I was coming back from Fort McMurray and had a stopover in Edmonton. One of the perks of frequent air travel is gaining access to private lounges, and knowing I had a two-hour layover, I found my way to the Maple Leaf Lounge and poured a glass of wine. The lounges, generally, are filled with business people in suits, making phone calls and talking at a volume that forces everyone to hear their conversations. Because of this, the lounge is a breeding ground for some excellent observations; the time former Canadian Alliance leader and Conservative MP Stockwell Day made a call to his rental car agency being a personal highlight.
However, on this rainy Wednesday night in Edmonton, my quiet corner of the lounge quickly filled up with a stream of grimy men who sat in all the vacant seats around me. Burlap bags, steel toed boots, sweatpants and hardhats, these men quickly set in for a rewarding night of drinking the lounge’s liquor supply clean. Their conversation was wide ranging, alternating between talks about girls to talks about drinking with girls, and then back to just talking about girls.
Another stream of tough guys arrived a short while later. CNRL jackets, Suncor bags, Imperial hats. They dropped their gear and rearranged the lounge’s furniture to create what was starting to look like story time at a day care. Fifteen grown men sitting around tables rammed full of beer and cocktail glasses. One of the guys had the wisdom to suggest they keep down the noise so they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. It was a little late for that, of course, with the smattering of suits casting their disapproving eyes as they lowered their newspapers to inspect the disturbance to their business-induced Zen states.
The blue-collar guys in the lounge, like thousands of others in the Oilsands, are shift workers, regularly flying in and out every couple of weeks. The majority of the group were on their way back to the east coast, to Toronto, to Halifax, to Saint John, to St. John’s. Because of the frequent travel, they accumulate the miles and segments required to earn frequent flyer status. Like most young guys in a boom and bust economy, they blast in and out of town leaving a trail of money behind them. The fact the lounge drinks are free meant they’d reached the Holy Grail of work-travel.
“Ray, let me tell you ‘bout the bar here,” said a guy with an Acadian accent, “You gotta be careful how many drinks you get of the same kind. If you go up and order your tenth beer, they gonna be, like, ‘That’s ten beers, no more for you.’ What you gotta do is mix it up. Get a rum and coke, then go back to the beer, maybe after that, get a Caesar. They won’t be able to remember how many you’ve had.”
The comment seemed to ruffle the feathers of one of the suits nearby and he quickly got up, grabbed his tumbler of scotch and briefcase, and headed to the executive office section to continue his bout of silence with his tablet.
Later on, two guys returned from a smoke break and got into a scuffle because their seats were taken. The group settled it quickly, but I was more surprised about the smoking. Where do you smoke in an airport, I wondered? Well, it turns out you don’t, as one of the workers detailed to another. They would go out through security and smoke on the curb, then come back through security. They would lather-rinse-repeat this routine several times over the course the evening.
As I was about to get up and leave, one of the men remarked there was only three hours left till their flight. From the tone in his voice, I couldn’t tell whether he thought this was a good thing. Was he looking forward to getting on a plane and going home? Or was he sad to be leaving liquor utopia?
The truth is that the Oilsands is an escape for many. Reality exists back home, another world away, but leaving hard times and failing economies hasn’t made these men different people. Despite their perceived roughness, there wasn’t any faking of who they were, unlike many of the business people swapping business cards or practicing broadening their shoulders in front of the washroom mirrors. The Oilsands worker’s reckless familiarity and comfort with the places they pass through on the way might turn some heads, but in the end they’re true to themselves, unlike the suits that stare them down.
Words by William Farrant
Published in analogue magazine’s Oct/Nov issue