Field Notes: Fort McMurray, The Oil Can, Part 1

"We don't do draught, boy."
"We don't do draught, boy."

It’s a good idea to have every new employee in the company I work for watch the movie Fubar 2 before their first trip to Fort McMurray, the Oilsands’ unofficial capital. As the majority of us have anthropology backgrounds, the movie has become a kind of ethnographic guide about what to expect there. For those not familiar with the film, the plot description captures it best: “Terry and Dean head north to make sweet cash in the oil patch.”

Terry and Dean

Terry and Dean

Of the many iconic landmarks in the film, nothing stands out more, for me, than the Oil Can. It’s that
dive-bar that is the backbone of any small town. Cheap beer, long hair, bloody knuckles; if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all, and the Oil Can is no exception.

During my early adventures in Fort McMurray, I was often too nervous to venture out from my hotel, fearing the roughnecks roaming the streets in their beat up Buick Skylarks. One night, however, I gathered the courage, donned my hoody, and walked the two blocks to the Oil Can. As I arrived, I noticed the bar’s marquee — glaring yellow lights pockmarked with a smattering of burnt-out ones — advertising in the evening sun of Franklin Street: “Live Bands, XXX Exotic Girls, Great Beer, Cheques Cashed at a Reasonable Rate.” I briefly considered what a reasonable rate was, but ended up deciding that any savings one could make cashing a cheque at a bar would be immediately invested back into the bar.

On entering the place, an older gentleman wearing an archaic hearing aid and a black jacket approached me. He waved his metal detector back and forth as he limped over to me and barked shrilly, “Spread ‘em.” I assumed he’d been a security guard for the last hundred years, but his hard frisk and violent stare-down seemed a bit overkill in an empty bar at eight-thirty in the evening. As a post-frisk parting shot he snapped, “And, you, no hoods.” It was the first moment in this town where I felt like I fit in, like a regular patron and, in a nauseating glow of toughness, I crossed the barren dance floor to find a seat at the wide selection of stools at the vacant bar.

I took a seat and, with my best tough-guy persona, leaned into the gruff, well-travelled bartender to
order a sleeve of Labatt Blue, the Pro’s beer. She was quick to retort, pointing out that, “We don’t do
draught, boy.” In an instant, all the coolness I thought I had acquired via the “No Hoods” comment vanished. Caught off guard, I quickly ordered the first thing that came to mind. She plopped down my Budweiser without looking at me and picked up the Harlequin romance novel she had put down when I first inconvenienced her.

“Stale” wouldn’t be a strange word to describe a dank bar, but it was taking on a new meaning here as I watched the wait staff labour through the most menial tasks. Devoid of emotion, each one seemed completely taxed every time they lifted an arm to open a door or put away a glass. The years of raucous Friday and Saturday nights had taken their toll to the point where the bar seemed like an old withered cat standing in the rain opting to wait out the punishment in lieu of seeking dryer ground.

I was deep into this thought when a longhaired skinny guy who actually resembled a wet cat walked up to me and giddily described the evening’s live band, Gravitas. The group, all the way from North Bay, Ontario, played covers. “They mostly play rock, man. I’d say seventy percent rock and thirty percent country.” I only had a few seconds to ingest these very odd but encouraging statistics before he came back to edit his previous statement: “Actually, I’m going to revise that, man. I’m thinking more twenty percent country and ten percent dance pop.” I thanked him for his attention to detail and felt secretly blessed for his infectious enthusiasm.

The opportunity to see a real, live, touring cover band in a dive bar in Northern Alberta doesn’t come along every day, so I promptly ordered another beer, got comfortable on my bar stool, and watched as the members of Gravitas emerged from their dressing room for sound-check. One by one, they removed their long fur and leather coats, joking with each other on stage as they picked up their instruments. My timing at the Oil Can couldn’t have been better.


To be continued….


words by William Farrant


originally published in analogue magazine’s April/May 2015 issue.