents.
The oil worker population is largely made up of displaced men, averaging 30-years in age, who have often separated from their support systems in order to be there. The work sites and camps are full of testosterone, energy, angst and boredom. When these things are fueled by large paychecks, addictions and substance abuse run rampant.
Particularly in winter when conditions are harsh and frigid, there is simply nothing for the oil workers to do for recreation and the lack of recreational activities in Fort McMurray and in the surrounding oil camps is in part responsible for the area’s extreme addiction and substance abuse problems. The reasons for this are numerous. Only ten years ago, Fort McMurray had a population of 50,000 people; a number that has more than doubled in the present day. This kind of growth is almost unprecedented for a city, though it is common for a boom town. Predictably, the city and municipality have been unable to keep the city’s infrastructure relative to the size and the needs of the population, so recreational amenities are lacking.
However, there have been some efforts to provide entertainment for the oil workers. Oil giant Syncrude recently built a huge recreation center near the downtown area to give oil workers access to gym and game amenities – an effort to give employees much needed physical activity while they are not working. The trouble is, the draw to Fort McMurray is so massive and the wages are so lucrative that the city should look vastly different in order to support the needs of its population. The residents of Fort McMurray are able to afford a lifestyle full of entertainment, but the area they live in is cramped, unequipped and overwhelmed with people.
Currently, Alberta’s addiction treatment services are overextended, and many people have expressed the need for more recreational facilities and addiction service centers. Whether or not this goal will come to fruition remains to be seen, and people in need of treatment are venturing out to other provinces for help.
Addiction is a difficult thing to defeat in any walk of life, but in Alberta’s oil industry, there is a particularly difficult addiction phenomenon taking place. The accessibility of alcohol and drugs due to enormous wages, integrated with uniquely rough working conditions, has created an addiction problem in Fort MacMurray today of extreme proportions. Alberta’s network of rehab centers have done all they can with the resources they have, but they are not numerous enough to eradicate the issue. It is essential that proper inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment be offered to oil workers.
When substance misuse is consuming an individual’s life, often to the point of physical reliance on the substance, they need expert intervention in order to confront their trouble and permanently end it. This indicates that expert intervention services must be used to talk to the abuser about their trouble, along with the arrangement of an inpatient medical facility to watch the individual during their detoxification, a treatment facility to safely separate the individual from the thing they are addicted to, extensive individual counselling sessions to take care of the underlying troubles that create addiction and ongoing treatment after the program to guarantee continued sobriety.
There is no point in an oil employee bypassing addiction therapy and suffering in silence. If the rehabilitation support services of Alberta can not fulfill the requirements of addicted individuals in the oil industry, then oil workers must look outside of Alberta. Many oil business permit a leave of absence for drug abuse rehabilitation, and they are aware that rehabilitation must be prioritized over all else. Addiction is taking the lives of oil workers through disease, overdose and self-destruction at alarming rates, and preventative measures should be taken.
The wage an oil worker makes in Northern Alberta is, of course, the draw to the area. The smallest salary that an Alberta oil employee will make is approximately $90,000 per year. Oil companies are able to pay these salaries because oil is Canada’s chief export. It is estimated that the oil industry of Alberta will generate $3.2 trillion dollars in revenue over the next 35 years. Considering no university education is required for most oil positions, the attraction to them is overwhelming.
These astronomical salaries obviously do a lot of positive things for workers. Almost all oil workers are men, many of whom are supporting families. The generous wages provide for families raising children, cover healthcare costs and in general provide a good quality of life for employees and their families. However, the high pay rate is also responsible for some detrimental things, not the least of which are the addiction and substance abuse problems that run rampant in oil camps and within Fort McMurray.
In a place with incredibly harsh winter conditions, near a small city with very little entertainment, high wages can be more of a curse than a blessing. It did not take the drug trade long to move into Fort McMurray. Any number of highly addictive substances can be found for purchase in the city, particularly marijuana and cocaine. Alcohol is also a very popular substance of choice among oil workers. The high salaries of the oil industry bring a largely transient population into the area, which combined with a thriving drug trade has made Fort McMurray the fifth most crime ridden city in all of Canada.
Reversing the trend of addiction and substance abuse in and around the oil sands will not be a simple task. Rehabilitation and addiction service facilities in Alberta are already overflowing with people in need. The salaries themselves are not the problem; the boredom is. Oil workers simply need more options for how to spend their time. Fort McMurray needs to create more healthy entertainment for the booming population, as well as take the need for addiction and substance abuse treatment seriously.
Part of the cause of Northern Alberta’s oil worker addiction problems are the harsh living and working conditions. The oil sands are located near Fort McMurray, which is largely isolated in a section of Canada’s vast Boreal forest. The area is considered northern living, and an allowance is given to residents accordingly. Because the oil sands are so far north and remote, and because the living conditions near the oil sands are so cramped and unaccommodating, the area is a breeding ground for addition and substance abuse problems.
The hardest part of working in Alberta’s oil industry is the cold. This is an obvious and unavoidable environmental factor. Temperatures reach below minus sixty degrees Celsius in the winter and take lives every year. Working in the outdoor oil pits means wearing protective winter gear and many layers. A number of precautions must be taken to keep equipment and instruments from freezing. In day to day life, driving, commuting, running errands and even taking the trash out have to be done with extreme caution to stay protected from the cold. Many people site the cold as being the most difficult part of living in Fort McMurray or in an oil camp, and thus one of the major contributors to addiction and substance abuse.
Personal space is also a major issue for oil workers. Whether one is living in Fort McMurray or on-site in a camp, the living conditions are very tight. Camps provide a very small amount of living space to each employee, which tends to cause feelings of agitation and depression. This in itself can lead to substance abuse and addiction problems, but the way it really hurts oil workers is by driving them into town to blow off steam, where they are offered alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling opportunities for purchase. Because there is so little healthy recreation to participate in in Fort McMurray, these addictive substances and activities are the common ways of killing time as an oil worker.
Although a majority of the employment in Fort McMurray comes from the oil industry, oil workers are by no means the only working professionals who are affected by addiction and substance abuse. Being a dentist in Fort McMurray, or being an attorney, CEO or physician means surviving under many of the same harsh living conditions. Addiction and substance abuse run rampant through out the city.
In Northern Alberta, on-site at the tar sands, a culture of addiction and substance abuse has emerged among the oil workers. The working and living conditions promote this way of life and perpetuate it every day. The winters are extremely harsh and recreational opportunities are very limited, yet the pay rate is incredibly high. This leaves workers with a lot of time on their hands and very minimal ways of spending it, which is how addiction and crime gets in the door. A number of addictive substances and activities are available to the largely male population in place of healthy activities. Statistically, the two most prevalent addictions in the Fort McMurray, Alberta area are alcohol and cocaine.
Alcohol is one of the oldest addictive substances in the world, and has been abused as long as it has been around. Canada, Russia and other Northern lying regions that turn frigid in the winter are known for their alcohol abuse. Alcohol is widely available throughout these parts of the world, which is likely because it has a numbing effect when consumed heavily and gives the feeling of a false warmth. In Fort McMurray and the tar sands area, alcohol is immensely popular as a way of coping with the -60-degree temperatures that can ravage the region in January and February. Alcohol sales in Alberta are privatized, meaning there is less government regulation on the sale of alcohol than in some other provinces. It is also an affordable substance, with a wide range of qualities and prices to accommodate any budget, making it widely available and very popular.
Unlike alcohol, cocaine is an expensive substance to purchase, but because most of the people living in Fort McMurray work for the oil industry, money is not an object. Illegal cocaine sales are some of the most lucrative in the country in Fort McMurray. Residents of the city have claimed that cocaine is a staple at almost every party. The Hells Angels are a presence in Fort McMurray and are largely responsible for the illegal drug trade and the access the city has to cocaine. Appropriately dubbed the “rich man’s drug,” cocaine is thought of as the favorite way to kill time among oil workers. It has even permeated the local culture through language; in time off from work, short-changes are commonly referred to as “snort-changes” in reference to cocaine use. Residents of Fort McMurray who are struggling with addiction or substance abuse problems such seek out the services of a Fort McMurray rehab right away.