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Melissa Blake, mayor of Fort McMurray, Alta, is going on a U.S. tour to discuss climate change. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)
Melissa Blake, mayor of Fort McMurray, Alta, is going on a U.S. tour to discuss climate change. (Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail)

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Politics, environment and motherhood Add to ...

She's the matriarch of Canada's oil sands, a straight-shooting mayor at the helm of the country's wealthiest and most controversial municipality.

A former oil sands worker herself, Melissa Blake has spent six years leading Fort McMurray through its unprecedented boom, the political equivalent of being dragged behind a speedboat while still trying to don water skis.

She has had some success, petitioning the province to expand the only road in, add a new bridge and release desperately needed Crown land while forcing through a grand, controversial new recreation centre.

However, there is more work to be done. And although she's viewed as a shoo-in for re-election, Ms. Blake, 40, is considering walking away to spend more time with her husband and two young sons.

"The family has been sacrificed repeatedly in terms of being able to fulfill the mandate that I have," she said. "I'm thinking about everything."

To decide, Ms. Blake has accepted an invitation-only spot in the United States' International Visitor Leadership Program, which targets "emerging foreign leaders" tapped by U.S. diplomats. She's set to leave later this month for the three-week junket, which will see her and other participants will be toured through Washington, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities to discuss climate change in a manner that will "reflect their professional interests and U.S. foreign policy goals." Effectively, the State Department bets on rising political stars and gets its message to them early. And they bet well. Alumni include Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

It is there that Ms. Blake will decide her future.

"I think that everybody's trying to figure out what I'm going to do - not the least of which is myself," Ms. Blake said. "I need to get a read on what the international reflection on our community happens to be, what I think my opportunities for a contribution to our future would look like."

The invitation to Ms. Blake speaks to Fort McMurray's position as an energy supplier. It sits on an estimated 175 billion barrels of oil, the largest deposit outside the Middle East, which provides about 12 per cent of America's oil and creates about 4.6 per cent of Canada's carbon emissions.

It's the environmental footprint that is most controversial. And the opponents don't simply include Greenpeace and the other usual suspects, who criticize the high energy input required to refine the lucrative bitumen, literally separating oil from sand. They also include world leaders.

Last month, 50 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter urging the State Department to block a proposed pipeline that would carry Canadian bitumen south, calling the oil sands "filthy." Danielle Smith, the leader of Alberta's surging, right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party, is an oil sands supporter who nevertheless admits they've given Canada a "black eye."

The province has already signalled that it is prepared to fight back to protect an industry that, last year, generated $6.5-billion in royalties. With a folksy streak and a deep knowledge of the region and the politics that run it, Ms. Blake could be a major asset. She could also be a tainted one, having worked in public relations, recruitment and as a tour guide for Syncrude, the oil sands' biggest producer.

But while observers say she has grown into her role, she is wary of the spotlight. "I just want to be anonymous," she said, with a pleading laugh.





Fort McMurray, Alta., Mayor Melissa Blake.



With so many issues on the table, one of Ms. Blake's opponents is questioning her indecisiveness.

"What would you be doing in Washington, unless you were a municipal politician looking for something else?" asked councillor and mayoral candidate John Vyboh. "If you're wavering, what does that say about your future plans for the community? I don't think it helps her campaign. I don't think it helps the region to have this question mark."

Some also question whether Ms. Blake had enough experience when elected mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray and the surrounding area) in 2004. Nevertheless, she unseated a mayor seeking his third term, who later told a Calgary newspaper that "lady mayors don't go over well in industrial towns."

Now known by many simply as Melissa, she's praised for her pragmatism and fair approach.

"I think she's done an excellent job," said councillor Sharon Clarkson, who is retiring after two decades in school board and local politics and believes Ms. Blake should seek a third term. "She's got the connections, she's got the understanding. It would not be a good time for her to step down."

Complicating matters, Ms. Blake has other options. The province, largely bereft of high-ranking female politicians, has added a new provincial riding in the Fort McMurray area. In search of new blood to help unseat the long-ruling PCs, Wildrose approached Ms. Blake about being its candidate. She declined.

"She has a young family. If she runs again, I think she says it would be locally so she can balance work and family," Wildrose's Ms. Smith said in an e-mail, adding: "I would love to have her though!"

One source says Ms. Blake also received an offer from the province's ruling Progressive Conservative Party, to which she personally donated $1,075 last year (unintentionally, she claims, saying the money was spent on tickets to fundraising dinners she had to attend). While PC party director Pat Godkin denied any overtures were made, she said "we'd be happy to have her."

"It is flattering," Ms. Blake said. "I have never viewed myself as a political hot commodity."

Instead, she views herself as a loyal resident of Fort McMurray, and as a mother of two sons, age 6 and 1. As such, it's as an "emerging foreign leader" with a conflicted heart that she'll head south this month, while people back home wait for an answer on her future.

"All I want to do is stay home. I have a one-year-old child at home that I'd love to have some time with," Ms. Blake said. So what will she do? "Still a bit early to make a prediction on that."

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

 

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