In search of Canada’s elusive shadow population

What happens to a tiny community when thousands of workers move in next door – and no one’s keeping track?

It was a make or break decision for locals and business owners in Chetwynd, B.C.

For close to two hours on Sept. 5, they voiced their fears and frustrations as the district decided whether to approve two new work camps in town.

These camps would house more than 400 people working on nearby industry projects. Some felt the camps would bring money to local businesses — others worried the influx of workers would turn their small community into a pit stop for strangers.

In a district of about 2,900 people, 400 new workers can mean big changes.

Lines for the doctor can get longer, renting and buying a house can get more expensive and, for some, home might begin to feel less safe.

When one camp operator opened the floor, he promised jobs and business for residents, as well as $100,000 in donations to local charities, including the food bank, thrift shop and hospital. At the end of the contentious meeting, both camps got the green light to set up for one year.

These debates aren’t just happening in Chetwynd — there are thousands of work camps across Canada, many testing the limits of small towns and First Nations communities. And there is no central agency keeping track of how many workers are coming in, or where camps are being built.

These workers often stay in camps, but they may also choose to stay in hotels or other rental units. It’s hard to find data on where shadow populations live, and how many there are, but this information has important implications.

Beyond ensuring safe evacuations, accurate population counts impact everything from health care to drinking water and police services.

If you don’t know how many people live in a community, how can you make sure everyone gets what they need?

Major projects, like B.C.’s Site C hydroelectric dam and the Muskrat Falls Project in Newfoundland and Labrador, span Canada’s coasts, so these challenges aren’t going away.

In remote or sparsely populated communities, finding enough skilled labour can be difficult, so when there aren’t enough people to fill jobs, camps are set up to house workers. Local leaders and residents share concerns that they aren’t included in the decision-making process.

Yvonne Courtoreille (left) and her daughter Yvonne Tupper (right) walk to Moberly Lake near Chetwynd, B.C. Courtoreille grew up in a house on the lake.

All around us is industry’

“I was very, very disappointed,” said Chetwynd resident Yvonne Tupper, upon learning of the camp approvals. “They’re not thinking about the health care services, the social services, even women’s services.”

Tupper is a member of Saulteau First Nations. She has lived in Chetwynd for 30 years, and she’s been fighting to stop Site C ever since she arrived.

“All around us is industry,” says Tupper, as she walks along the banks of Moberly Lake, just north of Chetwynd. She remembers a time before major projects came to the area, when her family used the area for hunting, fishing and berry picking. “I want future generations to experience what I did.”

Chetwynd rests in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains at the intersection of two major highways that snake their way through B.C.’s north. Self-described as “British Columbia’s entrance to the mighty Peace River Country,” the community hosts major Canadian industries, including forestry, oil, gas, mining, rail and tourism. Chetwynd is familiar with the fluctuations of a shadow population.

Yvonne Courtoreille (left) and her daughter Yvonne Tupper (right) walk to Moberly Lake near Chetwynd, B.C. Courtoreille grew up in a house on the lake.

A ‘new normal’

“The industries go up and down in such a way now that they haven’t in the past,” says Michael Haan, co-director of the University of Western Ontario’s Statistics Canada Research Data Centre.

The country needs to “really think about… geographically precarious employment as part of the new normal,” he adds. Haan believes jobs that require a worker to criss-cross Canada could soon become more commonplace than traditional, stable career paths. That’s why, he says, Canada needs to figure out how to deal with this new economy.

While this might be part of the new economic “normal,” the country still doesn’t have a reliable way to keep track of transient workers. The closest measurement is its count of interprovincial workers, which looks at tax information to determine if someone’s workplace is different from their home address. 

But this data is slow to gather and doesn’t distinguish between types of work. The most recent numbers only go up until 2011.

“You don’t know if someone is there because of oil, mining or gas [or another industry],” says Haan, who has researched how to count shadow populations in Alberta. That said, interprovincial worker data is “probably the best that we have,” he adds.

A ‘virtually impossible’ job

Brad Sperling steps outside for a break during a Peace River Regional District meeting in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

Brad Sperling, one of four area directors in B.C.’s Peace River Regional District (PRRD), says “there really isn’t one service or infrastructure… that these camps don’t touch.” Health care, policing, water, sewage, 9-1-1, evacuation plans and internet connectivity are all impacted by a fluctuating population. 

“Without knowing where these camps are, it’s virtually impossible for us to do our job,” he says.

Sperling has been lobbying the B.C. government for over a year, trying to get more information on camp sizes and locations.

Mayor Rob Fraser of Taylor, B.C. and Brad Sperling inside the Peace River Regional District Offices in Fort St. John.

He wants a central registry that would give the district more information about camps before they’re built. Right now, the approval process for camps in B.C. is a patchwork of decisions made by various municipal and provincial agencies. So when it comes to camp locations, capacity and occupancy, the information is fragmented, existing in silos within various government agencies and industry groups.  

In 2012, the Northern Health Authority tried to find all the camps in its service area. The agency estimated that more than 1,800 camps were scattered across northern B.C. alone. It described the process to calculate that figure as “complex and challenging.”

That’s why Discourse is compiling information on work camps across B.C. Piecing together information gathered through open data, Freedom of Information requests, online databases, we’ve attempted to create the fullest picture of work camps across the province.

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Camps were once a go-to solution

Before the 2014 down turn, housing temporary workers was estimated to be a $2- to 4-billion industry, annually, in Western Canada alone. Camps — many of which started as small modular units housing a few dozen workers — have evolved over the past decade to become mega-complexes that can house thousands, and provide food services, security and medical services.

“There was a point in time when municipalities encouraged work camps and the fly-in, fly-out model,” says Karim Zariffa, executive director of industry group Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA).

“The idea was that workers would get everything they needed in a camp, and not have to use the resources of nearby communities.”

Nowhere in Canada is this more obvious than in Alberta’s Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), home to Canada’s oil sands.

The region grew from 56 work camps in 2006 to 123 by 2015, helping host a shadow population that grew more than 200 per cent from 13,148 to 43,084. In the same time period, the permanent population grew 22 per cent from 66,662 to 81,948.

The RMWB conducts its own census that includes transient workers, separate from Statistics Canada’s federal count, and it’s done for “very good political and economic reasons,” says sociologist Sara Dorow. She is part of an international research team looking at Canadian worker mobility and has studied these issues with a focus on Fort McMurray, Alberta, for the past 10 years. The municipal census results help Wood Buffalo lobby the provincial and federal governments for funding, and help determine where infrastructure projects and services should go.  

The ‘billion-dollar question’

How community and industry can find common ground has been the “billion-dollar question for the last decade-plus,” says Zariffa. You can’t eliminate the fly-in, fly-out model completely, he says, so it’s about finding a way to hire locally and work with host communities.

OSCA represents about 15 different oil and gas companies in Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands, and has worked with the RMWB to develop population projections.

But Zariffa acknowledges that “it could be a bit more challenging to get the [population] information” for camps not owned by OSCA’s members.

“The industry itself knows a lot more than we do,” says Dorow, “and that’s one of the things that is perhaps frustrating for researchers like me.”

Information is an important guide to help planners allocate resources, but it’s not an automatic fix. Although some places are thriving with the influx of nearby projects, other rural communities feel they’re being left behind.

Mayor Rob Fraser of Taylor, B.C. and Brad Sperling inside the Peace River Regional District Offices in Fort St. John.

A community of 300 with 7,000 neighbours

The primarily Métis hamlet of Conklin in the RMWB is surrounded by industry megaprojects. Located one and a half hours south of Fort McMurray, Conklin is home to around 330 permanent community members surrounded by more than 20 work camps. Those camps have the capacity to accommodate more than 7,500 workers.

“All of a sudden, all this industry was dropped on you — like this big, heavy change,” says Joanne Richards, 50, a Métis woman who’s spent her whole life in the Conklin area. “It opened up some doors education-wise, employment-wise.”

But despite all the projects in the community, Richards feels excluded. She’s unemployed and depends on the food bank for groceries.

Construction workers on site at the Conklin Multiplex, which is set to open by 2020.

“Conklin is living like a third-world country, surrounded by a bunch of money-making oil companies,” says Richards, who lives in a small trailer parked off a dirt path, has no access to running water and uses a generator for electricity and heat.

She’s not alone.

In Conklin, over the last year, 73 families made up of over 200 people got their groceries from the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association. Of those 73 families, 63 had a net monthly household income of under $1,000.

Joanne’s sister, Grace Richards, lives down the road from Joanne’s trailer. Grace’s trailer sits among a cluster of mobile homes on their family’s property. Like her sister, Grace doesn’t have running water, a sewage system or heat.

“There is no place to live out here,” Grace says. “There’s no apartments, no rental units, no nothing.”  Development in the RMWB has driven up the cost of living in areas, including Conklin. The hamlet’s permanent residents need more affordable housing, according to a 2013 report on the community by the RMWB.

Investing in services for hamlets like Conklin has been a point of controversy in the community for years. The RMWB is currently installing a new piped water and sewage system in Conklin and building a $46.8-million multiplex. The multiplex project was once put on hold, but construction has resumed and should be completed by 2020.

Hooking up to the new system will cost each resident $16,000. While some might benefit, Grace says many won’t be able to afford it. “There’s a lot of us out here that are doubled up on one property that can’t afford a home for ourselves, and we can’t benefit from this.”

Getting a handle on the shadow population

Back in B.C., Rob Fraser, mayor of Taylor — a northern community steeped in industry — is grappling with balancing opportunities and challenges that may come with a potential natural gas boom. “We want to grow our communities,” he says. “But we want to minimize the impacts.”

Fraser fears the area isn’t prepared for the next big boom.

“I think it will get worse before it gets better if we don’t get a handle on the shadow population, and figure out what is going on out there,” he says.

These concerns were raised by the B.C. Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development in a 2015 briefing note titled “Mitigating the effects of natural resource-based industrial work camps.” Discourse obtained this document through a Freedom of Information Request.

“Provincial agencies, in their role as service providers, are also concerned about their ability to deliver needed services and infrastructure in the face of increased demands,” it says. At the time, with LNG alone, B.C. estimated that proposed projects could bring in from 15,600 to 27,000-plus temporary workers to the areas around Kitimat, Squamish, Prince Rupert and the Peace River Regional District (PRRD).

But the briefing note defended the current approach, in which the province plays a minimal role in camp regulation, suggesting this strategy gives more say to community and industry. It added, creating a central registry would be a “resource-intensive solution.” It also pointed out that the PRRD has access to additional provincial funding, valued at more than $1.1 billion. It will be given to the PRRD over the next 20 years to make up for the demands of industrial development on communities. 

In a 2016 letter to Sperling, then-B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake suggested that the PRRD should “see if a voluntary best practices approach for information-sharing” with industry would work.

But leaders in the region don’t feel equipped to deal with the issue. It’s “something the province should be doing,” says Fraser. “We don’t have the jurisdiction to require [industry] to come and talk to us.”

Finding a path forward

Concerned about the possible effects of a potential resource boom, members of Lake Babine and Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nations teamed up with a research group to explore possible solutions for dealing with nearby camps. Led by the Firelight Group, a consulting team that works with Indigenous and local communities, they created a report focused on the impacts of industrial camps in their communities, particularly on Indigenous women and children.

The Firelight Group called upon government and industry to engage local communities before projects take place, and identified provincial ministries and agencies as having a key role in gathering data on the number and location of work camps.

In response to the report, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources (MEMPR) and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation are co-leading a cross-ministry working group “to improve industrial camp oversight and safety.”

Waiting for the next boom

Just outside Fort St. John, B.C., sits a 1,600-person work camp housing the workforce building BC Hydro’s Site C hydroelectric dam. Whether those workers stay or go is up in the air.

On Nov. 1, the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) produced the final report in its inquiry into Site C, indicating that the project would likely come in over budget and increase costs for ratepayers. The project is awaiting cabinet’s decision on whether it will move forward.

But smaller camps, part of projects that might not make headlines, are popping up throughout the country. Information gaps exist as to where they all are and how many people are living in them.

As Canada’s economy continues to be shaped by a moving workforce, community leaders are trying to keep up — waiting for the next boom, hoping they are ready.

This story is part of a larger investigation into the impacts of resource extraction projects in British Columbia and Alberta. Want to learn more? Check out:

All photos were taken by Emma Jones and Francesca Fionda, unless otherwise noted. This piece was edited by Katie Lewis, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jon von Ofenheim. Discourse’s executive editor is Rachel Nixon


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