Bernard Hancock has added his voice to the Oil Respect campaign a few times. The media has become a battleground as critics accuse him of being a charlatan and a fraud. The Hitch sat down with him recently to get the full story on his career and how he ended up being an online target.
What was your initial interest in working on the rigs? What turn of events led you to the O&G industry as a career? Back in 2006, a friend of mine broke out working on service rigs up in Wabasca. I was coming out of university at that point and owed a considerable amount in debt. There were no other options for prosperity available to me, and his stories of $3,000 paycheques seemed too good to be true. So I bought the ticket and took the ride. I’ve always thought I would make my money and get out, leading to many stints roughnecking intermittently. But the money inevitably dries up and without an alternative, you find yourself back tripping pipe before you know it.
How did your family react to your choice of career? Not well. I don’t come from a blue collar family, my dad is a real estate agent and my mom is a nurse and toxicologist. My family has always put a lot of emphasis on the importance of education. I went off to university right out of high school and after matriculating, they thought roughnecking was some sort of “phase.” But their incredulity soon turned to disappointment. They continuously asked me if I was going to use my education for anything. What they don’t get is that I use my education everyday and the value of a degree shouldn’t be measured by the job you supposedly hold because of it. We live in a society that views education as a commodity and a private virtue rather than a public good; it is wrong that we associate the word “educated” with “university degree.” Some of the most brilliant people I know have no more than a Grade 9 education. My dad continues on about “going back to school,” but I’m 32. I wouldn’t rule it out, though, as you’re never too old to learn something new. In any case, I am proud of what I do on service rigs, even if my family doesn’t understand it or looks down on it.
Tell us about your rig postings? Where were they, what was the lifestyle like compared to what you were doing prior to being a righand. What did you like about it? I’ve worked all over Alberta from as far south as outside Cochrane, all the way up to places like Zama City or High Level, to all places in between. I’ve worked on rod rigs, mobile singles, mobile doubles, skid doubles doing completions, workovers, pump changes and suspensions/abandonments. I have worked mostly out of Grande Prairie, but I’ve rigged across this province and done a lot of work in BC, too. Rigging was a big change in lifestyle. I saw more towns in the province of Alberta in five years than I had seen my entire life growing up in BC. I look at those early years through rose-coloured lenses, but they were such a wake-up call for me. It was also a whole different community of guys I was now hanging with. These guys were tough, and they taught me about being a man, something I didn’t learn in university. To be honest, I was never particularly fond of the actual duties of a roughneck, but it was something different and it was a challenge. I liked riding home in the crew truck at the end of the day knowing I’d made some money and gotten ahead. I also liked working as a team and overcoming all the obstacles the typical day on location can present. You have to trust your rig crew with your life and oftentimes they become like family to you. Working rigs develops your problem solving skills, let’s just say that.
The Kinder Morgan protest was your first taste of media exposure. What were the circumstances surrounding the interview you did with The Rebel at that time? Were any other rig workers considered for an interview to comment on that protest? That was a protest in Burnaby last January. I heard about it going on in the news, but when I saw protesters marching from my seat on the Skytrain, I knew I couldn’t stay away. The Rebel was there, covering it for their viewers and readers. Of course, a roughneck protesting the protesters is gold as far as The Rebel is concerned, so they asked for an interview. All of a sudden, all this stuff I’d been thinking about all day long at work just came out. It wasn’t rehearsed, I’d thought about these points enough times that I just went off like I did and started lighting up those hippies. I guess people thought it was a novelty, so it racked up almost 700,000 views in a week. I saw no other supporters of pipelines at this protest, not even one. But I don’t blame them; it was early afternoon on a weekday. Most people are working at these times.
…all this stuff I’d been thinking about all day long at work just came out. It wasn’t rehearsed, I’d thought about these points enough times that I just went off like I did…
How did that Rebel interview affect your career? Guys on the rigs saw it, they thought it was cool, but I don’t think it made any difference. Its popularity was because you heard something that you weren’t expecting. It shows how cynical our society has become. I wish people would focus on my message, and stop fixating on what makes me weird or different. If I do this stuff and put myself out there, I want it to make a difference. I don’t care if people think it’s cool. What would make it gratifying to me would be if it influenced people to take a position themselves and stand up for this industry.
What do you say to your critics who believe that you’re a “character” meant to stereotype rig workers rather than an actual rig worker with street cred? Kiss my ass! That’s what I would tell them. This isn’t an act, it’s who I am. I paid my dues and I tipped them. This kind of thing comes from people who are dogmatically in opposition to our industry and looking for any reason to distract from the message I’m coming with. Real recognize real.
What does a “stereotypical” rig worker look like, in your estimation? Would appearing in a suit and tie have been a more honest representation of the field workers? What about a nice, clean set of coveralls? Does that represent a “real” rig worker? I didn’t think that my dirty covies would be as big of a deal as it was [after the e-petition speech in Ottawa]. If I wore a suit, they’d say I’m a lobbyist. If I wore clean coveralls, they’d call me an actor. I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. I just thought our government and media would be more concerned with my message than what I was wearing. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of Albertans suffering for no good reason isn’t newsworthy until it’s coming from a guy walking around the House of Parliament smelling like diesel and frac oil. It speaks to the derision working class people are met with when we try to interact in polite society. Whatever though, if I gotta be some sort of an oilfield clown or pantomime to get people angry and to get the government scared, I’ll do it. I can’t say what a “real” rig worker looks like. There is more to our identity than our job.
How have you dealt with the negative fallout on social media towards your media appearances? Social media moves so quickly and reaches so many people that you can’t contain it or even try to control it. But while all the “Bernard-truthers” (shout-out to my homegirl SGR for coining this term) continue offering up conspiracy theories, my message is reaching undecided Canadians and contributing to this conversation. Getting hate mail and trolling is the consequence of anyone who becomes a public face. These people are weak, stupid and would never say any of this stuff to my face. I’m getting better and better at dealing with it. All I know is that if I’m pissing them off this much, I’m doing something right. They’re grasping at straws. Even if I was an actor, it wouldn’t take anything away from the truth of my message. But the fact that I am who I say I am just makes their heads explode even more.
You’ve experienced a lot of cyberbullying because of the misguided perception that you’re a fraud. Is that characterization in the past now or are you still dealing with many of those same criticisms? I’ve learned to accept it as normal. And I just have to remind myself of the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I appreciate that the fellow who sends me the most depraved pornography with my face photoshopped into it has stopped. A few of the hardline haters continue, but they’re starting to give up. Whatever happens, I will never condone responding in kind, and on numerous occasions I have had to disavow and speak out against this behaviour. Nobody deserves to field threats, have a zillion memes saying the worst things, or constantly have their appearance or demeanor attacked and made fun of. But more than these nameless trolls, what pisses me off are those in media who encourage this behaviour and engage in sensationalism rather than trying to pursue truth. These guys contact you, mislead you about their intentions, cut and paste your responses to fit their narratives, and encourage conjecture about things they know to be false. The types of people who couldn’t last an hour in my Dunlops, thinking they know anything about the oilpatch, while derisively opining about working people in this industry. I know all they care about is partisan politics, clicks, and advertising revenue. But whatever, look at these guys’ readership and listenership. Nobody cares about their garbage, so they go for the low-hanging fruit and have me in their mouths. Any publicity is good publicity, right?
What does the future hold for Bernard Hancock? You’ve seen the political process up close and in many ways, you’re a good fit to carry on with your ability to call attention to issues of inequality and fairness, not to mention having a common sense position on O&G issues. I have no idea as to my plans for the future. I quit my job about two weeks ago. It’s hard to get home after 7 p.m., shower and eat, do your dishes, and then get on the computer for 3+ hours every night of this advocacy stuff, and then expect to get into your driller’s truck at 5:15 a.m. I had a solid winter’s work on the horizon, home every night, plenty of wells to work over, following around a consultant, etc. But this advocacy stuff is too important now. I actually believe the part I’m playing is contributing to change, and so I want to do it more and bring attention to what I feel is an oft-ignored but extremely valuable demographic and their concerns. I don’t want these issues to divide us, they should be uniting Canadians. And I want a common sense dialogue and I’m going to be doing my part to ensure that happens. I don”t know what the future holds, I don’t even know where I’ll be one week from now. But now I have some hope to temper the despair with. I’m happy to have been able to bring the public’s attention to these issues. But it doesn’t end now, and they’re not going to shut me up. I don’t care what lengths I have to go to so that we can have this conversation. I’m gonna be trying my damnedest. If I’ve even managed to convince one person or change their perspective, I’m happy and it was worth it. And now I can’t stop, so I’m gonna live.
What does your family think of your recent celebrityhood? I think they are afraid for me. Because they know how much I invest myself into these things and I don’t think they have confidence that what I’m doing will change anything. And they don’t want me to be crushed if I fail at this and we don’t get any pipelines approved and government continues to make things harder and harder on this industry. Others in my family not only support parties who are against the oilpatch, they work for them. So I think there are some people in my family who would be happy to see me fail just to say to everybody, “I told you so.” But I’ve learned respect is earned. Same with love, except that respect carries more weight than love. And the best revenge is winning. So I am going to prove them wrong. As the contemporary philosopher and rapper DMX once said, “TALK IS CHEAP, RIDE OR DIE!!”
What’s happening with your hair? I don’t know. I might get it cut or I might keep growing it out. I just like it because long hair is badass. I’d like to get it cut and give it to the Canadian Cancer Foundation so that they can make a wig for a chemo patient.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you? That I appreciate the support people have shown me. I’m not the most charismatic, tall, good-looking, or well put together guy you’ve ever seen, but I’ll work you right under the rod table. Trust me, you won’t outwork me. I know that I’m extremely stubborn, but I’m also a fundamentally decent person and nice guy. There is strength in numbers. Let’s stand up for this industry and be proud of what we do. Being a roughneck isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. Once a roughneck, always a roughneck. One love.
Click here to read what Shannon Stubbs, MP for Lakeland, had to say about Bernard.