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Working North

Calgary Worker Speaks on Labour Conditions in Northern Alberta and BC

by Ian MacNairn

» Download audio file 'ian_working_north_.ogg' (18.5MB)

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Morning sun through aspens
Morning sun through aspens
Beach landing on the mighty Peace River, BC
Beach landing on the mighty Peace River, BC
Wood mushrooms
Wood mushrooms
Mitten Lake, BC
Mitten Lake, BC
Takla Lake, BC
Takla Lake, BC
McNairn Falls, BC
McNairn Falls, BC


Ian - Working North (TRANSCRIPT) 




This year I've gone out on a few trips in northern Alberta and northern BC. I've been up to areas in northwest BC in Smithers and north of Smithers in Kispiox [Gitxsan village] and the Kispiox River Valley, and then I've been up to Takla Lake [home to Talka Lake First Nation] which is north of Vanderhoof which is north of Prince George, and I've been up to McKenzie, and from McKenzie working near Hudson Hope as well, and then in Alberta I've been up to north of Grand Prairie in Peace River, and then from Peace River we went up to Cadotte Lake [unincorporated community] and Brownvale which are near Peace River, and I've also been up to Cold Lake and north of Cold Lake near Conklin, AB. Those are the different venues that I've been to so far this year.




The first trip that I went on in June of this year, 2013, as usual we leave home in Calgary, and this trip was up to Cold Lake and Conklin, so sometimes I will fly and take multiple forms of transportation, but this time we drove the whole way. So we went up in a one-ton big truck and drove from Calgary one day all the way to Cold Lake, which is northeast of Edmonton. So that drive is about five or six hours or so, and then the second day we drove from Cold Lake up to Conklin which is further north, about halfway between Cold Lake and Fort McMurray, so it's getting close to the oil sands region. 


The project we were working on wasn't oil related at all, but it's up in that region; a lot of lakes and forestland. So that trip almost tainted my view of getting to go out because it was an absolutely horrible kind of commute and by the end of the trip - so we only worked two days and then three days of travel - so for any trip there's a huge amount of commuting that happens for the actual amount of work that occurs and by the end of the trip when I got home, I ended up having an injury just from doing the commuting and the injury was I was having terrible kind of pain and tightness and soreness in my hip flexors and my iliotibial bands, so in my hips, just from having a twelve hour drive one day and then the same coming back. 


In terms of the actual work, we spent the two days working. We were driving in Argos, which are these all-terrain vehicles. So, again, we were on a right of way, so through the bush in this swathe of land that's about 40m crosscut through the trees, and on this tank-like vehicle, because it has treads like a tank, and it can go in the water, so we would be taking it through like a boat through water, and so by the end of it, I ended up having this injury that's taken me months now to get over, including acupuncture and chiropractor and visiting a physiotherapist and doing my own kind of self-therapy as well. So, the commute on that was really quite difficult. It's only just driving but it's quite taxing to have so much just travel. 


Then, on top of that it's really kind of interesting because we're surveying a really kind of beautiful area. It's really heavily forested, thick forests of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees, and lakes and muskeg and lots of wildlife and it's gorgeous. But then it was starkly contrasted with where we were staying. We were staying in this spot called Conklin's Corner, or Karen's Corner and it's a camp for oil and gas workers who are working for long stints up there. It's basically at a gas station, not in the middle of nowhere, but pretty remote gas station. There's these few trailers, and one trailer has a bar and a cafeteria, and then all of the other trailers are living quarters, or rooms, that people rent out. It was the most horrible lodgings that I've ever been to in my life, anywhere that I've ever traveled in North America. So far nothing has compared to how just kind of degrading and just rough was this place was to live. 


You see everyone who's been there for many months and they are all quite unhealthy looking, overweight. Then in the evening when everyone's having dinner, there's huge lineups for guys buying 24 cases of beers or bottles of hard liquor, and so the whole area is littered with bottles of liquor and beer cans. The accommodations are basically set in a gravel pit. It's pretty wild. So there's a gas station and then trailers set in this big gravel pit. It's weird. It's not really a happy place by any stretch. You have this kind of like, alcoholic coping strategies and horrible food in terms of nutrition, or comfort level. 


We brought an Elder out there and he ended up having to go home, just a little bit earlier than we did because he got sick just from staying in the rooms, because the rooms were blasting cold air and stale air all night. It's a really weird place. That compares to where the Elder lived in the First Nation, which was out of Cold Lake, and they are living on farms out there. The Elder had some horses and a llama, and it's a more just kind of typical Albertan farming homestead basically. And that's where we had picked up from. 


The commute home was okay, I drove it by myself in a truck. It's a long drive. That was the one trip. After having to stay in Karen's Corner, and that commute up to Conklin and back I did not want to be doing any more trips. Missing my wife and kids. It's hard to be gone for so long. We're surveying an area that's already being disturbed, and looking at having further disruption and degradation of the land and all of the consequent effects for the First Nation people who live off of the land and how it would impact them. Added to that, we were staying in these horrible conditions. It's like, "Why are we out here. This is kind of insane." 


British Columbia


The next trip was quite amazing, and it's kind of neat because the commute we had, I was going up to Smithers, which is Prince Rupert on the northwest coast of BC, a couple hours drive inland from the coast and so far all the rest of my trips have followed a similar kind of commuting pattern and that's basically, I'll leave home in a taxi from Calgary to the Calgary airport and then I'll fly in a plane to BC and all routes in BC go through Vancouver. So, I'll have two flights every time. So the first flight is Calgary to Vancouver, and so far every time I've flown to Vancouver I've had breakfast in the Vancouver airport at the same breakfast spot every time. So, I've gotten to know this one waiter who works there, his name is Raymond. It's kind of neat. For about a month there I went in three or four times and I went to the restaurant or grille on my way into Vancouver and on my out, so I'd see him like every time. It's kind of weird, it kind of reminds me a little bit of someone who works in downtown stopping at the same coffee shop every morning on their way to work and getting to know the barista, except for me it was flying 1000km away from home and like seeing the same guy at breakfast every day. So, that was kind of weird, but kind of cool, I liked it. 


The first flight would be from Calgary to Vancouver, and then I'd fly either from Vancouver to Smithers, I went to MacKenzie before and Prince George. This one trip, I flew to Vancouver, had breakfast and met up with Raymond there and then flew on a flight to Smithers, and it's neat. The first flight you were on a big plane, carrying six passengers per row. Then, you get on a smaller plane that's carrying either two passengers per row, one on either side, or four passengers, but even then the flight's are usually half or three-quarters full. So, you're flying with maybe twenty or thirty people. Then we got to Smithers, and from Smithers we rent a truck and drive into the town of Smithers. That was the commute up there and that was quite lovely, because the whole flight you're flying over glaciers and mountains, and in comparison to the driving commute it's quite spectacular visually and just in all senses in terms of being able to be flying and what not. 


So, we arrived in Smithers, and Smithers is this great little mountain town that is on par with Banff or Canmore, or Jasper, or Revelstoke, or some of these places, but it's just so much more remote. You don't see a lot people. It's a long ways away. You either have to fly or it's a long drive, but they have some amazing mountain setting around them, specifically this twin falls; two matching waterfalls coming off of this glacier. One day, after work, I was able go hike up this glacier gulch trail and check out the glacier and check out the waterfalls, which was beyond my wildest dream and anticipation from what I could find from getting to do this commute for work, and then another day after work up in Smithers, I hiked all the way up to the Hudson Bay mountain which is the tallest mountain nearby. It's, you know, over 9000 feet, and you get this view of the town of Smithers and all of the surrounding mountains. That was quite amazing, and to add to that, I went by myself and didn't see anybody the whole way, other than some mountain goats. So, the solitude is quite pronounced even from the front-range mountains here in Calgary, closer to Bragg Creek, or Canmore, and Banff. 


The cool thing about the work out in Smithers, was not only did we have a commute of so many modes, in terms of taxi and two kinds of airplane and truck. Every day we go out and do our fieldwork, because I was out with the fisheries crew - what the fisheries crew does is survey streams and water bodies along a proposed route to see if they have a potential for being fish-bearing, or having fish in them. So, to get to every site we flew in a helicopter. The helicopter we flew in is called a B2 and it holds three passengers in the back seat and the pilot and one passenger in the front seat. It's really quite small. It was my first time flying in a helicopter. It was totally weird, so amazing, so exciting you feel kind of like a big shot. It's really action. 


On a project, so if, we're surveying for a pipeline, if the pipeline company will propose a route that they want to have for a pipeline and before they can go ahead with submitting an application for the project they have to survey the whole line and so the survey will include environmental survey, socio-economic survey, human health survey, all these different things. So, the work I do, even though it's with First Nations, it's under the framework of environmental survey. In environmental you'll have a wildlife survey and vegetation survey, soil and water survey, fisheries and marine survey if it's involving coastline, and the First Nations traditional knowledge survey. So, I focus on the traditional knowledge. Often, First Nations are invited out to participate on these other disciplines. So, in this case fisheries, and provide any knowledge. They are able to provide knowledge to the discipline and to myself, as a facilitator, but it's also just to engage the community and to have them out and seeing the land. Having an opportunity to see what the idea or the plan for the project is - so that's when I'm saying the route. 


So we fly out in a helicopter every morning, and we flew over two mountain ranges to get there and there's two or three big glaciers and all these phenomenally bright, brilliantly coloured alpine lakes and multicoloured rock from really bright red rock to striking grey, almost like a sparkling granite. Then we land near north of the town of Kispiox. We were surveying water bodies, streams or drainages, that were tributaries to the Kispiox river and so, to further the commute once we'd get there in a helicopter we'd be bushwhacking all day in the forest and there's devil's club, which if you've never seen or know devil's club it's these low-lying plants that grow to be pretty big but they're extremely spiky and so painful to touch, the underside of the leaves are all spiky and the stalks are all spiky. 


You'd have to bushwhack through devil's club. Every place we went was covered in devil's club. We'd be bushwhacking down really steep embankments of rock and dirt to the water tributaries or bushwhacking for hundreds of meters through the bush, but like going through devil's club so everyone's getting scratched up and it was totally fun but it makes for this really interesting distinction between just picking up in the air and flying wherever you want and moving at 200mph in any direction - vertically, horizontally, diagonally - to moving at an extremely slow pace, like a kilometre an hour through really heavy and not very positive bush, just really kind of abrasive and almost hostile terrain, and so that was basically the commute. 


So, the actual work wasn't the hiking per say, it was getting to a stream and testing it, observing it and recording its characteristics and testing it to see if it was likely to contain fish or be a good fish habitat, so the commute included taxi and airplane, and second airplane and driving in a truck and flying in a helicopter and culminated in this bushwhack through the forest. 


Again, we never visited any of the Elders' communities or homes because we all met in Smithers. None of the Elders are from Smithers, and Smithers isn't a First Nations community, but these guys were from Kitwanga or Kispiox or New Hazelton, which are all north of there, near Smithers and Terrace. So, we never saw the land that they are living on but we see the land that they are living off of in a sense of their traditional use and food and medicine harvesting, and where a lot of these fellows, men and women, spend a lot of their time both in ceremonial practice and just in harvesting and in all kind of land use. 


And the land was on par with any of the most beautiful land that I've seen before, you know, you have huge, nearly untouched forests, there's been a lot of logging in there, but to an untrained eye or even compared to other areas in BC or Alberta, Canada, or expanding to the rest of the world, it's like pretty untouched, it is phenomenal. The green vibrancy of the land and the water is pretty clean up there, which, the further we go along in our history, the less and less you can say about freshwater sources. So, they have these clear and clean and strong river ways and water bodies and huge forests and they are surrounded by mountains on all sides. You know, it's interesting in that part of why it is so beautiful, or still so beautiful, not why it's inherently so beautiful but why it remains to be so is because it does take a huge amount of effort to get there, you know, and not that people with a mind for resource exploitation or resource harvesting aren't willing to put in that kind of effort, but they're remote enough that they've been able to sustain such a beautiful land for as long as they have as a community but also just the land in and of itself outside of human, First Nation or otherwise, interaction. 


For me in Calgary, I had to take two plane rides and all of this, but even for people in up in BC, or living in BC it's quite remote. Whereas most of the population lives south of Prince George and even Prince George is a four or five hour drive away. So, the population density and the absolute size of the population means that the land is able to be as it is. After that trip, take the helicopter after you're bushwhacking all day, you take the helicopter back to the hangar and drive back, you know and at the end of the trip I flew to Vancouver and flew back to Calgary and taxi back home and you know, after that you know, I thought it had totally changed my mind on what commuting the north could be like and gave me a much more positive and excited notion of what it was like compared to the really kind of hellish, long and physically challenging physical consequence of the drive up to Conklin's Corner. 


So, for us, in our work, in my company, the commutes are like that, some of them are driving, but if we're going anywhere further than Edmonton or just north of Edmonton, we'll be flying and you know, that's an extreme luxury, but it allows us as facilitators to have a sense of physical wellness and energy level that allows us to be more engaged in our work and I can't say now but I could speculate that it'd help to retain people in terms of being excited to maintain working in the environment. Then, when you get to go on trips, like I did to Smithers or even the trip to other spots in northern BC it's really exciting and I gained gratitude not only for those that I work with, but for the land I get to see and experience and be on, and for the community members and Elders who I work with. 


I'm being given this job which is supporting myself and my family financially and occupationally or career wise for the moment, but that aside, I'm getting to travel to these places in my own home in terms of Canada or in Western Canada that I probably wouldn't otherwise see. If I was getting a vacation I would maybe be going somewhere more exotic or somewhere that I've been dreaming of, but then I have this opportunity given to me. Like, "Hey, Ian, you're going to be heading out to northwest BC." I get privy to an area that most people have not seen and will not see, and that's just amazing, and I get to see it at this point in time before any of these projects go through whether they do or not - maybe they don't get approved by the NEB or maybe they do, but if they do and these pipelines happen, the places that I visit this summer or next summer or the summer past, they won't be the same as they were when I saw them. It'll have gone through an irreversible alteration and not for the better. For the betterment of some human notion of bettering the Canadian economy, wealth, or prosperity but not for any betterment of the land. 




And, for another addition to getting this opportunity to visit the land as it is, I'm getting to spend time with these extremely knowledgeable and wise Elders from First Nations and that opportunity in and of itself is almost like a gift. I don't know if others at my work feel similarly but I know in First Nations that I'm familiar with and others that I've read about getting to spend time with Elders is a gift for youth or others in the community, and especially so when they're imparting their knowledge and their traditional knowledge of harvesting or medicines or the history of the land or of their language. They're sharing with you some of their power. Given that these Nations have a recorded history of ten to twelve thousand years in the same place in Canada and claim to be since time immemorial, which I don't doubt. That power is longstanding and has been around for thousands and thousands of years, almost incomprehensible for me. 


So getting to go out in the job that I am and share time and experience on the land with them, even if it's only a day or two or four or five, and have them share knowledge of identifying plants and what plants are used for and the wild game that they harvest and how they track it or medicines they used and why they're used and how they're used and just history of their Nation and the history of the land both individually and collectively, and then even some knowledge of ceremonial aspects or ceremonial methods or techniques, or practices is a huge benefit. It's a definite bonus to my job, and not in a bonus as in healthcare or dental care is in work, it's much more profound and one that transcends the job itself on this human-to-human kind of connection. 


I see it as we are meeting together as humans as opposed to a meeting as a representative of one company and you're meeting as a representative of your organization and therefore we're having this kind of business transaction. No, we were brought there by these organizations, but we're having this human kind of connection in which you're imparting knowledge to me as an Elder and I'd like to be able to receive it as one who's not an Elder, as a youth or young adult and even if I'm not able to put it into practice in my home cityscape of Calgary, it's imparting respect for the land and respect for self and respect for others that I'd be hard-pressed to find in many jobs. 


So, in that way, all these various forms of locomotion and commuting, from planes, trains and automobiles to bushwhacking you get this intensely intimate and powerful transaction between people in this far off, extremely remote forest that I would never have been to. In that abstract sense, I went a long way to receive some knowledge but it definitely makes all the travel worth it. 



NOTE: This podcast was produced in partnership with and the Arusha Centre with the Calgary Working Group initiative to establish a new local of The Media Co-op in Calgary

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