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.