Disclaimer: this sketch is a composite of a number of conversations. While I’ve endeavoured to replicate the conversations as faithfully as possible, any information contained within should be perceived as anecdotal, and not factual.
Contract workers, mostly from Alberta or BC, often stay in Valemount for weeks at a time, part of an environmental assessment team employed by some of the biggest companies in the country. I had the chance to interact with one such team recently, a group of about 15-20 people. There were a lot of Native men in the group, but also a few Caucasians and even some women. They would spend all day working outdoors, in the field, and then relax in the evenings, comfortably dining and drinking after a hard day’s work. A sense of self-contentment and good-natured ease defined this group.
“My day was great, it was better than great,” a youthful middle-aged man sitting at a bar says.
“I get to count birds and amphibians all day. Man, it was beautiful. I love what I do, spending all day out in nature. Even if it rains a bit like today.”
“This pipeline, it’s not gonna follow the last one, you know. This time they’re being real careful. I helped lay down the last one too, but that one it was like a fish, eh, or a bird, or a cat, the path of least resistance, they just went straight ahead. But this time they’re being real careful, good to the environment. We go out there and we find the birds, and if they’ve got a nest somewhere, well the pipeline will go around them, eh, these oil companies are being real careful now.
“I used to be on the other side, a real environmentalist, you know. I studied biology, I loved nature, I even saved some creeks back home, eh. That’s where I like to stay, close to home, I never liked going too far from home. I know these lands, so I used to be a real pain in their ass… but now, well, they figured I’m an ASS-et, eh, HA! HA! HA!
“You know I can see the whole thing now, the whole 360 degree perspective. What the oil companies tell you, what they don’t tell you, the leaks and accidents they don’t want nobody to find out about, and what the environmentalists say and fight for too.
“But with these companies, if you get hurt on the job, eh—I’ve been hurt on the job—they come to you real quiet, and they say, how do you want to do this? We want this to be kept real quiet, so they throw some money at you, and it’s a lot of money, and on paper it says you’ve clocked in and out though you’ve never been there. Man it’s a lot of money. And you want to get back out onto the job, because that’s when you get the most money, especially if you get time and a half or double time. I’ve worked 17-hour shifts before, you know. And imagine being a teenager, right out of high school, you’ve never had to flip burgers or nothing, and they give you $36 an hour and say rake this gravel here, or something, of course you’re gonna do it.
“It’s so beautiful out there, and it’s so funny, if you think about it, what you’re doing it for, eh? It’s backwards and dirty, but man it’s a lot of money. I paid off my house already, and three trucks. Ha! Ha! I got two boys at home, one’s sixteen, and he just got his L license and he wants a truck of course.”
Smoking with another crew member later the same night, a chain smoker, older, wearing big wire-framed glasses, a gentle and passive demeanour:
“This one time we were building a pipe and we saw a squirrel that lived in this tree. Right where the pipe was supposed to go. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do. So the men, they thought about it, and they said we should dig the whole tree up and just put it over there. That way the pipe could go straight.”
He chuckles and shakes his head from side to side.
“Do you think that’s crazy, or smart?” I asked.
“Well, for the animal, I guess it’s good. But I don’t know, I can’t say. I bet the squirrel knows. But I don’t know.” He shrugs his shoulders like these things are beyond him.
Two Caucasian girls, members of the group, young, blond, pretty, with idealistic naivety, sweet, unassuming, innocent, constantly smiling, giggling; mostly they kept their distance from the rest of the team, and brought their work with them to the bar. I imagine they were the greenwashers, giving the oil bonanza a gentle, human face, a white, smiling, superficial veneer, too sweet and unassuming to be reproached. Environmental rehabilitators. Nature lovers.