I first visited Canada in the summer of 2009 with the intention of working in Fort McMurray, in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands. I arrived with no working visa, but was aware of the LMO (now LMIA) system. I was fortunate enough to stay with a friend from Fort McMurray who I had met in Ireland the previous summer.
Once I arrived in Fort McMurray, I started applying to all the engineering companies, as well as some of the larger oil companies. I was finding it difficult for a company to hire me without a work permit. After about three weeks, however, a geotechnical engineering company called Terracon asked me in for an interview. It went well, and I explained my situation and how the LMO worked. They offered me a job and started the process for my work permit. The processing time ranged from 2–4 months, so I decided to return to Ireland and work with my father in construction until my LMO was granted.
I arrived back in Fort McMurray in January, 2010. My cousin Shane, who had an IEC visa, accompanied me. As it happened, Shane got a job with the same company as me. It was a bit of shock arriving into the -20°C weather. It was like a scene from Cool Runnings!
Terracon were really good to me and Shane starting out. They gave us a few weeks to get our Canadian License sorted out, provided us with all our working Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and boots, free gym membership and, on top of all that, $1,500 in relocation allowance. It was a great start and really helped us to find our feet. We worked a month in advance for our first pay cheque. It was a nice feeling when the first cheque went into the bank account, especially after working three days a week in Ireland before I came out.
That first winter went by quickly. I got to work on cool projects at some of the biggest oil sands sites such as Syncrude, Suncor and Shell. It was crazy working alongside the world’s largest haul trucks and shovels the size of a four-storey house. Outside work I kept myself busy by playing indoor soccer and made an attempt at snowboarding and skiing.
Later that year a few lads from home moved over to Fort McMurray, and so the Irish community in Fort McMurray began. As the numbers of Irish in Fort McMurray grew, I started to wonder whether it was possible to start a GAA club in the city. I knew Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer already had clubs, so I thought ‘why not Fort McMurray?’ I sent an email to Edmonton Wolfe Tones GAA club asking for some advice. They were very excited with the thought of having another team in Alberta, and kind enough to send some footballs to help us get the show on the road.
In the summer of 2011, Fort McMurray Shamrocks was formed. The local Irish pub Paddy McSwiggins sponsored us with our first set of jerseys. The same summer, we took part in the Alberta Cup, finishing runners up, and participated in the Western Canadian Championship. It was a huge success and a great way to meet all the other Irish in Western Canada. I did not feel like I was so far away from home anymore, living and working in Fort McMurray became easier and I started making a lot of friends. To make things even better, two more of my cousins moved over to Fort McMurray in 2011. At that time, a company named Consun Construction started hiring a bunch of Irish lads, including two of my cousins. As most of the Irish working with the company played with the Shamrocks, the company started to take an interest. They kindly sponsored our team in 2012, and to this day are still our main sponsors.
One of the great benefits of working in Fort McMurray is the career opportunity it brings, along with the rewarding salaries. I was lucky enough to be making a good salary with Terracon, which allowed me to take two or three holidays a year while still being able to put some money away for savings.
In March, 2012, my Permanent Residency was granted. It was a great day. All the stress and worry about work visas was over. It had felt like a long two years of filling out forms, emails, telephone calls and passport photos. I was the first of the Irish lads that I knew of working in Fort McMurray to receive PR. Having PR in Canada opens up so many opportunities. It makes you more attractive for a company to hire you as they know you are going to be hanging around for a while. I had previously applied for some positions with the large oil companies but got shot down on the basis on not having PR — it was part of the job requirements.
Later that summer in 2012, I happened to be carrying out a basement inspection for a homeowner who worked for Shell. He was an Australian guy who had relocated his family to Fort McMurray about five years beforehand. We got chatting about jobs and careers and I expressed my interest in working for one of the large oil companies like Shell. He told me to send him my resume, and he would see what he could do for me. I did so, not thinking much would come of it. Not even a week later, however, I received a call from one of the lead recruiters for Shell Canada asking if would I be interested in doing an interview for a position as a mine planner in Fort McMurray. Before I knew it, I had done a successful interview and been offered a full-time contract. I could not believe the benefits, salary, work schedule and vacation I was offered. It was like all my birthdays came at once. Without any hesitation, I signed the contract and went to work for Shell.
My life changed so much. At first, I was working a Monday–Thursday shift working 10 hours a day bussing back and forth in buses that were provided by Shell (which we were paid to take!), but after a few months on site my schedule changed to seven days on, seven days off. With vacation included, I was working 22 weeks a year. I had never worked a job like this in my life.
I started to travel a lot, making regular trips to other parts of Canada, the USA, and even Mexico. One week I would work seven 12-hour days, and the next seven days I was basically on holidays. I even managed to live in Seattle with a close friend for a few months on my seven days off. I still had to pay rent in Fort McMurray, however, as I was still bussing in and out to work every day — a 2.5-hour round trip. To make thinks a little better, Shell brought in an Employee Value Program, which allowed employees to work on-site in Fort McMurray but live outside Fort McMurray. This meant that they provided you with a camp room on-site, free food, and the option of flying you to work from one of their hubs in Edmonton or Calgary.
Having lived in the small city of Fort McMurray for over four years, I felt it was time to start a new chapter. I had a few friends living in Calgary and, being close to the Rocky Mountains and Banff National Park, I decided to pack my bags and move. I have been living in Calgary since March, 2014, and it’s going great. I live with three other Irish lads who work shift work, so we are always coming and going. I love the lifestyle of working for one week, then getting a week off. You completely chill out, and the schedule is great for travelling. I take regular trips to Banff and play lots of golf. Socializing, of course, takes up a big part of my weekend! I am taking a trip home to Ireland later this summer, and plan on taking a trip to Thailand.
I plan on returning home one day. My heritage is important to me. But for now I could not be happier — I’m lucky to have what I have.
Gary first moved to Fort McMurray in 2010, and has worked on oil sands projects for both Terracon and Shell. Based in Calgary, Gary flies in and out of Fort McMurray for shift work. He is also a founding member of Fort McMurray Shamrocks GAA club.