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Alberta In Fort McMurray, this oil price ‘bust’ will have a softer edge

It's no secret that the oil industry fuels much of Fort McMurray and the surrounding Wood Buffalo region. This is not the first time Fort McMurray has headed into a downturn and it certainly won't be the last.

Today, however, there is a new generation of entrepreneurs who are ready to lead during a leaner period. Most surprisingly, perhaps, this leadership has emerged in the non-profit sector, whose members are seeking to create a community that is the model for any Canadian city caught in boom-bust economy.

During the good times, the task of building a community's quality of life falls, in great part, to the non-profit sector. In Fort McMurray – a community of "convenience" with no deep roots, according to many outside observers – non-profit agencies have worked during the good economic times to build it into a welcoming home for all residents.

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Few people in Fort McMurray, for example, are unaware of the impressive facilities of MacDonald Island Park, operated by the non-profit Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo. Less well-known, but no less important, are organizations such as Some Other Solutions (SOS) Society, which offers a range of programs around crisis prevention, and the Justin Slade Youth Foundation, which seeks to empower youth toward positive personal development.

Building these programs is a daunting task: The aspects of Fort McMurray that make it so attractive for workers – high wages, rapid growth and opportunities in resource development – have made work in any other sector difficult. Across Canada, non-profits' resources are often strained, which curbs their ability to retain staff, recruit new talent and deliver programs. In Fort McMurray, demand related to oil wages pushed up the region's cost of living, making the problems non-profits face even more acute, and undermining their ability to rent office space, hire, keep the best people – and offer programs.

Fort McMurray is a generous community – its non-profit sector receives large corporate sponsorships and significant community donations. But significant financial resources are no guarantee of a prosperous and resilient community over the long run. During the recent boom, non-profits in Fort McMurray sought ways to shift from being the middlemen of social license for developers to a recognized and capable contributor to quality of life.

One example is Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) – a cross-sector partnership between the Suncor Energy Foundation, the United Way of Fort McMurray, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and stakeholders in Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo and the University of Waterloo. SPWB decided not to focus on the usual "how do we do more with less," but "how do we ensure we will be a resilient sector and community regardless of boom or bust." During SPWB's work as a social innovation process in the community, non-profits have moved out of their comfort zones to better respond to community needs. One example is the Arts Council of Wood Buffalo, whose creation was sparked by an SPWB event. Last year the Council worked with the Centre for Hope, a social project of the Fellowship Baptist Church. Together they used art to deepen the conversation around homelessness. The success of this event inspired the council to continue to seek out unusual partners to better address the community's needs.

In Fort McMurray, non-profits increasingly eschew competition for collaboration, marry reflection and action, embrace evaluation, and take risks. Much of the last few years of work represent a relatively small financial investment on the part of funders, with a big investment of trust in an experiment in building resilience. Big money could not solve the non-profit sector's challenges, so big money was not built into their solutions.

This current 'bust' in oil prices presents a nugget of opportunity. The non-profit sector in Fort McMurray has been working to build a community that is more than a boom town. They sought resilience in the good times; they are now better able to guide the community through the difficult ones.

Katharine McGowan is a post-doctoral fellow at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, University of Waterloo

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