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Workers at Cenovus's Christina Lake operation unwind by relaxing in the camp's games room, playing in a band or play in a daily floor hockey game south of Fort McMurray, Ab. Aug. 30, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail) (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Workers at Cenovus's Christina Lake operation unwind by relaxing in the camp's games room, playing in a band or play in a daily floor hockey game south of Fort McMurray, Ab. Aug. 30, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail) (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Camp life

Oil sands camps go five-star Add to ...

In a hot gym in the middle of Alberta's boreal forest, a group of men - and one woman - run at full tilt, bright blue hockey sticks in hand, screaming for a goal.

Steve Hollingshead emerges from the fray, dripping in sweat and smiling.

"This is like high school all over again," he says. "I've never played more floor hockey or badminton in my life until coming here."

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Here is a place where the rooms have their own gas fireplaces, where the fridge is stocked with all-you-can-drink Perrier, where there's no cost to rent a boat to fish a nearby lake and where Mr. Hollingshead is pretty sure he can convince management to install a golf simulator for those nights when he's not sitting on plush leather chairs watching a fight on a high-def big-screen.

If you didn't know Mr. Hollingshead, a power engineer by trade, was here to keep a torrent of bitumen flowing out of the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking he had found himself at a small northern resort.

Instead, he is at Christina Lake, an oil sands project owned by Calgary company Cenovus Energy Inc. that is at the forefront of a new wave of Fort McMurray-area development. In the last few years, some of Canada's biggest energy companies have spent tens of millions of dollars to build camps that are, by any reasonable definition, no longer camps. They are, instead, lodges - the best of which now fall somewhere between Club Med and a downtown condo - save, of course, for the industrial surroundings and petroleum-scented air.

"It's all to keep workers here and keep them on this site, because they're so sought after," said Simon Cooke, who runs this fast-expanding home to the workers running the plant. "And it's going to get even worse. There's some oil companies that are going to build big fancy hotels out in the bush to keep people."

This is the swish new face of the new oil sands, where the chefs are drawn from Fairmont resorts, the camp managers are trained at European luxury hotels and the workers are lulled into putting their résumés away.

Plans for some of the new luxuries were laid during the 2008 boom, when high oil prices brought so much money pouring into the oil sands that cost was no object. Yet rather than slash that spending in the subsequent crash, companies have continued to build ever more plush accommodations, hoping to avoid some of the problems from the last boom, when workers crossed the street for a $1-an-hour raise, and new talent cost tens of thousands to re-train.

The push for better lodging has created rounds of one-upmanship, where a driving range at one camp is soon followed by a bigger driving range at another. And it's led to substantial new costs: worker housing has roughly doubled in price over the past decade. Companies now pay between $160 and $210 per night.

Of course, the old camps, with their 49-unit wings, roofs that occasionally leak and "gang washrooms" - complete with open showers - still exist, and many of the established oil sands operators maintain facilities that, by virtue of their age, don't have some of the modern amenities. Syncrude Canada Ltd., for example, says it hopes "people make their decision on whether to work for us based on other things than our camp, like our good safety record," said spokeswoman Cheryl Robb.

The new lodges aren't without problems, either. Though the trend is toward dry camps, some still hang signs at their bars warning "NO DOUBLE SHOTS!", a testament to the continuing fight for sobriety. At one camp, a dozen employees were summarily fired on a single weekend for intoxication; at another, workers said the failure rate on a recent drug test hit 20 per cent, mostly for cocaine use.

Yet there is little doubt that lodging standards are on a steep ascent. This year, for the first time, Black Diamond Group Ltd., the third-largest camp operator in the Fort McMurray area, won't build a single 49-unit wing in the oil sands. It is now building only private units or "Jack and Jill" style accommodations where two rooms share a bathroom.

"As far as the whole package, and the food and amenities and all that, it's very much becoming a hotel type of business," said chief executive officer Trevor Haynes.

PTI Group, the largest camp operator, now features a full vegetarian line and stocks its shelves with five varieties of apples, a mouth-watering array of freshly-made baked goods and 30 different kinds of sandwiches, everything from Jimmy Dean breakfast buns to donairs and barbecued beef. It's a big change from just a few years ago, when the standard was six.

"If you don't put out quality food here, you'd have a riot on your hands," said Philipp Gruner, director of operations for PTI's oil sands divisions.

At many lodges, Wednesday steak night has been upgraded to AAA Angus cuts. Some camps now feature their own Tim Hortons and at least one has a Starbucks. At Christina Lake, workers go through $3,000 a month in high-end individual coffee packets.

Norwegian company Statoil has built its Leismer Lodge to appeal to a new generation of workers: a sweeping entry awning soars over stone walls and opens on to an interior decorated with wood accents. It would not look out of place in Whistler - and it's built to some of the highest environmental standards.

And at MEG Energy, it's a wonder any work gets done at all. The camp offers paintball, a driving range, archery, a gym, outdoor hockey rink, a massage therapist and self-defence lessons delivered by an employee who is a Hapkido martial arts instructor.

Even the nicest facilities can't provide a remedy for isolation from family, which remains the worst part of camp for most workers. But there is little doubt that the changes have brought far higher levels of worker satisfaction. Cenovus's Christina Lake, for example, loses workers at half the industry average rate.

"There's talk of places offering better dollars, retention bonuses, stuff like that," said Mr. Hollingshead, whose own career has involved hop-scotching between projects. As he heads back to the floor hockey game, he says that for now, at least, those days are behind him.

"At the end of the day, the facilities at other camps don't compare," he said.

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