Harvesting Ruins: The Im/Permanence of Work Camps and Reclaiming Colonized Landscapes in the Northern Alberta Oil Sands


By Janelle Marie Baker, McGill University §

*All photos taken by Janelle Marie Baker

Abandoned work camp in Bigstone Cree Nation territory.

My Nehiwayak (Cree) friends who have the patience and kindness to take me out to the “bush” or Canadian subarctic boreal forest often ask me to film and photograph their activities, but on this particular summer day I am careful to not photograph or videotape anyone. My hosts are harvesting from their territory as they do regularly, in good spirits, speaking Sakaw Nehiwayak (northern/bush Cree), laughing, sharing, and remembering to bring something for people back home. We have along the usual snacks of bannock and tea and moose meat. They talk about people who have been here before and who have taken more than they should have, and others who came here early and got the really good items (like TVs, generators, kitchen pots, and leather couches). It’s almost like any other day when we are in the bush hunting for moose or chickens (grouse), trapping, netting fish, or collecting mint or berries. The difference is that today we are gathering metal, glass, wire, wood, and other forms of building materials from an abandoned work camp.

Work camp at Syncrude operations north of Fort McMurray.

No matter how many times I drive north of Fort McMurray in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands region, I never cease to be amazed by the magnitude of the work camps. Module trailers, three stories high, housing thousands of workers, offering gyms and coffee shops; they even have their own airstrips for jet planes full of workers arriving and departing. There is a range in the quality and size of camps. Some of the small private ones for executives resemble luxury hotels, while open camps tend to be less than desirable. One worker who blogged about the poor state of large work camps and posted photographs of mold and mildew was immediately fired from his job and blackballed by the oil sands industry (Thomas 2010). During my years of doing applied traditional land use consulting, a process of assessing future impacts of proposed industrial developments on Treaty rights (Westman 2013b) with First Nations in the region, I did my best to avoid staying in these intensely masculinized and overpopulated lodgings.

Abandoned work camp cut into pocket of the Boreal forest.

Nestled into pockets in the boreal forest and in contrast to the extreme landscape modification of oil sands mines, tailings ponds, and upgraders, work camps are often overlooked in terms of their environmental impact. They are mentioned in environmental impact assessments, but are dismissed due to their impermanence – they are there to temporarily house transient workers who construct projects and not necessarily maintain general operations, so the camps are considered to be a short stage in the “life” of the project. In spite of such claims, work camps require a large clearing in the forest, site drainage, and all forms of human waste disposal. They attract bears and power generators are loud and contribute to oil and gas spills. Disturbed soil becomes the perfect place for invasive plant species to colonize.

Peat moss with caribou lichen, labrador tea, and cranberry plants.

Having grown up in rural Alberta, I am familiar with men talking about the northern boreal forest as being the “armpit” and “asshole” of the province. They say there is nothing “up there” but muskeg (bog) and mosquitos of unusual size, in contrast to the familiar settler-induced farming and parkland landscapes of the south. These same men will brag about drinking exploits on days off while in the north involving sexual conquests of Aboriginal women (Baker 2014). The exploitation of the land and the women connected to it is intertwined as seen in the oil industry’s use of sexual metaphors, with the thrusting of rods into the earth below for example (Westman 2013a:217). Work camps, makeshift frontier boom towns, support the Canadian and Alberta Government’s intentional “wastelanding” (Voyles 2015) of the subarctic; creating the idea that there is nothing there, no people or value except that which can be extracted and sold (Brody 2004). Workers drive and fly in, work long shifts at oil and gas sites, and retire in the evening to tin-sided trailers. They do not have the opportunity to be out on the land, to see the stunning beauty of caribou lichen, bog cranberries, and cloudberries floating on top of clouds of deep ancient peat moss, or to smell the wild mint hedging crisp fens and massive beaver houses. This version of the boreal forest brings more pleasant body parts to mind.

Salvageable supplies at an abandoned work camp.

Work camps require permits, but granting authorities rarely enforce them. Bylaw officers do not drive all the way out to the bush to check on camps, and even if someone reports infractions, it will take a while before (or if ever) they can go out and check. Illegal work camps appear far up logging and oil service gravel roads and then disappear before anyone realizes; or increasingly they are abandoned. In this case, abandoned work camps sprout up in the traditional territory of Treaty No. 8 Nations – areas that are families’ hunting, fishing, trapping, plant and mineral gathering, and ceremonial sites. I often hear First Nations Elders question what will be left behind for their families to live off of when there is no more oil. There are almost 800 orphan (abandoned and not reclaimed) oil wells in Alberta (Orphan Well Association 2016); defunct companies go under or change names and there is no one left to clean up industrial garbage rotting the landscape and polluting the soil and water. When the oil industry follows the bust part of its cycle the amount of abandoned industrial sites increases in spite of constant promises in project applications of land reclamation and restoration.

Abandoned work camp in Bigstone Cree Nation territory.

The particular abandoned work camp I discuss here has become a point of fascination for me over the past couple of years. It is about 85 km up a former logging road – now purchased and maintained for oil and gas activity in Bigstone Cree Nation’s territory. The small community of Chipewyan Lake is at the end of the road 110 km from the nearest town of Wabasca. There are several functioning work camps along this road, and I never really noticed the abandoned one until the summer of 2015. No one seems to know or want to admit to the true status or ownership of the camp, but it seems to have been abandoned since 2009 and in recent years people have been claiming and repurposing supplies from it. When you live 110 km up a logging road and over a three hours drive from the nearest town with unaffordable building supplies and groceries, or over five hours from the nearest city, sheet metal, windows, toilets, and lumber are precious commodities. One friend used tin to put a new roof on the former small work camp trailer he was living in, another used a window to replace a smashed out one in an old cabin. I have experienced first hand the extreme housing shortage in Bigstone communities (see McMahon 2014): there are simply not enough funds to house all Bigstone members on reserve and so houses are overcrowded and many are in need of serious structural repairs. Off-reserve housing prices reflect the northern oil industry prices; rent costs are outlandishly high often for places that would be considered uninhabitable or condemned elsewhere.

Work camp with building materials missing.

“The frontier is made in the shifting terrain between legality and illegality, public and private ownership, brutal rape and passionate charisma, ethnic collaboration and hostility, violence and law, restoration and extermination” (Tsing 2005:33). It’s not a wonder that people travel to pockets in the forest to find recently trucked-in and abandoned “temporary” work camps in order to harvest supplies that bolster their own homes. The camps are, after all, small and fast appearing infestations of the boreal forest, a brief population explosion, an offering to a hunter in need, perhaps an act of reciprocity. Camps may be temporary housing, but they are abandoned in places that are long-term homes to ancestors, people, and a richness of other living beings. This new form of harvesting makes sense of postcolonial extractions and landscapes: the settlers impose and take from the land briefly, but Nehiwayak (Crees) are there to stay and so they recover, reclaim, repurpose, and wait for life to “rewild” in their ancestral territories.

Works Cited

Association, Alberta Oil and Gas Orphan Abandonment and Reclamation. 2016. Orphan Well Association 2015/16 Annual Report.
Baker, Janelle Marie. 2014. Jokes About Aboriginal Women are not Jokes, Vol. 2016. https://passittotheleft.org/2014/03/31/jokes-about-aboriginal-women-are-not-jokes/: Pass it to the Left.
Brody, Hugh. 2004. Maps and Dreams. Vancouver; Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.
McMahon, Tamsin. 2014. Bigstone’s Lost Opportunity. Maclean’s Magazine.
Thomas, Mike. 2010. Writing about conditions in Suncor’s tar sands work camps got me fired.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Voyles, Traci Brynne. 2015. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Westman, Clint. 2013a. Cautionary Tales: Making and Breaking Community in the Oil Sands Region. Canadian Journal of Sociology 38(2):211-231.
_ 2013b. Social Impact Assessment and the Anthropology of the Future in Canada’s Tar Sands. Human Organization 72(2):111-120

Janelle Marie Baker is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at McGill University studying Cree perspectives on wild food contamination in Alberta’s oil sands region in collaboration with Bigstone Cree Nation and Fort McKay First Nation. Baker is an instructor in anthropology at Athabasca University and was recently a visiting PhD scholar on Professor Anna Tsing’s Niels Bohr Professorship project, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene: Discovering the Potential of Unintentional Design on Anthropogenic Landscapes. Baker is a past Warren Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, a Vanier Scholar, the 2013-2014 Canadian Federation for University Women CHEA Fellow, a 2014-2015 International Society of Ethnobiology Darrell Posey Fellow, and a current Canadian Northern Studies Trust Scholarship recipient.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism.