Field Notes: Fort McMurray Walmart

1

A large portion of the work we do in Fort McMurray involves filming documentaries. This is

made extremely difficult if you forget to bring the video camera with you.Such was the case on a

trip that my co-worker Peter and I recently made. There was a scheduling error, someone didn’t

meet someone somewhere, and before we knew it we were on an airplane trying to sort out how

we could get a high-end video camera once we landed. Options limited, we headed to Walmart

after we checked into our hotel.

The moment we arrived, what looked to be a small child — but turned out to be a Greeter —

asked us how our day was and if he could help us find anything. I took too long to respond,

thus losing the moment for meaningful customer service, and in a world of instant, emotionless

communication, the Greeter passed me by and was on to his next adventure.

We navigated our way down the main aisle stepping over discarded cardboard boxes and

stray hangers, and headed towards the electronics department where we spent a few minutes

checking out various models of video cameras, all cheap and colourful, all the size of grenades.

After some deliberation, we settled on a blue Panasonic and looked around for someone to help

us. All we saw were fresh-faced teenagers running up and down the aisles in uniform playing

tag and tossing boxes of USB drives back and forth.

Growing up, many of my friends would go to an after-school daycare down the road. I could

hear them screaming and having a great time as they bounced on trampolines and hung off

jungle gyms. It occurred to me that we were witnessing the same type of thing here, except the

child workers of Walmart were all managers and had a checklist of responsibilities that had to

be accomplished between social activities instead of sitting down to cups of orange juice and

plates of cookies like normal children.

Finally, we were able to drag one of the staff away from what appeared to be X-box Bowling to

assist us in getting the camera, which he managed to retrieve incorrectly three times, despite

taking the floor model with him. At the till, his associate Madison remarked that our camera

was, “Like, really expensive and stuff,” a comment that struck me as quite strange coming from

someone working amongst thousands of dollars worth of electronics. It made me wonder if she

ever saw her paycheque and I briefly considered that her parents might be paying Walmart for

her to be there.

As we left the store, I set off the alarm. A middle-aged teenager, a boy of about sixteen, scuffled

over and analyzed my receipt with a scanner. He seemed perplexed by the whole process,

simply handing the receipt back to me and pulling up his pants as he limped away. We walked

out through the sliding front doors that had become permanently stuck open since we first

arrived. I looked back and could hear the wailing of the alarm cascading into the parking lot. The

middle-aged teenager was standing in the lobby, hands in his pockets, while an obese family

of seven made a sudden dash from the cosmetics or dairy section, past the hoards at the tills,

straight out the door to financial freedom.

People flock to Fort McMurray for the jobs. And there are plenty to go around; thick cash for

moderate skills. But what the city seems to have forgotten in its rush to plummet the earth of its

resources is infrastructure. Too much, too fast has led to a serious lack of capacity to sustain

the basics, such as road maintenance, grocery stores, gas stations, core social skills associated

with all of the above. In the race for oil supremacy, I suppose sacrifices have to be made,

corners cut. Doubling up daycare with on-the-job training, then, is an innovative solution.

Just plan ahead and take the day off if you need to return a defective video camera to the Fort

McMurray Walmart.

 

words by William Farrant, photo by Ilijc Albanese