2020 Was Hard! What Will 2021 Bring for Resource Workers?

2020 Was Hard! What Will 2021 Bring for Resource Workers?

Looking for work in hard times isn’t easy, but there are always reasons for hope

Estella Petersen - Indigenous oilsands worker

Estella Petersen, Indigenous Heavy Equipment Operator in Canada's Oil Sands

I’m filled with optimism when the New Year approaches. There’s so many possibilities, and one more year of living on this planet in one of the best countries in the world! I count my blessings daily about just how lucky we are as Canadians to be living in such a free country that allows us to grow financially and spiritually, along with all the other opportunities our great nation offers.

That said, Canadians I’ve spoken to are especially hopeful that 2021 won't be anything like 2020. Many have endured great hardship such as losing their job and financial security, and in some cases even their loved ones. Many of us want to make changes, but are also afraid to take a chance.

I have failed many times in my life; it’s disappointing when it happens, but I’ve always been willing to take a risk. I think if an opportunity presents itself to you, why not take a chance and try something new? Yes you may fail and you may be outside your comfort zone, but you may also reach your goal. In 2021, millions of Canadians will have no choice but to take bold new risks.

Emotional toll of financial instability 

We all want to take care of our families. The 1.9 million Canadians employed by the natural resource sector can do so because of the opportunities they have been given in energy, mineral, and forestry procurement.

I am one of those Canadians. We do so knowing the risks, but also because we are aware of the rewards such as good paying jobs and having dignity in your work. We are also proud knowing that our work makes the high standard of living that Canadians enjoy possible with secure access to energy and food, and quality social, educational and healthcare systems. 

In 2020 that financial and social stability for Canada, for all Canadians, has been called into question. For those facing unemployment or the fear of losing their job in a resource sector that is constantly under siege by opponents, it's a scary and stressful place to find yourself. 

Challenges of getting started as a female Indigenous Heavy Equipment Operator

Indigenous woman pro-oil sands Canada protest sign

You might wonder what motivated me to seek employment as a heavy equipment operator in the oil sands. Well, truthfully, it was monetary. I know what it’s like to worry about financial stability due to job insecurity.

Almost 10 years ago, like many Canadians I had been struggling to pay my bills, mortgage, and for things my children needed. I had seen people travel to Fort McMurray to make some “good” money and then go back to their regular lives later on. So I made a five-year plan to make some money then return to the city where some of my family resides.

I had gotten to a point in my life where I needed a change. I’ve always been attracted to and worked in jobs that were outside the box for women: corrections officer, armed guard, volunteer firefighter, etc. So I researched what it took to become a heavy equipment operator (HEO) in the oil sands. People who I knew and had worked in Fort McMurray told me I probably wouldn’t find work in the area for several reasons. Being female and Indigenous seemed to stack the odds against me, they said. But these friends also reminded me that working in remote areas was sometimes a harsh environment and could take its toll on your physical and mental health. 

I looked at attending college and a trades instruction company for a HEO course, but there was a waiting list and it was expensive for me. So I began sending out resumes and cold calling companies who I thought would give me the best chance to get a job in the oil sands if I were to work there. I had also researched what the requirements were to work with the large energy companies and at the time experience was a mandatory requirement to get hired. Almost all responded back with “thanks, but no thanks,” as I didn’t have training or experience.

Then finally, one company called me back! This company hired me over a phone interview with the requirement that I complete the mandatory mining courses before my start date and pass the three weeks of training with flying colours. They gave me two weeks to complete this knowing I was coming from another city, and I’d have to quit my current jobs that I was just getting by with. I’d also have to find a place to live in Fort McMurray.

Finding a place to live in Fort McMurray nine years ago was ridiculous. I had gone to view ”units” that were literally storage rooms converted into a bedroom. Options were limited. The price for just a room with a shared washroom in the hall was $1,200 a month, and I was renting from a complete stranger. I didn’t know one person in Fort McMurray; the move was exciting, yet scary.

I completed my training with the contractor and was hired to work for them on one of the largest oil sands sites. Eventually, I went from driving small articulating trucks to large trucks that are three stories high and carry about 400 tons of material. Today, I’m operating dozers and graders as well, and proudly working for one of the biggest companies in Canada!

Misperceptions about oil sands

Sandhill Fen - Reclaimed Oil Sands Site

Sandhill Fen - Reclaimed Oilsands Site

As an indigenous person, I feel a connection to the land and a responsibility to care for it, so I was torn originally with stepping foot into a job in the oil sands from everything I had heard up until that point. I did some reclamation work in the beginning and that made me feel comfortable knowing I was restoring the land and returning it to a better condition than it was originally in. I could see there was such care and consideration for the environment.

All the stories I’d heard about Fort McMurray and working in the oil sands before actually living there were about drugs, pollution and crime. The narrative was that the oil and gas industry was an especially dangerous place for an Indigenous woman. But I always want to see and experience things on my own before I decide, so I'm glad I didn’t listen to misinformed media stories and environmentalist negativity about Fort McMurray.

I’ve been in Fort McMurray almost a decade now and it has become the city I love. It is the place where I took control of my life, finances, and ultimately my future!

Resource jobs are essential to all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous  

Respect and dignity comes through good work. Resource sector employees work hard and know what we do is essential. We also know the value of good work, of purpose, of providing, and of contributing to society. In 2020, many have called into question the value of resource workers and the industry as a whole, and that is a real problem.

Canada’s economy and infrastructure coexist with the support from our natural resource sector. Combined, energy, mining and forestry generate $21.4 billion dollars in government revenues annually and support 1.9 million jobs across the country.

The resource sector also has the highest average level of indigenous employment of any sector, with an average wage of more than double the average for indigenous workers across all industries.

2021 is the year to support all jobs and all workers

I am confident that in the new year Canadians will realize they need to take a stand for natural resources in Canada. I hope we focus not on our differences, but on our common goal of supporting one another in having good paying jobs that will assist in reinvigorating our economy. Letting resource workers know we support them because their work is essential to the high standard of living and quality of life we are so fortunate to have will be an important part of that.

I’m a proud Canadian. I support responsible resource development in our country, and I hope you do too!

Here’s to a bright New Year!