Fort Mac: A year-long project about Fort McMurray Alta., which has come to be the emblem of Canada's energy sector – and all the issues that surround it.
The past five months have been the loudest the new cemetery on Real Martin Drive in Fort McMurray, Alta., will probably ever know. The noisy transformation of this tangle of shallow forest began in the spring, when roaring chainsaws felled trees. Then came the beep-beep-beep of reversing bulldozers and backhoes. Soon there will be quiet, interrupted occasionally by shovels cleaving dirt, caskets being lowered into graves, mourners weeping.
Although Fort McMurray's population has soared to more than 75,000 in the past 15 years (the communities nearby boost it to more than 100,000), it was only in the past few that planners realized that they would soon run out of space to bury their dead. The thing was, nobody seemed to die here.
The median age in Canada is 39.9, compared with 31.6 in Fort McMurray. While the national death rate is 7 per 1,000 people, Fort McMurray's is just 1.5 per 1,000. The majority of those who do die here have chosen to be buried elsewhere, often in the communities they moved from.
But now, as it matures into a city of families, the way Fort McMurray confronts death is changing. The industry town is evolving from a fly-in, fly-out site of employment into a permanent home for second and even third generations who are settling in the suburbs of Timberlea and Thickwood.
So the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is banking on Fort McMurray becoming the final resting place for much of its population. “We figured if we don’t start this process now, by the time we need these, it’ll be too late,” says Jenelle Hart, the cemeteries project manager for the municipality.
Every new winter storm buries the headstones at Abasand Cemetery in Fort McMurray under a few more centimetres of snow until they disappear, leaving mourners to play a guessing game when they come to pay their respects.
But it’s not long after each heavy snowfall that a parks employee will plow a lane from the entrance on Athabasca Avenue to the Muslim section of the cemetery: The high level of foot traffic, even in the dead of winter, demands it.
Though Abbas Abbas is only in his 30s, he is trying to normalize the tradition of weekly cemetery visits in his five children, in part because he is thinking ahead to his own death. “I’m hoping that one day if something happens to me, they will say prayers for me here too,” he says.
While the tidy plots are arranged in one direction throughout most of Abasand Cemetery, the Muslim plots on the far right end run perpendicular to the rest, as the head of the deceased must face in the direction of Mecca.
There is a long row of boarded-over empty plots where the municipality has installed prefabricated concrete walls for future Muslim burials. Mr. Abbas has reserved five of them for his family. He can’t imagine being buried anywhere else.
When consultations began for a new cemetery in the city, on Real Martin Drive, Mr. Abbas and others at his mosque were asked what they needed and closely guided the development of their section of it – which will be larger than Abasand’s.
Things have come a long way in the past 20 years. So foreign was the concept of burying a body sans casket – as is traditional for Muslims – that a local councillor called the federal government to verify if it was okay to do so after Mr. Abbas’s grandmother died in 1995.
Women in the community caught the funeral director by surprise by asking to wash the body themselves and shroud it in white fabric, in keeping with religious requirements.
“He gave us a crash course. ‘Here’s how you turn on the water.’ ‘Make sure this is draining here,’” Mr. Abbas recalls.
At the time, there were only a few hundred Muslim families in Fort McMurray. In 2011, the population had grown to more than 7,000 and is expected to reach 10,000 in the coming years. Construction began this spring on a $50-million Islamic centre in the city.
Years ago, Mr. Abbas’s mother, who had been living in Fort McMurray since 1978, died on a plane when flying back to Canada from Lebanon. The flight was diverted to Munich and Mr. Abbas’s family was forced to make a decision on where to lay her to rest.
“We had the option to take her back to Lebanon, the mother country, but decided against it,” Mr. Abbas says. “Fort McMurray is her home.”
Rosemarie Cheecham found her ex-husband’s will nestled between the pages of his Bible. He had drafted the humble document himself 12 years before his death on a piece of loose-leaf paper.
“To whom it might consern,” it began in black ballpoint ink. “I John P. MacMillan would like to be creamated upone death, and my ashes buried with my son John Karl MacMillan at Anzac Alberta Cemetary.”
Some First Nations believe that even if cremated, the spirit of the dead is not at rest until it is buried. And Since Mr. MacMillan had no other family, Ms. Cheecham was the one left responsible for clearing out his small house in Anzac, about 45 kilometres southeast of her home in Fort McMurray, and now she had to carry out his request for cremation and burial.
On a sunny April day, the septuagenarian hitched a ride out to Anzac to visit the site where she would eventually plant Mr. MacMillan’s remains.
As part of a municipality-wide project to revitalize and expand all five cemeteries in Wood Buffalo, the Anzac cemetery had recently been spruced up with new benches and a paved pathway. But the plots covering most of the grounds maintained their wild, bohemian-shrine aesthetic.
White garden edging was used to mark the perimeter of each plot, like the front yard of a dollhouse. Handmade wooden crosses listed the names of the dead. Bottles of Grey Goose vodka leaned up against some grave markers instead of flowers.
In 2011, the municipality attempted to map the entire region and, in the course of that, identified 40 private cemetery sites built by pioneers, First Nations and Métis populations.
As Ms. Cheecham walked over brown grass to her son’s grave, pulling the openings of her jean jacket tightly around her tiny frame, she listed off the cause of death for others whose graves she passed in her troubled community: a brutal beating, suicide, a kitchen fire that got out of control. Many of the dead hadn’t made it to 30.
When she returned to her small rental townhome that afternoon and told her granddaughter over the kitchen table where she had been that day, the girl’s eyes lit up with familiarity.
“Oh, I remember going there!” she said, biting into a fat chocolate cupcake, an after-school snack. “I tried to find mom’s grave, but I couldn’t.”
Ms. Cheecham stared at the table. The reason her granddaughter had not seen it was because her mother’s ashes were not yet in the ground. Instead, they were tucked away in Ms. Cheecham’s room.
Rebecca died from a drug overdose in Vancouver in 2009. Ms. Cheecham was also holding on to the ashes of her son, Randy, who in 2014 had been murdered on the reserve in Anzac. Now, her ex-husband’s remains had joined this unexpected collection.
Her son Randy’s are the only ones in an urn because the reserve’s band council had paid for full funeral services. Ms. Cheecham, who is on a fixed income, could not afford to do the same for the others. Between rent, a $330 monthly cable bill and grandchildren she had to care for, the cost of even a bare-bones funeral and burial are out of reach for her.
But there is another reason she has been keeping what is left of her family in her bedroom. “I’m so reluctant to part with these ashes. It’s the only thing I have,” she said.
There was the charter bus, the cars, the pickup trucks. As they pulled up to the Edmonton funeral home and unloaded, Jocelyn Wong wondered, “Who are all these people?”
Some were classmates she had not seen in more than a decade, but many were strangers. Seeing as how her late father had delivered about 20,000 babies during his time as an obstetrician/gynecologist in Fort McMurray, these were probably former patients, she guessed.
Dr. K. P. Wong had died in Edmonton while receiving cancer treatment, but it has long been common even for those who die in Fort McMurray to be laid to rest elsewhere.
According to the province, one-third of the deceased in Fort McMurray were transported out of the city for burial from 2010 to 2014 versus just 12 per cent of those who had died in Edmonton.
Plenty of people had come and left during the 35 years Dr. Wong worked in Fort McMurray. In a city where it seemed half the population was transient, he was a refreshing constant. And so, to the surprise of his daughter, when Dr. Wong died, the whole city seemed to be in mourning.
A Facebook in memoriam group attracted more than 2,500 members, many of whom had their babies delivered by Dr. Wong but had since left the city. In August, the city named a water park after him – a remarkable symbol in a place where recreational facilities tend to adopt the monikers of their sponsoring oil companies.
The funeral, well attended by Fort McMurray residents, turned out to be not enough.
The community, desperate for a rare opportunity to mourn, organized an evening to celebrate the late doctor’s life at a hotel in the city where he had practised medicine. Nearly 300 people attended.
“We had so many people calling and asking if we could have something for the community to pay their respects,” Ms. Wong says.
Prompted by that same community demand, when a beloved pastor, his wife and child were killed in a head-on collision on Highway 63 in 2012, the church the pastor belonged to set up a video feed of the funeral, which took place in Newfoundland, so that residents of Fort McMurray could grieve.
Responding to this trend, the new Real Martin Drive cemetery will have a memorial wall, so even those who spent just part of their lives in Fort McMurray can be mourned locally and do not slip from public memory.
In the summer of 2014, Ms. Wong and her brother, both of whom have moved away from the city, were overwhelmed by the attendance at the memorial event in Fort McMurray. Having the funeral in Edmonton, they came to realize, had denied the people whose lives had been touched by their father the chance to come to terms with his death.
They took their seats in the hotel ballroom, where they had celebrated many Chinese New Years with their family, quietly moved by the stories that attendees shared about their father. That night was Fort McMurray’s turn to grieve.
Ms. Wong recalls turning to her brother in the midst of it. “We said, ‘Let’s get through this first. We can take on our mourning in private.’”