Like any patriotic, red blooded Canadian, I put in my mandatory time working in the labour camps up in northern Alberta. The last case scenario gulags for many facing the effects of a shit economy. In the snot freezing, sub-zero temperatures of winter 2012, I found myself in Slave Lake, Alberta, slaving for a paycheque. As I’d never been in this work environment before, I didn’t know the reality of what was to unfold for me. However, what happened in the next 2 months was the furthest thing from reality I have witnessed in my time on the payroll. I had heard that the company I was working for was owned by a certain outlaw motorbike club, so I wont get into any names or faces here. However, a company owned by such a club inherently would forego some of the basic safety standards other oil companies employ. Specifically, they didn’t have any type of drug testing pre-requisites in order for folks to get a job on the pipeline. This obviously meant that everyone was either a raging alcoholic, or a raging drug user. Most times both. There weren’t many in-betweens. My crew was in charge of laying pipe, a job description that was the cause of many sexual jokes that apparently never lost their hilarity, no matter how many times delivered. Our task was to take the pipe lengths off of a massive flat deck semi-truck, using a tank with a boom arm that had two cables with hooks on the ends, then lay them in successive segments along the pre-determined route that the pipeline would travel. Everyday, pipe after pipe, kilometre after kilometre, all while trying to stay alive with all limbs intact because the boom operator and foreman were up the night before smoking crack with hookers and giving each other tattoos in their hotel room. Pipes would be swinging all over the place, heavy machines would be charging on with absolute disregard for any object in its path, alive or not. People would be falling asleep at the worst possible moments, and coffee break would inevitably graduate into cocaine break. It was a horrible sport with mortal consequences, and I’m sure we broke records for the most pipe laid in a shift, on no sleep, with surprisingly no fatalities. Our shift was 24 days on and 5 days off, which I took as a direct gift from our maker, knowing very well that my next stint up north could be the one that finally got me. The start of a new shift looked pretty good, everyone was rested up and feeling fresh. By the end of a shift everyone was strung out and/or in such a drunken stupor that it was like a goddamn sitcom of tragic errors playing themselves out with no idea of how bad it looked. No one cared and no one got in trouble. Our foreman was so drunk, he wouldn’t get out of his truck, he would just drive around the roads all day drinking, only to show up once every few hours to tell us all what a bunch of fuckin idiots we were, then drive off. These were professional gangsters of alcoholism though, they knew how to grease themselves up just enough to slide by any real consequences. They defied all reasonable odds, and made it out the other side like clueless, demented babies. I lived in a hotel room, ate unhealthy amounts of deep fried food, and cried myself to sleep every night. I managed to put in two months worth of this madness, two measly stints. But, like a savagely beaten boxer, who’s corner knows he’s done for, the towel was thrown in, my sanity frayed and my luck a mere shadow of itself, but alive nonetheless.
Some say they do it for the money, which was so good that they got stuck into the lifestyle it afforded them. Others say they like the work, the experience and the people they meet there. For me, it was an invaluable Canadian cultural experience that frightened the absolute hell out of me. I will never forget the great weirdos I met up there, though I’m happy none of them killed me. I will never forget the strange little town of Slave Lake, Alberta, and I will never go back there.