PATRICK KANE

Out of the Wild

The upsides of Fort McMurray’s move from boomtown to slowdown

By Tim Querengesser

Fort McMurray is a force of nature as much as it is a city. Until recently, most residents viewed its problems like the weather—annoyances that happened to them rather than things they could change. It was fitting for a town focused on taking stuff out of the ground: you came for you, not for others, and certainly not for the place itself. And once you found what you were looking for, you left.

But today, Wayne VanDijk is bucking that trend. We’re on Tower Road, a 23-km dirt path cut through the boreal forest and muskeg surrounding the suburb of Timberlea. VanDijk, 35, along with fellow Alberta forestry officers Adrian O’Connell and Paul Carpentier, has come to clean up an illegal dump, one of 20 or so along the road. On the mushroom-shaped lot are 11 burned-out cars peppered with bullet holes, mounds of shotgun shells, mountains of household garbage and the rotting front legs of a recently butchered moose. “We’ve come across everything,” VanDijk says. “Dirty diapers, there’s an engine block back there, I’ve got a fridge, and we’ve already taken a stove and a furnace.”

As he works, VanDijk—who’s originally from Nova Scotia—tells me these dumps are a symptom of McMurray’s lack of community. The city has a landfill, close to downtown, but he says many people litter and dump at will. This cleanup is to send them a message. “I live here now,” he says. “I’m not going to live here forever, but if you make where you are home while you’re there…” VanDijk pauses to look at the garbage pile. “I don’t think a lot of people do that.”

Two days earlier, I’d driven into the valleys that cradle Fort McMurray. As I surveyed the city for the first time, Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” came on the radio. I wondered: could this bucolic northern town with its turbocharged wages actually be paradise? After all, it vaguely reminded me of Yellowknife, where I live, and Whitehorse, where I used to live. Like Fort McMurray, both are northern enclaves deliciously removed from urban Canada—places with forests and wild rivers; places that scare people off with their isolation but promise adventure and fat wages that southern Canadian cities can’t.

The feeling quickly faded, however, when the edge of this outpost turned subarctic petropolis started scratching. I saw people smoking crack behind the Salvation Army, a riverfront littered with abandoned cars, and eight pages of escort ads in the Yellow Pages. Residents warned me that road rage has recently resulted in stabbings. The news reported two workers were killed the day before, one of them just 22, his head crushed while cleaning a truck that vacuums mud at the mines. But what dulled the paradise vibe most was that folks didn’t seem to really want to be here—as though they were just passing through. As one Newfoundland-born miner put it, “I don’t like to spend my time off in McMurray. It’s good to get out.”

McMurrayites haven’t always felt this way. The former fur-hub, established in 1778 on the lands of the Dene and Cree by trader Peter Pond, saw a bright future in oil even before the Second World War. The city grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s before growth slowed in the early 1980s. Its population stabilized for over a decade. By the early 1990s, Fort McMurray was still a frontier town, albeit one of some 30,000 people. It was considered a good place to live, even if the future always seemed to be tantalizingly just around the corner.

By the early 2000s, Fort McMurray’s future finally started to arrive. As the global price of oil skyrocketed, so did the city’s population—growing by an average of 9.9 per cent between 1999 and 2007, peaking at nearly 80,000 residents in 2008. The city also started to fill with people who, as VanDijk says, “don’t give a shit.”

Fort McMurray developed a famously irregular heartbeat. Tracing the price of oil, it quickened, raced, then thumped madly. Each pulsation delivered riches and heartache in epic quantities. Within this drama, citizenship—the act of participating—was quickly forgotten or ignored. That’s perhaps best shown by the 2008 provincial election, when just 7,000 people in McMurray—a mere 21 per cent of eligible voters—cast a ballot, the lowest turnout in the province. 

Just as suddenly as the boom arrived, along came the recession. Construction projects halted. Work camps saw an exodus. The mayor estimates 10,000 people moved away between 2008 and 2010. Fort McMurray’s heart rate crashed.

The slowdown has allowed the return of a certain civility. The city can breathe again. And because no one here expects the breather to last long, many are using the interim to try to improve the place—to try to make McMurray the home it once was.

 

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, is Fort McMurray’s biggest booster. Unlike many of the women on her staff, Blake is a hometown gal. In 1982, at the age of 12, she moved here from Quebec with her family. Today, at 39, she has a playpen for her young son, Jackson, in her plush office overlooking the city. She remembers McMurray as a positive place back in the 1980s, a town where kids could escape to the trails and people were open to friendships and community. She hopes it will be the same for her son. It’s just the recent past, as McMurray struggled to cope, that she says things got a bit messed up.

Back in the mid-1990s, when the oil sands started booming, Blake says the city was projected to see $25-billion invested over 25 years. Instead, it saw about $60-billion invested in just a decade. Planning became overwhelmed and Wood Buffalo struggled to catch up. That’s evident in the mammoth suburbs north of downtown—Timberlea and Thickwood—which sprawl so far into the forest it seems they were installed by a tsunami. It’s also clear in the abrasive feeling downtown. Most people stay in their trucks, while a more desperate population pushes shopping carts through oceans of big-box store parking lots. Many believe that the city’s design flaws contribute to the lack of community feeling, including Blake. “For the last decade it’s been a real struggle to try and, I guess, juggle all the balls and make everything that a community elsewhere in Canada would expect to have,” she says.

The mayor remembers Fort Mac as a positive place in the 1980s. Recently, she says, things got a bit “messed up.”

Enter the recession, the unexpected saviour. Of course, no one believes that the slowdown will last long: the city is still forecasted to grow to 200,000 people by 2020. The municipality itself uses three projected growth models, the most dizzying of which (12 per cent growth per year) has McMurray reaching 200,000 by 2016. Blake says planners are now using timeframes of 25–50 years, lot development is nearly keeping up with demand, support for small business is diversifying the economy and aesthetics, sustainability and livability—once luxuries—are now prime considerations. “It’s almost a blank slate, so we can pretty well choose to do it any way we like,” Blake says. “We’d like to do it much, much better than we have in the past.”

In 2004, the National Energy Board released a report examining the challenges facing Alberta’s oil sands industry. Municipal infrastructure that fails to meet people’s needs, stated the report, jeopardizes Fort McMurray’s ability “to maintain a reasonable quality of life”—essential to attract and retain employees. 

Dennis Peck, head of planning for Wood Buffalo, is aware that McMurray the community impacts McMurray the economic engine. We meet at a hotel near an industrial park along Highway 63, at a conference for planners from across Canada—an unspoken irony since many visitors recognize planning isn’t exactly the host city’s forte. But at least the future holds promise. Over the past three years, the Alberta government has pumped hundreds of millions into Wood Buffalo (including $103-million for a water treatment plant, $600-million for highway twinning and $300-million for overpasses), helping the planning department become “a different animal,” according to Peck. “We’ve expanded dramatically in our staff and our contracts… the type of projects we’re doing, the sophistication and complexity of projects we’re doing,” he says.

The department’s biggest achievement is convincing the municipality to adopt a plan that jibes with reality. The former town plan, introduced in 2000, was designed for a city of 35,000. With the population already double that, Peck says the new strategy—introduced last year and designed for a city of 150,000—will radically change the downtown and encourage even more suburban growth. “This is a very different [situation] than five or 10 years ago, when it was ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?’ ”

Housing has long been McMurray’s kryptonite. Remember images of people living in tent cities while making six-figure salaries? Today there are more vacancies, but costs remain steep. In 2008 the first $1-million home was listed in McMurray; last year there were 12 such homes. The typical homebuyer here is a first-timer under 40—remarkable considering the average single-family home costs $640,000 (down from $660,000 in 2009). The province has committed $241-million to develop land for two new subdivisions. The first—Parsons Creek—will have 2,000 homes and an estimated 6,500 residents, with 20 per cent of the homes designated as affordable housing (rents at least 10 per cent below market rates).

The rent situation remains challenging: a 33-year-old civil servant tells me the downturn hasn’t calmed matters. At the height of the boom, people were paying $700 a month to sleep in people’s sheds or on their couches, he says. Those days are gone, but he still pays $2,700 a month to rent a three-bedroom apartment.

When I ask Dennis Peck about these and other problems, he bristles a bit. He reminds me that McMurray’s current growth rate, 6 per cent, has dropped from 10 per cent before the downturn. Most cities would panic with that growth, he says. “And we’re going down to 6 per cent. So our quiet time is everybody else’s boom.” 

What, then, will downtown Fort McMurray look like? In the future, more people will live in 15-storey mixed commercial and residential buildings, Peck says, because “with any city, the downtown is just pivotal.” The plan is to densify and build an aesthetically pleasing downtown where people live, work and recreate in a natural setting. It can’t come a moment too soon. The waterfronts of the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers—areas ripe for development—currently see homeless people camping on the banks.

Cut from the boreal forest: Fort McMurray suburb Thickwood.

Cut from the boreal forest: Fort McMurray suburb Thickwood. (Gord Mckenna)

 

Nils Edenloff fronts the Rural Alberta Advantage, arguably the biggest indie music group ever to come out of the Wild Rose province. Edenloff spent his formative years in McMurray before moving to Toronto. His lyrics on Hometowns, the band’s debut recording, pay homage to the emotional geography of his past—a mix of yearning to escape with a longing for the human connections you lose when you actually flee. It’s a good barometer to understand how McMurray used to be: rough around the edges, yes, but still a community. 

That Edenloff is from McMurray has been nutritious fodder for music writers. Most don’t think of the city as a place with music or art. In fact, many think of it as the antithesis—and say as much in their stories. Claude Giroux wants attitudes like that to change. He’s the executive director of Events Wood Buffalo (EWB), a group funded by the municipality “to throw parties [and] help the community grow more intimate with itself,” Giroux says. EWB stages four large festivals each year—the Winter Play Festival, Canada Rocks, Interplay and Summer’s End. Some swell to 20,000 people. And this year the Barenaked Ladies will perform, “probably the biggest band ever” to come through, Giroux says. “The foot is firmly planted on the accelerator.” 

Big acts could help inspire the next generation of Edenloffs. And there are plenty of people to inspire: 35 per cent of McMurrayites are younger than 24. The K–12 population numbers more than 5,000. It’s a good reminder that the city must cater to more than just men in coveralls. “It isn’t a work camp, it’s a place to live,” Giroux says. “We don’t need to drive four hours to Edmonton to experience good theatre and good culture. Culture is how we measure our progress as a society.”

Another measure is diversity. In pure numbers, McMurray exemplifies a very Canadian mosaic—more than 40 languages are spoken in a city of less than 100,000. There’s deep religious diversity as well, with the Fort McMurray Islamic Centre providing a spiritual home for the estimated 600 Muslim families in the city, and more than 20 churches catering to all walks of the Christian faith.

Helping sustain this are people like Linda Ghobad, executive director of the Multiculturalism Association of Fort McMurray and a self-proclaimed student of cultural anthropology. Ghobad estimates 20,000 people belonging to visible minorities live in the city, about a quarter of the population. They’re not hard to see in expected places, such as fast-food joints, where migrant workers toil to send money to their families in the Philippines or Sri Lanka. But they appear seamlessly integrated as well. I saw a group of traditionally dressed Somali girls walking Franklin Avenue one evening, out for innocent laughs as any Canadian girls would be.

The glue that connects people is prosperity, Ghobad says. “We see people on a weekly basis who moved here because there’s no work where they’re from,” she says. That’s her story, too: she recently moved from the Maritimes. There, people work to live, she says. In McMurray, they live to work. “There are people here who’ve been here for years and they like [the work/life balance],” Ghobad says. “They’re not intending to go anywhere, so you can’t discount those people. They exist.”

However, the many residents who aren’t in the top income bracket face a tough slog—especially immigrants. A 2006 report on community indicators prepared for Wood Buffalo and Suncor found that McMurray was more affordable for many residents than Edmonton, Grande Prairie or Medicine Hat, but “far less” affordable for those on low or fixed incomes. These trends haven’t reversed during the downturn. In fact, the civil servant I met says the city has seen a rash of pickup-truck tailgate thefts by people looking to sell them for scrap. And, as I witnessed, the numbers of homeless people at the bottle depot are formidable.

But community giving is improving. For instance, donations to the United Way are increasing, even if the number of volunteers isn’t. And the United Way now has a proper home, right on Franklin Avenue. “We had this little office,” says Diane Shannon, the group’s executive director. “There was no privacy. A door could open and anyone could come in off the street into our meeting. It wasn’t a good venue to do the work we do.”

Homeless McMurrayites

Homeless McMurrayites. (Patrick Kane)

Shannon says Fort McMurray’s non-profit sector long needed support from industry and government because of the high costs of office space; many charities were run out of people’s basements. Suncor stepped up by funding the Redpoll Centre, which opened in 2009 and whose spaces—which would otherwise go for up to $10,000 a month—are now used by seven non-profits. The space is important for non-profits “so that they’re not on their little islands by themselves trying to save their little worlds,” Shannon says. “It’s going to strengthen our community.”

 As with housing, healthcare has earned McMurray a dubious reputation. By 2006, residents received the lowest per capita healthcare funding of any region in Alberta. By 2007, the city had but 44 doctors—about half the number needed. Of those, many were burned out, according to Dr. John O’Connor, the former chief of family medicine for Wood Buffalo. Before he left the city in 2007, O’Connor wrote a scathing indictment of the situation in a letter to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald: “Life here is intolerable. I pity anyone from Nova Scotia coming out here with any healthcare issues. You will not find a family physician.” 

The situation has improved. Slightly. Waits for non-urgent colonoscopies were recently slashed from 50 days to one week. And the number of doctors in McMurray has risen to 65. However, the city is still three hours by car from the nearest long-term care facility, in Athabasca, even after the government promised a $35-million, 48-bed facility for McMurray back in 2008. (Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutillier criticized the government’s neglect in summer 2009 and was ejected from caucus. He continues to represent the riding as an independent.)

But the functioning of the social safety net in Fort McMurray is tricky to gauge. The 2008 census counted 441 people living on the city’s streets. I meet one of them, 33-year-old “Dirty D,” behind the Salvation Army, right across the street from the police station. D, who describes himself as a crack addict, is hanging out with a group of people sitting behind a dumpster smoking, while others file inside for the nightly meal. “It’s easy to be on the street here,” D says. “You’re well taken care of.” 

We’re joined by a woman who has one clouded eye that is also crossed. She doesn’t want to give her name, but says she’s lived in McMurray for over 30 years. “I’m off the street now,” she says. “A lot of people really helped me to get straight.”

 

The beauty and tragedy of McMurray is that it’s several places at once. Not far from the Salvation Army lies a gleaming source of civic pride: MacDonald Island Park, one of the largest recreation facilities in Canada. Inside is a massive library, several hockey rinks and indoor soccer fields, a fitness club, a colossal water park. And behind it is a golf course.

McMurray’s growth rate has dropped to 6 per cent from 10 per cent. “Our quiet time is everybody else’s boom.”

The facility is just one of several developments that strengthen community and allow a better lifestyle for McMurrayites. Many more projects are in the pipeline. Over the next five years, art will become more prominent, says Connor Buchanan, a cultural coordinator with Wood Buffalo municipality. A 350-seat black-box theatre is being incorporated into the design of a new high school. A dedicated festival site is planned, as are multi-use facilities in the suburbs for arts groups, a heritage park and an arts and cultural centre to complement the public art gallery and theatre at Keyano College. 

All of this puts ownership back in the community’s hands “so we can work together as individuals and as groups to shape our identity,” Buchanan says. “A lot of people perceive Fort McMurray as not having a community, when we have a really [lively] one. They’re [just] not aware of it.” 

In March the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce completed a quality of life study, “My Community, My Voice.” Surveying approximately 1,000 people, it found the majority of McMurrayites feel the city is a good place to earn money, enjoy the outdoors and raise a family. Still, few see it as a place to retire or live with grandchildren. Tellingly, more people said they are dissatisfied with municipal government services than satisfied. Comments from the survey range from “I love it here” to “We really need to take control of the drugs” to “Keep investing in the social fabric” to “Too many camp workers; people need to call Wood Buffalo home.” 

And that’s the key: home. While Fort McMurray is moving in a better direction, it isn’t there yet. The story of the city finding light after years of darkness remains incomplete. Many challenges still need to be faced. Promised developments need to actually be built. And the next boom needs to hold off long enough for residents’ ideas about “home” to be permanently changed.

All the while, leadership will come from people like VanDijk—people who mumble under their breath, sure, but still pitch in when others don’t. “Everyone plans to be here for a year or two, make big money and then leave,” VanDijk says, looking at a colourful mound of garbage next to Tower Road. “Well, they end up staying here for 20 years, but in the meantime, they keep on like they’re just going to be here for a year or two.”  

Tim Querengesser is an editor at Up Here in Yellowknife. He has written for The Globe and Mail, the National Post and Maisonneuve.

 

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