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On any given night, you can find the RCMP breaking up fights outside of Cowboys and the dozen or so other bars around the Franklin Avenue strip in Fort McMurray. (Donald Weber/VII Network/Donald Weber/VII Network)
On any given night, you can find the RCMP breaking up fights outside of Cowboys and the dozen or so other bars around the Franklin Avenue strip in Fort McMurray. (Donald Weber/VII Network/Donald Weber/VII Network)

'The Fort Mac of 1979 is a distant memory' Add to ...

Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.


Driving to the crest of the river valley above downtown Fort McMurray, I felt a mix of excitement and dread. It was late 2006, 27 years after my last visit to the Northern Alberta city. I knew much had changed -- I just didn’t know how profoundly.

I had come here for the first time in 1979, as a young reporter intrigued by the promise of hundreds of billions of barrels of oil locked in the sand around Fort Mac. It was the third-largest untapped reserve in the world, and it held the potential to change the energy game. At the time, there were only two mines actually producing anything up here, and they used quaint, Rube Goldberg–like contraptions called bucket wheels to get at the raw bitumen.

Even then, Fort Mac was a boom town, but still manageable, with 25,000 people. There was no sign yet of environmental activism; the climate change debate was still decades in the future. I had to work hard to find anything remotely scandalous, beyond a bunch of guys in a tavern drinking beer, hooting and hollering whenever a young woman walked by. Yet, the city’s mayor, Ted Mason–a straight-talking retired Mountie–told me then that the city was unprepared for the future deluge of workers who would come here as new projects came on stream.

It took a while, but by 2006, the future that Mason had envisioned had become reality. When I crested that hill, I found a city of 47,000 people struggling to accommodate tens of thousands of shadow residents flying in for short-term stints, plus massive influxes of workers from places like China and Latin America. (And everywhere, that distinctive Newfoundland accent, Fort Mac having possibly the largest concentration of Newfoundlanders outside St. John’s.) The new Fort Mac featured traffic jams on Highway 63 heading toward the mines, and lineups out the door at the downtown Tim Hortons–the busiest outlet in the entire chain.

And, of course, the mines: vast expanses where workers use shovels and trucks to claw away the earth with relentless efficiency (although new sites were using less obtrusive steam-assisted systems). In the oil companies’ offices hung maps dotted with planned or operating projects, as the oil sands generated half of Canada’s oil production–over a million barrels a day in 2006, close to two million now.

Just as Mason warned, the boom came with challenges. I would step outside my hotel at night and confront the social dislocation–lonely men dropping wads of cash in bars and in the Boomtown Casino and, on the streets outside, the sad entreaties of prostitutes. But I also found suburban-style subdivisions, with families making permanent homes in Fort Mac and urging investment in services for a liveable, sustainable place.

The Fort Mac of 1979 is a distant memory. Even with some planned projects facing severe cost challenges, the region continues to boom, and the debate rages between those who would expand the oil sands and those who would shut them down. In the future, when I come to the crest of that valley, what will I find–an industrial colossus or a shabby, declining monument to the age of oil?

Gordon Pitts has been a business writer in Canada for 36 years, with a mandate to cover economic change and the human stories behind that change.

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