Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

In the Shadows: Exploring the Notion of "Community" for Temporary Foreign Workers in a Boomtown

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

In the Shadows: Exploring the Notion of "Community" for Temporary Foreign Workers in a Boomtown

Article excerpt


The rapid expansion of the oil sands in northern Alberta in the early 2000s set into motion a series of economic and social dynamics with significant consequences for the province, and in particular, for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), which incorporates Fort McMurray and the surrounding oil sands projects. The RMWB became one of the fastest growing municipalities in Canada due to the influx of workers to build oil sands extraction facilities north of Fort McMurray. These construction projects are of such a magnitude and size, costing in the billions of dollars and employing thousands of workers during construction phases, that they can be termed "mega-projects" (Slootman 2007). Multiple projects are underway simultaneously, placing pressure on supply of skilled construction labour, and leading construction employers to import labour from other parts of Canada and, for the first time, to use temporary foreign workers. Between 2006-2010, over 6,100 foreign workers arrived in Alberta to work in oil sands construction, most ending up in the RMWB (Cummins 2011). The foreign workers became part of the region's "shadow population," which refers to individuals who are not officially recognized through enumeration as residents, and yet who spend time in a region (Haan 2010). In the RMWB, the shadow population was sizable; in 2007 it was estimated at 26% of the population (four-fifths of whom lived in work camps) (Nichols Applied Management 2007).

Unanticipated by the mega-project planners was the significant stress that would be placed upon the RMWB's physical and social infrastructure (Oil Sands Ministerial Strategy Committee 2006). Some of this stress related to integrating tens of thousands of workers into the life of the RMWB. For any temporarily located worker, the challenges of making one's way in a new location--accessing amenities, seeking cultural and recreational activities, making social connections--can be significant. For temporary foreign workers, these ordinary challenges are compounded by cultural and, often, language differences (de Guerre 2009). In addition, structural elements of their precarious residency due to government rules surrounding temporary foreign workers add an additional barrier to integration (explained below). The experiences of temporary foreign workers in the RMWB raise questions about traditional notions of how one builds community and social cohesion. Although it could be argued that the migrant worker program has no intention of trying to integrate these workers as a permanent part of Canadian society, our interviews suggest that most want to stay and their employers usually want to retain them. Further, their presence affects the broader community.

This paper therefore asks how foreign workers' marginalized economic and social position affects their inclusion within a geographically defined community, and what consequences there are for that community and for community as a kind of belonging. In particular, three barriers to community inclusion characterize foreign workers' experiences in northern Alberta. First, their vulnerable and restricted residency status produces a series of economic and social insecurities that both preempt participation in the receiving community and build estrangement from source communities. Second, the workers possess contradictory community identities, which mediate status-based exclusion. Third, their physical location in work camps enhances separation from life in the RMWB. This paper explores some of the ways in which temporary foreign worker policy and practice contradict key assumptions of policy makers and scholars about what makes a cohesive community (cf. Wetherell 2007).

The Precariousness of Temporary Foreign Workers

Temporary foreign workers possess a unique legal status in Canada that distinguishes them from other mobile workers who come to the RMWB for oil sands jobs and is relevant to their experiences in Canada described below. …

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