12 Indigenous Gendered Experiences of Work in an Oil-Dependent, Rural Alberta Community*
Angele Alook, Ian Hussey, and Nicole Hill
The development of Alberta’s oil sands is often touted not merely as essential to the province’s economy but as key to the prosperity of Canada as a whole. Yet the Indigenous residents of the oil sands region do not necessarily reap the benefits of this immensely profitable industry. Quite apart from ongoing efforts to restrict their land rights, Indigenous people have only a limited opportunity to participate in decisions surrounding economic development or to rise to positions of influence within the oil industry itself. Researchers have documented the educational and training barriers that exist for Indigenous individuals in the oil sands region, as well as the sidelining of both First Nations and Métis in the public-private “partnerships” promoted by a neoliberal regime (see Taylor and Friedel 2011; Taylor, Friedel, and Edge 2009). Research in the Fort McMurray area has also shed valuable light on how gender and race shape experiences of work in the region (see Dorow 2015; Foster and Barnetson 2015; O’Shaughnessy and Doğu 2016), although these studies do not focus specifically on Indigenous workers.
Moreover, despite the studies that have been done, little is known about the impact of involvement with the oil industry on the day-to-day life of Indigenous families and communities. As Tara Joly and Clinton Westman (2017, v) point out in a recent review of social science research in the oil sands region, “there has been virtually no monitoring of economic or employment benefits” that allegedly accrue to Indigenous communities as a result of development, a neglect evident in “a lack of information about labour market participation and experiences.” In particular, the implications of employment in a highly masculinized industry have yet to be explored. This chapter aims to help address these knowledge gaps through a case study of Wabasca, an oil-dependent community located about 135 kilometres northeast of Slave Lake, to the southwest of Fort McMurray. Specifically, by examining the lived experiences of Indigenous people employed in the oil industry, we seek to provide an in-depth understanding of how working conditions impact gender relations within Indigenous families and communities.
Wabasca is headquarters to the Bigstone Cree Nation (BCN), whose lands in the area are divided among five separate reserves, the largest only about 8,500 hectares, that cluster around the hamlet of Wabasca-Desmarais and together cover just a little over 21,000 hectares.1 These “checkerboard” reserves are surrounded by Municipal District of Opportunity No. 17—which describes itself as the “land of opportunity” to emphasize its abundant natural resources and large land base. It is, indeed, the third-largest municipality in Alberta, stretching across more than 2.91 million hectares. Overall, the district is very sparsely populated. At the time of the 2016 census, the off-reserve population of the municipal district stood at only 3,181, with almost half of these individuals (1,406)—the majority of whom identified as Indigenous—living in the Wabasca-Desmarais community. At that time, the population of the five Wabasca reserves totalled 2,157, for a total resident population of 3,563 in the Wabasca area.2
In addition to the resident population, the Wabasca area is home to a temporary oil industry workforce housed in work camps—a “shadow population” that, in 2015/16, was forecast to number 2,200.3 These work camps exist because Wabasca is also home to the Wabasca oil field. Now considered a southwestern extension of the vast Athabasca oil sands area, the Wabasca deposits are the source of a thick crude known as Pelican Lake heavy oil, which is recovered by horizontal drilling in combination with a process called polymer flooding. Operations at Wabasca are dominated by Canadian Natural Resources Limited, which, in 2017, acquired assets previously owned by Cenovus, for a price of $975 million. At the time of the sale, production stood at roughly 19,600 barrels per day (Hislop 2017).
Gender, Race, and the Oil Industry
Jobs in the oil, gas, and mining industry accounted for 6.1% of total employment in Alberta in 2017 (Alberta 2018, 2). Unsurprisingly, these industries were, and continue to be, dominated by men. Only 21.5 percent of the workers in this sector were women, whereas women made up 45.5 percent of Alberta’s overall labour force at the time (5). At $40.40 per hour, the median wage of workers in these industries considerably exceeded the median wage of $26.40 for the province as a whole (6). But these statistics give us only part of the story.
One persistent, and widespread, problem is pay equity. As law professor Kathleen Lahey (2016) points out, at an average of 33 percent, Canada’s gender income gap is already enormous, typically ranked as the third largest among the thirty-four OECD countries. In 2016, however, the income gap in Alberta stood at 41 percent—the highest in the country. On average, women working full time, all year, were earning $31,000 less than their male counterparts. The gender pay gap is even more troublesome when we consider that most women are working a “double day.” In Alberta, women perform approximately 35 hours of unpaid work per week, more than twice the average of 17 hours for men (Lahey 2016, 1).
These inequities carry over to oil industry workers. Social science research on Alberta’s oil sands industry—most of it conducted in Fort McMurray, with no particular focus on Indigenous workers—reveals that disparities grounded in gender and in race and ethnicity are built into the division of labour in the industry. Describing the frenzied work environment of Fort McMurray as a “pressure cooker,” sociologist Sara Dorow (2015) argues that this pressure is especially felt by women and racialized people. Through their paid and unpaid work, these marginalized populations support men’s work in a highly masculinized industry, not only to the benefit of male workers themselves but also to the profit of (mostly male) oil executives and the shareholders in oil corporations. Some women stay home with children to free up earning time for their partners, but many are employed themselves, and Dorow finds that both women and racialized workers “are overrepresented in the feminized, precarious, and invisible work of service, retail, and care in Fort McMurray” (2015, 277). This gendered inequality of access to high-paying jobs means that men’s incomes in the region are more than double those of women (280).
In homes in which both parents work, nannies—often Filipina temporary foreign workers (TFWs)—pick up the slack in child care, as well as performing some housework. Outside the home, other TFWs do much of the care and cleaning work that supports the retail, service, and hospitality sectors in the Fort McMurray region (see Hill, Alook, and Hussey 2017). By servicing the needs of oil industry workers, both in Fort McMurray and in the surrounding work camps, these TFWs fill a critical role in the social reproductive processes on which capitalist accumulation depends. Yet this type of employment is highly precarious. TFWs have only limited access to citizenship rights and to the labour market, given that their work permits are tied to a specific employer, while their jobs typically come with low wages and few benefits and sometimes with a heightened risk of injury or ill health. Labour researchers Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson (2015, 264) point to the creation of a “two-tiered labour market, populated by citizen workers and noncitizen workers,” in which the fundamental distinction is one of skin colour, with the latter group made up mostly of individuals from the Global South.
In addition to TFWs, Fort McMurray has a significant Somali refugee population. Sara O’Shaughnessy and Göze Doğu (2016) find that Somali women in Fort McMurray experience discrimination based on their gender, race, religion, and culture. Given that some employers are reluctant to hire them at all, many of these women end up in janitorial jobs. In one case, several Somali women who were employed by a cleaning service were fired, as a group, for wearing long skirts to work, on the grounds that company safety policy required them to wear pants (280). As O’Shaughnessy and Doğu further point out, women in general have a hard time in the masculine culture of the oil industry. They describe how women who attempted to downplay their femininity in an effort to fit in were ostracized by other women as “bitches” or as “mannish,” while women who insisted on maintaining their femininity were ostracized for being too “giggly-girly” or were perceived as “not tough enough” to succeed in their job (288). Add to this the industry’s bias toward male workers, a significant pay gap between men and women, and the normalization of verbal, physical and sexual harassment, and the challenges faced by women are readily apparent.
In the case of Indigenous women, these challenges are compounded, and not only in Alberta’s oil industry. In the context of the rapidly escalating development of the fossil fuel industry in northeastern British Columbia’s Peace River region, a study by Amnesty International (2016, 40) identified patterns of inequality and discrimination against Indigenous workers in general and Indigenous women in particular. First Nations and Métis workers reported that, at some worksites, co-workers made them feel “unwelcome and even unsafe,” while others spoke of employers who took a “last hired, first fired” approach to Indigenous workers. “There’s an old boys’ club that controls hiring,” explained Marvin Yahey, chief of the Blueberry River First Nations. “After everything is in play, they invite the First Nations in for the shovel jobs, the grunt jobs.” In this highly masculine environment, women “work twice as hard to get half the recognition,” said one female worker.
The Amnesty International report (2016, 40) also called attention to “the conflict between jobs that require long, multi-day and multi-week shifts often far from home, and cultural traditions of being out on the land with extended family.” Perhaps its key finding, however, is that violence against Indigenous women is a routine part of life for those involved in BC’s extractive sector. Many women indicated that they would refuse a job if it required them to live in a work camp, where, as the report noted, a “highly stressful environment, physical isolation, and the drug and alcohol abuse at some camps” combine to create a dangerous environment for women (42). Women described daily sexual harassment on some worksites, much of which goes unreported. Echoing Chief Yahey’s comment about hiring, one Indigenous woman explained, “It’s a boys’ club, so if something happens you don’t say anything” (42). Others described the sexual expectations of some of their male co-workers, and even cases of sexual assault. As a social worker observed, the risk to Indigenous women is exacerbated “by the large numbers of men who come to the region to work in industry and the way that their economic power emboldens them to express racist and sexist attitudes they might suppress elsewhere” (51).
In regions such as northeastern British Columbia, where resource extraction takes place on a huge scale, Indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the socioeconomic and environmental burdens, yet they benefit the least from the massive profits generated by these industries. Likewise in Alberta, workers in the extractive industries are afforded a different worth based on their race and gender. White men are significantly advantaged in employment in the province, earning significantly higher incomes in nearly every occupational field in comparison both to women and to visible minority and Indigenous men (see Lahey 2016, 21, table 4). Similarly, white women typically earn more than non-white women. Although roughly one in five white women work in relatively low-paying sales and service jobs, visible minority and Indigenous women are even more likely to be employed in such positions, yet their median incomes are lower (particularly in the case of Indigenous women, who earn about a quarter less than white women). In much the same way, while a third of white men are employed in trades, transport, and equipment operation, among Indigenous men the figure rises to nearly half, but their median income is about 20 percent less than that of their white counterparts.
In short, Albertans are living in a petro-province in which fossil fuel corporations wield enormous power, a province located in a settler-colonial country whose economy relies an intersectional hierarchy of labour value characterized by the hyperexploitation of women and racialized people. In a corporate-capitalist economy, even well-paid white workers have little job security, but racialized people—especially non-white women—tend to be confined to precarious, marginal positions in which their low wages contribute to high profits. In short, Alberta’s ongoing commitment to the fossil fuel sector is obviously leaving some people behind. Although women, Indigenous, and racialized people are finding their way into these jobs, they are still the exception, and they face enormous challenges of discrimination when they get there.
Researching Indigenous Gender Relations in Wabasca
As of the 2016 census, Indigenous people accounted for roughly 6.5 percent of Alberta’s total population—a proportion considerably higher than the figure of 4.8 percent for Canada overall. Just over half of the province’s Indigenous people—52.8 percent—were First Nations, while 44.2 percent were Métis.4 At the time, the oil sands region was home to approximately 23,000 Indigenous people, from eighteen First Nations and six Métis settlements (Natural Resources Canada 2016, 1).
In Alberta, as in Canada as a whole, the relationship between Indigenous people and the state has been deeply shaped by colonialism, past and present. The systemic racism that Indigenous peoples still face throughout the country is rooted in the process of colonization. This bitter legacy is manifested today in intergenerational trauma related to the breakdown of Indigenous families, as Indigenous children continue to be taken into foster care in disproportionate numbers and poverty takes its toll on family life. Indigenous people are beset by chronic underemployment and denied equal access to basic human and citizenship rights, including education, health care, safe drinking water, and decent housing. They are overrepresented in the prison system, while the country is witnessing an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The present chapter builds on research conducted by Angele Alook in 2011 and 2012 (Alook 2016). Alook interviewed young Indigenous men and women living in Edmonton and in the Wabasca area, both on and off reserve, with a view to exploring the formation of cultural identity and the influence of gender on experiences of family, school, and work. She found that extended family networks and the building of healthy family relations not only promote resilience but also offer a form of resistance to the colonial and gendered structures encountered in school and at work. At the same time, her research revealed that involvement with the resource extraction industry encourages a highly gendered division of labour, which is reflected in gendered life scripts. Indigenous men often end up in traditionally masculine oil industry occupations, working as tradesmen, general labourers, or heavy equipment operators. In interviews, men talked about leaving school early to take jobs in the oilfield and about how they felt steered into this life course by both the school system and the oil industry. Indigenous women were less likely to work directly in the industry but tended to be streamed into female-dominated professions, serving, for example, as administrative assistants, teachers, or social workers. The women with whom Alook spoke indicated that they needed to get an education if they hoped to avoid the fate of early childbearing and a life of poverty.
Although these men and women clearly valued traditional extended family networks, Alook discovered that, within families, gender relations varied from the egalitarian patterns traditional in Indigenous cultures, in which neither sex is regarded as inherently superior to the other, through to Western-style patriarchal relations that impose a clear gender hierarchy. These findings raised a number of key questions that provided the impetus for further research. What impact does oil industry employment have on Indigenous family relationships? What are the implications of the oil industry for Indigenous family and community health? How does the streaming of Indigenous men and women into gendered occupations that reflect Western values affect family and community well-being?
In approaching these questions, we have been guided by the Cree and Anishinaabe concept of miyo-pimatisiwin (or, in Anishinaabemowin, mino-bimaadiziwin), often translated as the “good life,” and the emphasis it places on extended families and on mutually respectful gender relations in which power is evenly distributed. To live a good life is, among other things, to understand health in a holistic way, in which individual well-being is connected to overall family health, which is in turn integral to community health (see Hart 2002). Within this communal understanding of health, all aspects of self and community—spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental—are viewed as essential to well-being.
In our ongoing research with the BCN community, we employ a decolonizing methodology, one that generates knowledge grounded in local Indigenous world views and insists that research must give back to communities. Such a methodology avoids Western colonial practices in which Indigenous peoples are treated as objects of study who furnish information for the benefit of the researcher (Smith 1999). Our research is accordingly done with and for the BCN community (Menzies 2001). As a member of that community, Alook secured permission to undertake the study from the chief and council in the form of a band council resolution, and she also conducted all of the interviews, carefully observing Cree protocol. As was the case in her earlier research, Alook modelled the interviews on the Cree practice of âcimowin, or storytelling, inviting participants to tell her stories about their lives.5
The following analysis draws in part on eight interviews that Alook conducted in 2011 and 2012, three with women and five with men. All eight were married, with one to three children each, and their average age was thirty-two at the time. Two of the women were public sector workers; the third was a skilled tradeswoman. Of the five men, two were managers in oilfield service companies, and the other three worked in the oilfield, two as power system engineers and one is a truck driver. These interviews were then supplemented by eight new ones, which took place in the spring of 2018. This group consisted of six men and two women, with an average age of thirty-five. Four were married, with two or three children each, and four were single, with no children. Three of the men were managers or assistant managers at oilfield service companies, and the other three were skilled tradesmen. Of the two women, one was an administrator at an oilfield service company, and the other had a job in the public sector in the community of Wabasca. Those who were employed in the oil industry all worked for Indigenous companies, owned either by BCN or by an Indigenous person or family. One of the sixteen people interviewed was Métis; the rest were Cree.
A variety of themes emerge from the interviews, which can be grouped into three overarching categories. One has to do with nature of the oil industry and, in particular, with the impact of systemic racism on Indigenous workers, as well as the gender discrimination that women often encounter. A second theme revolves around the differential impact of oil industry employment on men and women, as well as the effects of this employment on family life and on employees themselves. A final theme concerns Indigenous understandings of community and the challenges posed to traditional community values by the presence of the oil industry.
The Impact of Discrimination on Indigenous Workers
In Wabasca, as in any oil-producing community, the oil industry is the main source of job opportunities for men. But finding a job is only the first step in building a career. In discussing oil industry employment, the men we interviewed often spoke about the discrimination they encountered in attempting to rise up the ladder. Workers frequently pointed out that labourer jobs are the standard entry point into the industry for local men. As one explained, “A lot of people here in this town, they’ll start basically coming in as a labourer if they have no experience running equipment previously.” At the same time, many commented on how difficult it is to advance from these low-level jobs, despite a desire to do more than just physical labour. One worker reflected that he “should have went the education way and got some kind of degree or diploma” because he “was in the mud for a long time.” Another explained that “it’s hard to move up as a labourer … you’re in maintenance, like, there’s nothing higher.” This streaming of Indigenous workers into jobs as labourers is a form of systemic discrimination in the industry.
The Enduring Force of Racial Stereotypes
“If a person puts all their effort into it,” said one participant, “there’s no reason why they shouldn’t advance, right?” Yet the idea that only certain individuals possess the “drive” needed to climb the labour ladder frequently came up. As the manager of an oil service company put it, “You can pick up on the people that are able to move up.” The suggestion was that adequate opportunities to advance do exist but that “some people like to stay back.” In the opinion of a senior worker, “only some” Indigenous people take work “seriously enough that they’re willing to move up” and who “find the drive and determination.” He went on to say, “You see that in a lot of kids here. They’re so happy that they got a job; they don’t want that job that’s one step up.” While perhaps not intentionally, such attitudes perpetuate stereotypes of Indigenous workers as unmotivated—as deficient in energy and ambition.
Adding to this racist image of Indigenous people as fundamentally lazy is the assumption that workers employed by oilfield companies owned by First Nations simply get “work handed to them” because they are Indigenous. Some of those interviewed raised the notion of “handouts,” often in a disparaging way or to distance themselves from them. One worker explained, “Nothing I got has been handed to me.” Such comments reflect negative stereotypes according to which Indigenous people feel a sense of entitlement—that, rather than viewing success as something one earns through hard work and a willingness to seize on opportunities, they rely on handouts from the state and other forms of favouritism. This formulation, which attributes the failure to “move up” to a refusal to exercise personal agency, ignores the educational barriers and the racism and colonial trauma that make it hard for some Indigenous people to participate successfully in the waged economy.
Another stereotype that emerged in interviews was the idea that Indigenous workers are only good enough for unskilled work. As one service company manager noted, “The conception that Natives will only be a labourer is something that we’ve had years and years and we have to try and break that norm… . We don’t just operate shovels.” This normalization of the racist notion that Indigenous workers are best suited to labourer jobs has the effect of stalling them in unskilled, lower-paying work. A number of people pointed out that Indigenous workers are not treated in the same way as other oilfield workers: they miss out on wage raises, and they are also more likely to be laid off.
One worker who had previously been employed with a non-Indigenous company explained that “it was harder to move up” in such companies. “Even if I was better than someone else,” he said, “they would move up quicker than I would … usually just white guys.” Another commented, “Because I was First Nations, not because I had less experience … it’s taken me longer to get up the ladder.” Both individuals were skilled workers who were able to advance once they moved to Indigenous companies. One senior oilfield official was convinced that a major oil company operating nearby would simply not hire Indigenous workers. “They’re all in cahoots,” he said, noting that nobody living on reserve was employed at this company. “That impacts a lot of people ’cause there’s a lot of work there, but we’re not allowed to work there. It’s only môniyaw [white people] that are allowed there.”
Alluding to another commonplace stereotype, one oilfield worker described an incident that had occurred while he was in another town. He and fellow Indigenous workers were being harassed by local white guys and were even assaulted at one point, yet they were the ones ultimately questioned by the police, who warned them that they would be “keeping an eye” on them. After this incident, he said, “It was so bad I never did go back there again to work.” Another skilled worker remarked that people in the surrounding community often make derogatory comments about those living on reserve, “as if we’re all criminals and such, alcoholics or drug abusers.” In view of such stereotypes, several of those we interviewed mentioned the need to work harder than white workers. As one put it, “It’s almost like you’re trying to prove yourself a little bit as well that, you know what? we’re just as good as anybody else.”
For similar reasons, it is not easy for an Indigenous company to compete in an industry dominated by non-Indigenous corporations. As one person explained, “We really have to sell our people and say, ‘No, we’re not the typical Native.’ There’s a typical Native that people assume is out there: lazy, late, and never there the next day.” At a time when First Nations are being encouraged to set up their own companies and thus create jobs, such attitudes clearly place them at disadvantage—nor does the existence of flourishing companies owned and operated by First Nations seem to have seriously dislodged the stereotype that Indigenous people lack drive and ambition. Moreover, workers who are prevented by systemic discrimination from getting ahead in non-Indigenous companies but who subsequently do well in Indigenous companies are denied their success by the racist assumption that opportunities must have been handed to them that they didn’t actually deserve.
After breaking through racist barriers and winning contracts in the oil industry, Indigenous-owned companies and their employees feel a sense of genuine accomplishment, and workers often expressed a sense of relief to be employed at such a company. Being part of an Indigenous company, one said, “is probably the most I ever felt comfortable at the workplace.” As he explained, “before I felt like, don’t matter how hard I work here, I was still like, the brown boy.” In contrast, the environment at his current company seemed friendly and welcoming—more like a family, he said.
The racism embedded in the industry has one other serious consequence for Indigenous workers, however, which stems from the boom-and-bust commodity cycle to which the oil industry is subject. In such an unstable environment, even a relatively modest downturn in oil prices can lead to layoffs. As one man put it, “with the industry, you got to work when there’s work or, because you never know when—you know what I mean—it could get slow again and not be any work.” During a downturn, production drops, and unskilled workers are generally the ones to be let go first, a pattern that places Indigenous labourers at a disadvantage. In the meanwhile, workers who continue to be employed face the stress of watching co-workers lose their jobs and the constant fear that the axe may swing in their direction, even as their own workloads increase. As one commented. when someone is laid off, “we kind of just take on everything for that role.”
Although, in a male-dominated industry, downturns clearly take their heaviest toll on men in terms of numbers, one male worker suggested that it is “maybe a little harder for the women to get work” at such a time. Downturns also have a ripple effect, such that oil service companies suffer when the rate of production drops. One skilled worker said that he felt “fortunate to just be working” during the three-year bust period that followed the sharp decline in oil prices in the fall of 2014. Another grimly observed, “Everybody’s replaceable, right?” During that period, one Indigenous company in Wabasca shrank from two hundred employees to as few as seventy. In a community of thirty-five hundred people, the loss of those high-paying jobs matters a lot.
The men with whom we spoke expressed differing views about the extent to which the oil industry is male dominated. One service company manager commented that “it’s pretty rare to see women doing labour-type work in the oilfield. I have come across one or two female workers, but they generally don’t seem to last as long maybe as a male worker.” When asked whether women have equal opportunity for advancement, male workers could only speculate. “Yeah, I guess—I’ve never really seen the issue before,” one said, while another suggested that, as an industry minority, women actually get special treatment: “I think girls actually get treated better when they do get jobs … like everyone’s just nice to them all the time.” Yet the lack of women in upper-level positions made some aware that a disparity exists. One male worker observed that, despite his company’s claim that women are given equal opportunities, “I haven’t really seen any females in higher positions like that.”
Some men argued that, even though the industry is male dominated, no bias exists against women, whom they felt were treated equally. By way of explaining the imbalance, they pointed instead to “family commitments” and especially to the role of women as mothers. In the opinion of one, “Women have a tougher time with having to commit to the work schedule. Basically they’re not able to have the daycare or the care for their children at home, especially single mothers or mothers in general.”
Several of the men called attention to a few Indigenous women in the community who had learned a trade and were certified as journeymen, pointing to these women as evidence that, with enough initiative and drive, women can succeed. Speaking of one such woman “down the road,” a male journeyman acknowledged that “for a woman to try and break through, it’s not easy,” noting that “we’re not a rig company, but you hear of that ‘rig pig’ mentality.” He went on to say that “it’s gotten better over the years, but it definitely wouldn’t be an easy place for a woman to work.”
According to a woman who had certified as a pipefitter, working in the oil industry can be “a bit tough at times,” partly because “guys with all their testosterone” think that they are better than women. She recognized the male tendency to regard women as sexual objects, noting that, in terms of their appearance, women in the industry need to downplay their femininity and try to avoid making themselves “attractive to the opposite sex.” She also observed that women must do their best not to be “so high maintenance” or otherwise call attention to themselves as women. “You definitely have to be comfortable with yourself,” she said. In her view, when it came to sexual remarks or physical advances, “you just deal with it and do something about it if you feel [you need to], you know.”
A manager at an Indigenous-owned service company also raised the issue of harassment. “We’re trying to promote equality out in the field,” he said, “yet female workers do get harassed by other workers, and they’re out there working just like anybody else.” As he explained, “We’re here to protect them if they come up and ask us for assistance,” but he acknowledged that the source of the problem was old-fashioned patriarchal attitudes that flourish within the oil industry itself. “It’s a different industry,” he said, and “a lot of old-fashioned Aboriginal men are probably the most old-fashioned people out there. As an Aboriginal company, that’s the tough part.” Part of the old-fashioned way of thinking is that a woman’s place is in the home. Unfortunately, the oil industry still generally subscribes to the masculinist idea that physical labour is a job for men.
Conversations with both male and female participants revealed an unequal sharing of social reproductive labour—a pattern that is in no way unique to Indigenous families. As a general rule, women who were employed outside the home were also responsible for most or all of the child care, cooking, and cleaning. A woman explained that her husband “was raised by old-school parents that think that the wife should be the cook and the cleaner—so that’s my role.” One working mother who was also in school struggled to balance three major commitments. “It’s tough,” she said, “and then having a family, it’s overwhelming…. Just managing the kids and coming to work and then going home and cooking supper and then take care of your kids, make sure they get fed and to bed—and that’s when you [have] time for school.” Women’s unpaid work is often invisible: it is taken for granted and thus goes unacknowledged. Yet one senior manager did openly recognize his wife’s contribution to the household: “If I didn’t have a wife that stayed home and she was a full-time mom,” he noted, “I think we’d have difficulty doing my job and trying to do that at the same time.”
Women’s responsibilities for reproductive labour were reflected in their daily schedules: women typically worked a standard nine-to-five day. In contrast, men in oilfield jobs often put in long shifts or worked standard hours plus overtime as needed (and it was often needed). “There’s days where I feel like I lose time with my kids because I work,” one male worker commented, adding that because he works long shifts he tries to be with them when he is not at work. Others pointed out that they do make an effort to help with laundry, cooking, extracurricular activities with children, and yard work, trying to maintain an equitable division of labour as far as their work schedules permit.
Beyond assigning women to the domestic sphere, such that outside employment becomes an add-on, patriarchal family structures are also deeply bounded up with notions of masculinity. Although the idea that the man should be the primary breadwinner in the family has slowly begun to erode, it is still very much the ruling assumption among men who work in resource extraction. One man described his emotional struggles after the 2014 crash in oil prices. He lost his job during the downturn, and his female partner became the breadwinner in their home—a change that “definitely affected self-esteem,” he said, “as in not being able to provide.” He went on to explain that he did not feel that a man necessarily had to be the main provider, but “you talk to peers, right? And there’s jokes that are made.” Embracing the caregiver role in the household required him to confront problematic notions about masculinity, including ideas like “men don’t cry” and “men don’t talk about feelings.”
Men who do not have to grapple with the emotional consequences of unemployment face a different problem: work-related stress. The pressures of oil industry work, with its frenetic pace and long hours, often find an outlet in alcohol or drug abuse. A number of men described their efforts to make healthier choices in dealing with stress. They talked about surrounding themselves with people that do not use, about spending time with family and friends, and about engaging in various forms of physical recreation to burn off steam. Several workers mentioned taking part in outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, camping, and sledding, as well as heading out into backcountry on all-terrain vehicles or skidoos.
On the whole, those we interviewed saw oil industry employment as a double-edged sword. Some pointed to the high incomes earned by industry workers as an asset, providing families with a good overall quality of life, enabling parents to enrol their kids in organized sports such as hockey, and allowing their children to pursue post-secondary education. Yet many recognized the negative impact that oil industry employment can have on family life. One worker summed up his life: “long hours away from home, always on the phone, too tired to do anything in the evenings.” He added that “you’re always in a conflict one way or another with somebody when it comes to the family.” Another admitted that he sometimes brings job stress home, although he recognized that his family was also a source of strength and support. A number of those we interviewed likewise pointed to the important role of extended family in providing child care and emotional support, particularly when women were in school and/or worked outside the home.
The Indigenous men and women whom we interviewed felt a strong bond to the Bigstone Cree community, from which they derived much of their sense of self-identity. Central to this perception of community was a shared awareness of “which family you belong to,” as one person put it: “everybody knows who your mom is, who your dad is, who your grandparents are.” Another defined community as “knowing where your roots are.” This prioritization of family relationships, together with a sense of belonging to a particular place, is key to Indigenous understandings of personal identity as emerging from and situated within the collective.
Community was also perceived in terms of mutual support, founded on the conviction that each person is responsible for the welfare of the whole. One person pointed to the way in which the community comes together “when needed at a time of crisis or celebration,” and many spoke of the importance of supporting other community members who had fallen on hard times, through donations and fundraisers, for example. “The community is so willing to give—it’s amazing to see that,” one said. She saw this sense of reciprocity as “more of an Aboriginal thing. People taking care of their own.” Similarly, describing her extended kin network, another woman commented, “We help each other … we’re not alone, we have each other all the time.” Others emphasized their efforts to reach out to those in difficulty, including people with addictions and youth who seem to need help. “There was people when I was young that took the time out to stop and talk to me,” one man said. “I feel that I owe the younger generation the same.”
The sense of membership in a community carried over to the workplace, which became a site for solidarity among Indigenous workers. “We talk a lot in Cree and joke around, yeah, so—it’s fun,” one explained, adding that “the majority of us are all First Nations.” Those working in Indigenous companies often described a sense of loyalty to the company and to their co-workers. As one manager put it, “We kind of pride ourselves here … there’s not too many oilfield companies that are 100 percent Native owned and operated.” It was through his work community that one man discovered his connection to the land. Others at the company where he worked used to “go out hunting,” he recalled, “and I started hanging out with them out in the bush, and it became something I liked doing.” He went on to say that he eventually started going out into the bush on his own, which enabled him to reconnect his family to the land as well.
As many of those to whom we spoke acknowledged, the Bigstone Cree community has benefitted materially from the presence of the oil industry. In addition to providing needed employment, companies donate to local sports teams and provide financial support for community projects (a pattern discussed in the previous chapter). At the same time, the industry has in many ways destabilized the community. As one person put it, “The industry brought in jobs, and it has brought in a ton of money, but when you bring in jobs and you bring in money, you also bring in drugs and you bring in alcohol. Now you can afford those things.” Moreover, community residents do not have equal access to this newfound prosperity.
As the chief source of work, the oil industry has also been a source of tensions, with multiple local service companies competing for a finite number of oilfield contracts. These tensions were especially evident in the period following the 2014 crash, when production slowed and with it the demand for external services. As the manager of a service company noted, a downturn “makes it a little harder to get work,” explaining that his company would bid on a job only to find that another company had come in under its bid. “And we’re all working against each other,” he said, competing for whatever work can be had. Another manager noted that their Indigenous-owned, private business was sometimes in the position of competing for contracts with a BCN-owned company, commenting ironically that the “biggest people we have to compete with are our own nation.” Others described tensions in the community between people who were working for different Indigenous-owned companies, as well as between those who were in a position to do hiring and workers in the community who had been laid off and needed jobs but were not being hired.
In short, the spirit of competition essential to capitalist economies, along with the willingness to exploit others and to be exploited oneself, runs counter to Indigenous understandings of community, in which the welfare of the whole takes precedence over individual material gain. Although members of the Bigstone Cree community had been exposed to capitalist waged labour long before the oil industry arrived, the sheer scale of that industry and the “ton of money” associated with it are unprecedented. This influx of wealth has provided new opportunities, but it has also served to unsettle traditional values and the sense of community integrity and balance that these values provide.
Conclusion: Seeking the “Good Life” in the Oilfields of Capitalism
For Cree peoples, a life founded on miyo-pimatisiwin is a life of health and balance, within individuals, families, and the community as whole. Miyo-pimatisiwin is a state in which all aspects of life stand in their proper relation to all other aspects and people give equal attention to all parts of the whole, in accordance with traditional values such as respect and reciprocity. Indigenous people lost miyo-pimatisiwin in their lives when colonialism severed their relationship with the land and traditional modes of subsistence were lost. This way of life entailed spiritual, emotional, physical, mental, and material balance with the earth, as well as between genders. As Indigenous lands were appropriated, Indigenous peoples were drawn into the colonial capitalist economy, with its hierarchical division of labour. Today, workers and families in Wabasca must struggle to restore miyo-pimatisiwin in their day-to-day lives.
The oil industry’s boom-and-bust cycle and the competitive pressures of capitalism have brought significant imbalance and disruption to oil-dependent Indigenous communities. Individuals working in the oil industry have experienced discrimination related to both race and gender, and some of those we interviewed had internalized hegemonic racist stereotypes according to which Indigenous workers lack the drive needed to move up the labour ladder. Others were conscious of these stereotypes and resisted them. At the same time, Indigenous companies have been able to carve out space in an industry dominated by non-Indigenous corporations. In so doing, these companies have created family-like communities where Indigenous workers are no longer held back or excluded and can take pride in who they are.
The oil industry’s boom-and-bust cycle and the pressures of capitalism can bring significant imbalance and disruption to communities, as described here. However, through relationality in the community—specifically, paid and unpaid caring work performed largely by women—the community works to establish balance.
The male-dominated oil industry has itself contributed to this imbalance. In a community where a single industry is the primary source of employment, the patriarchal attitudes embedded in the oil industry create barriers and deterrents for women that not only reduce their access to relatively high-paying oilfield jobs but ultimately limit their opportunities for employment of any sort, given that few alternatives are available. Work-related stress has thus become a significant issue for community members. Whether the product of immediate pressures at work or of the loss of a job or the fear of losing one, stress can create family tensions, as well as contributing to social issues such as drug and alcohol addiction and interpersonal violence.
Also of concern are the class divisions created by the industry. Many Indigenous workers end up stuck in unskilled labourer positions, but a few manage to learn a trade and move into better-paying jobs as skilled journeymen. These men sometimes start their own contracting companies and so wind up becoming relatively prosperous business owners. The result is the emergence of small-scale Indigenous capitalists. Although they may view themselves, and perhaps are to some degree seen by others, simply as members of the community, these local business owners are in a position to provide jobs. In terms of capitalist class structure, they are employers, not workers, and this distinction is a source of division within the community.
At the same time, in the wake of the 2014 downturn, local Indigenous oilfield service companies struggled to stay afloat, given that they depend for their survival on oil production companies—which are, for the most part, large multinational corporations. A number of Indigenous business managers complained about the unfairness of a situation in which large corporations own the rights to the oil, while First Nations are not even shareholders in these corporations. These massive multinational corporations exploit the oil, and local Indigenous workers end up being racialized and exploited in the process. Glen Coulthard (2014) is strongly critical of the encroachment of capitalism onto reserves, in the form of Indigenous-owned business enterprises, as well as of “partnerships” between Indigenous communities and large extractivist corporations. As he points out, the economic power of capital is also a form of social power, although it is not necessarily recognized as such. As Indigenous peoples become enmeshed in capitalist relations, they absorb the values essential to these relations, displacing the traditional values that lie at the heart of miyo-pimatisiwin.
Through their participation in massive, multinational industries, Indigenous communities are hooked into the extra-local relationships integral to corporate power, which require that they relinquish their autonomy. Community members who profit from the oil industry often become strong supporters of continued fossil fuel development, on which their revenue streams rely, while resenting their own exclusion from the corridors of corporate power. In the meanwhile, others are exploited, and still others engage in efforts to stop such development and assert their rights to the land and its minerals. The community is thus divided against itself. From the perspective of miyo-pimatisiwin, how can Indigenous holistic understandings of being as a web of relationships (“all my relations”) and of the importance of caring for the collective good be maintained when capitalist class structures and the privileging of the individual fragment the community?
What emerged from the interviews we conducted was a sense that individuals and families are working hard to adapt to the fluctuations of the oil industry and to preserve the health and happiness of their communities, families, and selves. At the same time, they are part of a far broader process of decolonization that is constantly challenged by efforts on the part of the dominant society to reinforce and sustain colonial structures—and, in this, capitalism has proved to be a powerful tool. As climate change progresses, the wisdom of Indigenous values of respect and reciprocity is becoming ever more apparent, and the oil industry is already attempting to co-opt those values by invoking them as its own. In the meanwhile, members of the Bigstone Cree Nation are, like Indigenous peoples everywhere, left seeking ways to recentre traditional values and restore health to themselves and their community in the face of relentless countervailing forces.
- 1. Of the five Wabasca reserves, four (Wabasca 166A, 166B, 166C, and 166D) are immediately adjacent to Wabasca-Desmarais, while the fifth (Wabasca 166) lies a little to the southeast, at nearby Sandy Lake. A sixth reserve, Jean Baptiste Gambler 183, is located at Calling Lake, about 115 kilometres southeast of Wabasca, but it is very tiny: only about 190 hectares. In December 2010, when BCN’s Treaty Land Entitlement claim was finally settled, the nation was promised an additional 77,000 acres of land (roughly 31,160 hectares) for its three communities—those at Wabasca and at Calling Lake, plus a third at Chipewyan Lake, about 140 kilometres north of Wabasca. But the boundaries of these new reserves have yet to be surveyed. On February 20, 2017 Chief Gordon T. Auger and Lands Manager Troy Stuart wrote a letter to the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, informing him that the nation was preparing to install gates near the entrances into our traditional territory and reserve lands. The “lack of contract opportunities for local companies; unfulfilled impact benefit agreements; lack of meaningful consultation by both multinational corporations and the Aboriginal Consultation office; protection of surface and groundwater; delayed transfer of treaty entitlement lands; and neglect of a referendum in the transfer of administration and control of highways” made the move necessary. The First Nation did not go ahead with a blockade in 2017, once the Minister of Indigenous Affairs met with the Chief and Council. As far as Alook is aware, the lands from the TLE have not yet been transferred. See the following for more: https://www.parklandinstitute.ca/letter_of_concern_on_the_land_rights_and_water_rights_of_bigstone_cree_nation
- 2. Figures for population and land area can be found at “Census Profile, 2016 Census,” Statistics Canada, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E, February 8, 2017; last updated June 18, 2019. For the municipal district, search “Opportunity No. 17.” The figure for the on-reserve population at Wabasca is the total of figures for the individual reserves: Wabasca 166, 166A, 166B, 166C, and 166D. For the off-reserve population, see “Wabasca, unincorporated place [UNP]” (which the census lists as a “designated place”).
- 3. “Quick Facts and Figures,” Municipal District of Opportunity No. 17, accessed March 9, 2021, http://www.mdopportunity.ab.ca/quick-facts-figures-industry.
- 4. See the 2016 census profile for Alberta available at https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E (search “Alberta”). See also “Focus on Geography Series, 2016 Census: Aboriginal Peoples, Province of Alberta,” Statistics Canada, 2016, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/fogs-spg/Facts-PR-Eng.cfm?TOPIC=9&LANG=Eng&GK=PR&GC=48. (Note that the census profile now shows a slightly higher figure for Alberta’s total population, which in turn reduces the proportion of Indigenous people just a little, to 6.36 percent.)
- 5. All participants voluntarily granted informed consent, and the interviews were subsequently transcribed and thematically coded. We have taken steps to safeguard the anonymity of the participants.
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- * This chapter was originally published as a Corporate Mapping Project report (Edmonton: Parkland Institute, 2019). It is reprinted here, in somewhat revised form, by permission of the publisher.