Worker opportunities in oil patch limited by persistent racism

Amino Rashid, 24, says she was fired due to racial discrimination

SHANE MacQUEEN DIDN’T EXPECT A TEA PARTY. No more than he expected casual and continuous racism. But that’s what he has faced ever since he started to work in Alberta oil fields 14 years ago.

Shane expected the oil patch to be his ‘land of opportunity.’ “I went there to make a better life for myself,” he told CBC. But every opportunity he got was always spoiled by the persistence of racism.

Shane told the CBC that he confronted racism from co-workers from the very beginning. “So, it was a group of white people and me, and this one guy’s making a bunch of Black jokes and putting me in them,” MacQueen said of his first job as a labourer with North American Construction Group. “I remember one was, like, Shane jumping on the bed and my hair getting stuck in the stucco ceiling.”

“That’s not something you say to another human being”

‘I can slap the black out of you’

Gary Similien had similar experiences. He told CBC he faced racial slurs from a co-worker on a recent hydrovac excavation job.

“Many times he said to me, ‘Man, Garry, I can slap the black out of you,‘” he recalled, adding that the comment was intended as a joke. “That’s not something that you say to another human being, period.”

Other workers speaking to CBC anonymously reported being denied overtime hours and opportunities for career advancement; told to change their names to “something more Western” to improve their job chances; and excluded from consideration for promotions to permanent jobs.

A systemic problem

MacQueen and Similien are only the latest to report the persistent and wide-spread prevalence of racial, gender and religious discrimination in the oil industry.

In 2017, the progressive Parkland Institute reported on the underrepresentation of women and people of colour in the industry. The report flatly states: “‘Good jobs’ in Alberta’s oil industry are mostly for white men.”

In 2017, a young, Black, Muslim woman, Amino Rashid, filed a human rights complaint against Husky Oil for discrimination, due to alleged Islamophobic comments directed at her while working.

Amino said she was told to take off her hijab because it was supposedly making others “uncomfortable”.  She says a co-worker told her, “this is how things are done around here.”

Amino told the CBC, “That’s how it is as a black girl in this world. You must go through those obstacles in life.

“I want all the people who can’t speak for themselves, that feel like they don’t have a right to speak up, I want them to know that I’m speaking up for you.”

Sociologist Sara Dorow describes the frenzied work environment of Fort McMurray as a “pressure cooker.” Her research shows that it is women and visible minorities who bear many of the burdens of this pressure cooker.

“(T)he workers mostly feel like there is nothing that can be done about it, that it ‘comes with the job’”, says Dorow.

Fighting for change

Shane MacQueen is determined to change things in the oil patch. He made contact with Jess Thomson of Women Building Futures (WBF), a group supporting women, who are also underrepresented in the energy sector. Shane says he expects “to be in contact with Jess a lot and kind of try to pick her brain on the blueprint that she has going.

 “I’ll probably be knocking on some doors to see if we can get some more support for what I’m trying to do here and really steamroll the industry and get things going.”

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