Gas lines frozen solid, rooms filmed with clouds of leaking steam, hands caked with bitumen; more than 50 years later, it's those first few months on the job that Jack Avery remembers most.

Avery started his 20-year career in the Fort McMurray oilsands in the fall of 1966, working for the Great Canadian Oil Sands company.

"I helped start up Suncor. I got to turn the lights on," the 91-year-old said during a Wednesday morning interview with CBC's Edmonton AM.

"My employee badge number was five, so I've been around for a while."

GCOS would later become industry giant Suncor, but when Avery first arrived on site that fall, the refinery was still being pieced together, and it was far from operation-ready.

The company was using water, instead of oil, to test the equipment. Leaks were common and Avery said when temperatures plunged on Grey Cup weekend that year, the gas lines on the processing plant froze solid, and didn't thaw again until mid-February.

"Oh, there was just the odd problem," Avery said with a laugh. "They hadn't quite finished the construction, and that winter we were sent out east so we could learn how to operate and do things. When we came back, we tried to start up at various times."

Jack Avery

Jack Avery, a Second World War veteran, began working in the oilsands in 1966, when he was hired on at the Great Canadian Oil Sands Project. (Russell Thomas )

 

His job in the oilsands wasn't Avery's first career, but it was certainly the one that stuck.

After graduating high school, he enlisted in the army as a wireless operator and spent two years serving overseas in England and the Netherlands. When the war ended in 1945, he was discharged and moved back to his hometown of Lacombe, Alta., to help out at his father's bakery.

According to an interview he did with with the Petroleum History Society, Avery stayed on at his father's shop until a fateful meeting two years later. Just hours before a party, Avery was stood up. Feeling guilty, his 'failed' date offered to set him up with a friend instead, and the rest is history.

"I went to where Olga lived. And I knocked on the door, she answered the door and she looked at me and said, 'You're it?' And I said 'Yes.'

Soon after the unusual blind date, the pair fell in love and settled into a marriage that would last 63 years.

The couple moved to Medicine Hat, where Avery got a first job with Northwest Nirto Chemicals.

He started as an accountant, but when construction on their ammonia plant began, Avery asked for a job. He was hired on the spot, and soon moved up the ranks. Within a few years, word about the oilsands was out, and Avery starting looking north.

Great Canadian Oil Sands Plant

This photo shows construction of the Great Canadian Oil Sands Plant in 1965, just a year before Jack Avery started work there. (Supplied )

 It wasn't long before Fort McMurray was booming.

"They were building houses so fast here that I always said the heroes of the beast were the women at home, because they were dealing with the contractors," said Avery.

"We were just trying to get that stupid place running."

Looking back at his long career as an oilsands worker, soldier, legion executive, husband, father and grandfather, Avery is glad he made his home in Fort McMurray.

"I was lucky. We got here when it was still more like it had been for years and years, and the boom hadn't really started, so we got both ends of it. And I'm still here."

"It was quite the adventure."

With files from the Petroleum History Project.