Fort McMurray—Wood Buffalo

Boosterism and anxiety are entangled at the heart of the oilsands.

By Tadzio Richards

Fort McMurray—Wood Buffalo may be in the far northeast corner of Alberta, but it has been at the centre of change in the province for many years. That’s attracted people such as Don Scott, a lawyer and the new mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the urban centre of Fort McMurray and overlaps much of the constituency. Scott says he arrived here some 25 years ago and that “even in the worst of times this is still an excellent place to be.”

It may not be the worst of times today—that would be back in 2016, when a wildfire burned many homes and businesses in Fort McMurray—but it’s fair to say things have gotten a little bit complicated here in recent years. The constituency is huge, sprawling north from the suburbs and industrial areas of Fort McMurray to encompass most of the Athabasca oil sands, as well as Wood Buffalo National Park (a UNESCO world heritage site and Canada’s largest protected area), and the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. MLA Tany Yao praises “the diversity of our constituency. It’s a beautiful place.” And it’s also “the hub of so much of our energy production,” says Yao, adding that he is most concerned about “getting support for our energy industry from the rest of the nation. We have people flying in from the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, BC—they come up here to work and they pay their taxes back home,” he says. “The industry supports us all; we need to receive that same support. People [in Canada] have to recognize that, for better or for worse, we need to make money. It helps fund our society.”

Locally that’s a popular view—Yao received 71.1 per cent of the vote in the 2019 election—but it’s not the only perspective. The constituency is part of Treaty 8 territory and is home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Fort McKay First Nation and the Mikisew Cree Nation, among others. While many Indigenous people work in the oilsands, tensions between industrial development and First Nations’ meaningful exercise of their Aboriginal and treaty rights have long been a flashpoint, often ending up in court. Fossil fuel extraction and efforts to protect the environment have been in conflict, making international news for at least a decade.

Oilsands work camps—where workers fly in and fly out without staying in Fort McMurray—are a particular source of local concern because the camp residents don’t spend money in the region. Property taxes on oilsands companies used to be 18 times those of businesses in the urban centre and accounted for 90 per cent of the municipality’s tax revenue. The NDP brought that ratio down to 5:1, a change kept by the UCP, and councillors claim less money has come in as a result, because property taxes from residents aren’t making up the shortfall. “We’ve cut $144-million from our budget just in the last two years,” councillor Verna Murphy told Fort McMurray Today.

In an effort to encourage oilsands companies to hire more local workers and to entice more people to live in the region, mayor Scott proposed a moratorium on work camps within 120 km of Fort McMurray, a distance that was scaled back to 75 km, though even that motion was defeated by council in June 2019. Then, in October, the UCP’s first budget brought further cuts in capital funding to municipalities and school district budgets throughout the constituency.

All of that, says Suzy Miller, a librarian at Wood Buffalo Regional Library, is worrying for local citizens. “I’m concerned about the province with the new government we have,” she says. “I’m concerned about future generations of kids. When I moved here six years ago, I was an educational assistant in the public school system. I did notice class sizes growing, and now they’re going to get larger…. Alberta is in a bit of trouble. I don’t want to say a lot of trouble—I try to stay hopeful, I plan to stay. We’ve survived the fire, we’ve survived a boom, we’ve survived a crash. We’ll be okay. You can’t be down.”

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