Fort McMurray locals disapprove of transient workers, case study shows

A case study indicates fly-in and fly-out is a hot topic in Fort McMurray.

University of Alberta research used a sample size of about 25 residents

Workers who live in oilsands camps such as this one near Fort McMurray are labelled as the region's fly-in fly-out population. (Synergy West Development Corp.)

Fly-in, fly-out workers are an "emotionally-charged" issue for residents of Fort McMurray, according to a University of Alberta case study.

The study used a sample size of about 25 residents who were not identified by their full names. It found residents hold negative perceptions of the workers who don't consider Fort McMurray as their permanent address.

Fly-in and fly-out workers are typically oilsands employees who live in camps and leave Fort McMurray on their days off returning to homes in places like Edmonton, Calgary or Newfoundland.

Sometimes called the shadow population, in 2015 the last census counted 43,084 nonpermanent residents in the Fort McMurray region.

"The experience from people (residents) that we talked to is that they [transient workers] are making great wages, but, then their tax dollars are going back to wherever home is," researcher Leith Deacon told CBC's Radio Active. 

'Every word is the F-bomb'

The study found "comments were often emotionally-charged" when locals spoke about how transient workers used local resources like healthcare but don't pay local taxes.

Many respondents said they hoped fly-in and fly-out workers would give the region a chance and relocate permanently.

A cyclist gazes out at the Snye River in Fort McMurray on Aug. 26, 2018. Residents told researchers they wanted workers to see the real Fort McMurray; outside of the camp. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Respondents thought the transient workers held a negative perception of Fort McMurray, despite not visiting the town site or speaking with locals. 

"They're the ones that every word is the F-bomb when they talk about Fort McMurray and talk about how horrible it is," one respondent told researchers, "and how much they hate it here but they love payday and they love that flight back home to spend all their money!"

"The transient or the majority of those camp workers, they won't see the community unless they come in to get drunk or go to the hospital,"  another interviewee said. "So, they just come in to take from our system they don't contribute to our system."

The Fort McMurray-based industry group, the Oil Sands Community Alliance said both the municipality and companies need to do more to change the perception of Fort McMurray to fly-in, fly-out workers. 

But OSCA's executive director, Karim Zariffa, said he wanted to correct the widely-held assumption workers who live in camps don't ever set foot in town or contribute anything to the local economy.

A study released in March by the organization showed oilsands workers spent between $82 million and $91 million in Fort McMurray and $8 and $9 million in Lac La Biche in 2017 during weekly visits between shifts

"A proportion of the rotational workers do come and spend money in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo," Zariffa said.  "They don't necessarily stay in their camp accommodations for the duration of their whole work time."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 


David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.