My poetry collection Boom Time (2019) is itself an extraction: an experience of the oil sands transformed into its own commodity. But it’s also poetry that talks a lot about extraction, and the different extractions at play in the oil sands during a very specific era of recent Canadian history.
I went to Fort McMurray for the same reason everyone does: to get something out of it. It seemed, heading in, a clear calculation. I could live rent-free in the work camps and funnel my paycheques towards my student loans. My friend had an in—she had been there a year, she knew an HR person, I could send along my résumé and cross my fingers. At that point, I was living with my parents and balancing an unpaid publishing internship with shifts as a waiter at a Toronto airport hotel, stirring eggs in chafing dishes to keep them from going green.
So I went, to get something.
That was 2006. I stayed for nearly two years.
I got things: my student loans paid off, a 1999 Toyota Tercel with no air conditioning, tuition for my future journalism degree, a six-week trip to Europe. I didn’t realize at the time I was taking part in an oil sands boom, a period of breakneck expansion and massive inter-provincial migration that would get a reality check with the economic crash in 2008. In my time there, camp life was raging. Some estimates pegged ten thousand of the area’s eighty thousand residents as living in the camps that were strewn around Fort Mac in an orbit of muskeg.
Things felt wild and careless in the camps. We talked about money all the time: what things cost, what we’d buy. The one thing all of us seemed to share, beyond homesickness and isolation, was counting down to payday. Bowing to the dollar, for whatever the reason—practicing a trade, getting ahead, or getting by—is one element of extraction in Boom Time, particularly in the poem “Bitumen”:
It’s got that raw disco
glitter, sparkling like
a girl just asked to dance
wearing all the mascara
ever made, batting
oozy eyes and dreaming
in sticky whispers
of the cars she’ll drive someday:
an eggplant purple Porsche. (30)
Aside from the cash, it’s obviously impossible to ignore the environmental cost that goes along with getting that bitumen from ground to gas tank. Making peace with that, I think, was elusive for most people there. In my interactions, no worker was rejoicing about the destruction around us; the tailings ponds steaming in the depths of winter, the tracts of Jack pines set alight to make way for strip mines. Even attempts to soften the edges of ecological disaster could feel absurd. Quite close to the city limits itself, Syncrude brought in wood buffalo in the early nineties to reestablish the species in the area. You can drive out to see them. A coworker took me out one day to watch them graze before a backdrop of flare stacks. That sight became the poem “Wood Buffalo”:
Below a squid-inked sky
calve the last of their kind
at the edge of the pen
cave to a metallic wind
wading through the mud
where a river should have been (65)
Boom Time was published eleven years after I left Fort Mac. Not long after I left, I felt compelled to write poems about it. I wanted to capture small details about the excess, and the environment, but mostly how the entire experience—the monotony, the grind, the isolation—peeled strips of humanity from the workers. A certain sense of myself was cleaved off, through a process that mostly happened without my consent. Perhaps it was naïveté at its finest, but I hadn’t expected a human cost to being in the work camps, nor how this would be exacerbated simply by being female. The sexism was omnipresent, and it was unquestioned that my place was to suck it up and even to enjoy having my body discussed openly before me. My response was impossible and impractical: I attempted to lie low in my armour of baggy hoodies and ride it out. And while my collection isn’t a memoir (if you’re looking for one, do read Kate Beaton’s beyond-excellent graphic memoir Ducks), many of the poems in Boom Time work through these sensations of human extraction and accepted sexism in the small ways they seeped into daily life.
While several of the poems give men specific names and histories, no woman—even the narrator of much of the collection—is allowed the same. We are rendered unknowable, both by the men who participate in the harassment and by our own survival techniques. This is perhaps most obvious in the poem “Other Women”:
are out here,
in sweaters plain
as prairie grass.
We don’t know
each other’s names,
faces dim like
frosted glass. (34)
The harassment was isolating. In the camps, I didn’t talk much to other people about it—it was just part of the daily routine. On days off, I wanted to forget about it. But a funny thing has happened since publishing Boom Time. After readings, women often come up to me to relate similar experiences, across a number of professions: from offshore oil workers, to miners, to scientists working in field camps. In one sense, that’s a depressing experience to share. But I’ve made gratifying connections through chatting with these other women. We swap names, anecdotes, reclaim our pasts, and build something new.
Beaton, Kate. Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands. Drawn & Quarterly, 2022.
Bird, Lindsay. Boom Time. Gaspereau, 2019.
Lindsay Bird is a poet and documentary producer. Her first poetry collection, Boom Time (Gaspereau Press, 2019), was shortlisted for the Newfoundland Book Awards and the ReLit Award. Her poetry has appeared in many Canadian literary journals, including The Fiddlehead, Riddle Fence, and Event. She lives in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, with her family.
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