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Inside the Camps

For more than a year we’ve been discussing the idea of a photo essay of life in the work camps in the oilsands north of Fort McMurray. If only for the voyeurism, I think a lot of readers would be interested to see what a bunkhouse for 2,000 looks like, how the workers amuse themselves in their down time, whether those rumours of fabulous food are true

Jul 29, 2008

by Michael McCullough

Michael McCulloughEven the employees of energy companies in Calgary typically have never even been to their own companies’ operations in the north, let alone appreciate how their co-workers live.

The challenge has always been getting access. These are private accommodations, after all, and for any number of reasons (security, liability, distrust of the media, risk of bad PR) both the large companies with their own camps and the camp operators for smaller companies and contractors have been reluctant to let not just us but any media outlet in. When was the last time you saw a photo of a camp room or cafeteria in a magazine or newspaper? On CBC Newsworld?

So when I entrusted associate editor Natasha Mekhail (who, unfortunately for us, is soon leaving Alberta Venture and moving to Vancouver to be with her husband, who is studying film there) my expectations were modest. And in the early going, it did not look promising as Natasha was turned down by camp operator after camp operator. Finally Shell agreed to let Natasha and Calgary-based photographer Ewan Nicholson have a guided tour of its “Albian Village” and PTI Group and Horizon North Logistics, the largest work camp operators in Alberta, agreed to let us into two of their camps.

We were delighted when Natasha and Ewan returned from a two-day jaunt in late July not only with good pictures and great stories from the formal camps (the company guides, God bless ’em, gave our daring duo a long leash), but with an unscripted sojourn into the informal communities scattered across the boreal forest, places with names like “Trailer Town” and “The Barge Landing.”

In fact, the spread warranted more space in the magazine. So we bumped another story to October and will be bringing the whole National Geographic-like spread to our September issue, with an extended slideshow featuring additional images here on our website. Look for it Sept. 1.


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